What a difference a year and some familiarity with the Superior Hiking Trail make! Last year, upon reflecting I was rather humiliated by the course and my effort. This year, I feel encouraged and ready to take it on again, NOW! I want more and don’t want to wait another year. Heck, I’m even considering doing the 50-miler next time around. There were a lot of factors that made for a much more enjoyable experience on the SHT, many of which were beyond my own training and control.

As vital as anything else to my improved performance was the weather— around 50 °F at the start with mostly clear skies, clouding over for a couple hours of cool rain in the middle, then becoming partly cloudy with temps at about 60 by the finish. This was fantastic running weather. The rain did add to the technical difficulty, making some of the rocks slick, but fortunately I wasn’t running blazingly fast and putting myself in danger. Plus, while it was raining I was on a portion of the course that allowed me to keep running most of the time and generate enough heat to stay warm. All this cool weather meant I never got close to overheating and cramping was barely an issue. Only once, after about 18 miles when I squatted down to adjust my timing chip’s strap, did I feel a twinge in my left quadriceps as it threatened to cramp. Standing back up and shaking it out allowed me to continue forward without incident.

Going into the race I was somewhat worried, full of reasons I might be in for a brutal day. Despite my concerns I was ready for whatever came, even a major struggle and another outing lasting more than seven hours. With the arrival of my daughter 6 1/2 months ago, finding consistency in training has been a challenge. I’d gotten the bare minimum of miles on my legs, with only one 20-mile trail run prior to the race and only one other outing of at least 3 hours. Living in central Minnesota nothing around here approaches the technical difficulty or hilliness of the SHT. Lots of questions remained concerning what I was capable of.

Then again, I’m a fire-breathing (out the rear), trail-eating, gritty SOB who loves being on trails, even on wild single-track marked by endless rocks, roots, and mountainous incivility. { heh! } I had been on the course the year before, knew what to expect, and had a good idea where I could gain time along with a better strategy for refueling. Plus, I didn’t ultimately give a rat’s ass about my time, I just wanted to have fun and see what I could get done. Overall I had a much more relaxed approach to the race and was comfortably eager to get going and cruise while enjoying the wild scenery. Last year on the other hand, I was ridiculously fired up and, not surprisingly, started much too fast.

Miles 0 – 7.9, Start to Temperance River Aid Station —

After too much standing around waiting and chatting with a few others, the call for the start was given at 8:00 and we headed out. I started with dailymile and fellow trail running friend Chad Walstrom. We ran easily on a gravel road in the middle of the pack for a few hundred yards. Just before turning onto the trail, I saw 100-miler and St. Cloud area running friend Brian Woods. How great to see him about 77 miles into his epic adventure! A short stop with a few words exchanged and then Chad and I jumped onto the trail for our own SHT quality time. Talking while running comfortably for a few minutes and then we came across Brian’s pacer