Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Superior Sawtooth 100

One of the benefits of not finishing Western States, the first of the three races that make up the Grand Slam, is that you are free from subjecting yourself to the pain of the Wasatch 100. The Wasatch 100 is run in the mountains east of Salt Lake City and considered by most to be the toughest of the four races that make up the Grand Slam, her 36 hour time limit would seem to support that claim. So with any hope for the Slam now over, I made the easy decision to steer clear of Wasatch and head north instead, to the Superior Sawtooth 100 (actually 102.6) I'm still not exactly sure why, but for some reason the 38 hour time limit, the 21:42 course record, or the fact that in the last three years only 4 people had finished in under 25 hours didn't seem to concern me, after all, this is Minnesota.

I knew the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)was rugged from having lived up there, but it was the beauty of Minnesota's North Shore I had remembered. Picturesque rivers cutting their way through granite and birch on their way to Lake Superior, Loons, the Northern Lights! It is always amusing to me how the mind seems to hold onto, even embellish the good memories, but so quickly forgets those which were painful. Even after the reminders from twelve time finisher (the guy who took these photos) and fellow Kansan Stuart Johnson, I failed to fully recall the brutal nature of this trail, not to mention the 42,000 feet of elevation change and the impact that might have on pace.

Good buddy Dave Wakefield (who was running the 50) and I arrived Two Harbors Thursday night for the pasta dinner and pre race meeting, a low key affair after the Hoopla of Leadville. No weigh in, no med check, just a few comments from RD Larry Peterson followed by self introductions and we were back in the car, headed to Lutsen and the Cliff Dweller Hotel.

The SS100 is a point to point race. Most runners sleep near the finish in Lutsen, before being shuttled to Gooseberry Falls SP Friday morning for the 8:00 AM start. The 50 Milers start at 6:00 AM on Saturday at the half way point near Finland and will catch us (blow by us like we were standing still) one by one throughout the day on Saturday. The cut off time for both these races is 10:00 PM Saturday night...Piece of cake, right? In addition 100 or so Marathoners will start their race from around the 75 mile point later that morning. These are folks we will never see!

After a good night's sleep and a peaceful trip to Gooseberry Falls SP we were ready to go. Stuart along with wife Deb, were also running, Stuart going for his thirteenth finish at Superior and Deb, like me, her first. As we were all planning on running about the same pace, I hoped I would see quite a bit of Stuart and Deb throughout the race as I had no pacer and after the first few aid stations, no crew.

There were no shotguns, no rifles, to be honest I'm not sure if anyone even said go, but at 8:00 sharp we were off. No one seemed in a big hurry to be the first to the trail head, but one by one we all started moving down the trail anticipating what lay ahead for us over the next day and a half.

Ultra Marathons, especially hundred milers, are as much about enduring the distance mentally as they are about enduring the distance physically. Stuart had told me that at SS100 it was the mental aspect one really needs to manage if you want to finish. There is plenty of time to get it done but more than likely you're going to use most of it. As we made our way out of Gooseberry Falls SP I was still trying to come to terms with this fact and that I was planning on running (or whatever my movements might be called by late in the day on Saturday) for 36 hours when the longest I had ever run previously was 29:17 at Leadville.

While many hundred mile courses are broken up and remembered by distinctive sections of trail that are unique when compared to other sections of the same course, this one did not. The SHT keeps coming at you with a rugged consistency that for me makes recalling specific sections of the course difficult. Yes the course is beautiful and to a certain degree varied, there are lakes early and rivers late, but more memorable are the many characteristics of the trail that constantly annoy you, demanding your attention throughout, allowing you very few opportunities to relax once you venture beyond the friendly confines of the aid stations.
  • To say the course has rocks and roots is like saying the Sahara has sand. The roots that criss cross the SHT are more like the toes of some giant T-Rex, that in many cases don't allow your foot to find earth, leaving running on top of the giant roots, step by step as your only option. If this wasn't enough fun, it really got interesting once the roots got wet compliments of an afternoon thunderstorm.
  • The rocks that litter this trail are numerous, but even worse they are huge, often times used as steps to scale the steep ascents. When the ascents turn to descents the giant rock fields become downright scary.
  • Speaking of ups and downs, for some reason the SHT was built without the use of switchbacks, so most of the 42,000 feet of elevation change are either straight up or straight down....I know, I'm exaggerating again!
  • What else?... Oh yes, there are the 2x6 planks you get to run on throughout the race. Again very fun when wet, especially when falling off puts you in deep muck at best, deep water at worst.
It is hard to convey with words the "epic" proportions of Superior's rocks , roots and steep grades. Even individually these features would slow down the best runner's pace, but when thrown all together the result lacks proper adjectives, and when thrown all together in the becomes the stuff Ultra Nightmares are made of.

So hour after hour we all do our best to just keep moving forward as one by one runners drop from the race as a result of Superior's brutal nature and above average temperatures.

At some point on Saturday Dave was the eighth 50 miler to come by me. I remember asking him how he liked the course, and as he quickly moved down the trail I heard him answer back "it's kicking my ass." Later that afternoon Dave would finish the 50 miles in 10:02, three hours slower than his usual 50 mile pace, but good for an impressive third place finish (and third fastest time ever recorded on this course) against some of the best ultra runners in the upper Mid West.

My race continued on throughout the day on Saturday very uneventfully, very few highs or lows, just the never ending work and concentration associated with staying vertical on this trail. I had lost touch with Stuart and Deb but I was doing well both physically and equally as important mentally. My only scare came late in the race at the final aid station which I arrived just before sunset of the second day. Stuart had warned me to put a headlamp or flashlight in this final drop bag, knowing from experience it could be late in the day when you arrive, and with over seven miles to go, it could be dark before you finish. I was smart enough to heed Stuart's advice but not smart enough to hang on to my regular glasses earlier in the day when I swapped them out for my prescription sunglasses. So after 97 miles and almost 33 hours, it was once again dark, and although I had a light, I literally couldn't see more than about three feet in front of me. Ironically, although I love running at night, I am as blind as a bat without my glasses so this little lack of foresight was going to cost me some time as I was reduced to a fear induced shuffle, afraid that if I pushed too hard I would risk twisting an ankle or perhaps a face pl Not long after dark as I was feeling my way around Moose Mtn, much to my surprise I ran into Stuart and Deb. We were all glad to see each other and glad we were all still "in it". As the three of us were making the final push into Lutsen I started to get some anxiety about how little time I felt we had, and what would happen if I did injure myself in someway...not finishing at this point was not an option. Somehow my mind concluded the best way to deal with this fear was to run, never mind the fact that I couldn't see, just I did. Soon after that, and again due to my lack of vision, I somehow convinced myself I was lost, or in some way running in circles. This little personal freak out session lasted for maybe a mile before I came up on another runner who assured me that right around the corner was a bridge and once across that we were less than a mile from Caribou Highlands Lodge and the finish line. Once I actually crossed the bridge, eliminating my concern the other guy was delusional, all my fears lifted and I was able to run most of the dirt road into Lutsen to become the 29th runner to finish. When all was said and done 33 of the 70+ runners finished in under the 38 hours allowed. The winner, Angus Repper, crossed the line in 26:31:47. Just five runners finished in under 30 hours.

As I ran the entire race using only the time of day feature on my watch, the race clock hanging near the finish line was the first time I had really thought about elapsed time since Friday morning. So almost instantaneously as my eyes connected with the numbers 37:13:56 the tears began to flow. It had been a long race and representative of what had been a long year. The finish at Vermont had been little consolation to the near miss at Western States, and another DNF at Leadville had hit me hard. The economy had been hitting retailers hard for a year now and we were no exception. Personal issues had been weighing heavy on me and spiritually I was angry. Everything about this year has been tough and for the most part unresolved. So to reach the end of the race for me was hugely symbolic. Something in me needed to see a battle won, a conflict resolved. The resolution that has been so elusive in other parts of my life had presented itself on the Superior Hiking Trail and deep inside it was more than I could bear. As I sat there with my face in my hands I could only hope that perhaps this might provide me with the courage and motivation to keep up the fight and see through to the end the other battles that continue to rage.


Lee said...

Sign me up next year!

(if they have a 10K)

Anonymous said...

Nice report brother. Nice report.

Fat Angus said...

Fantastic job...

I hope you found this to be a suitable replacement for Western States. HA HA HA!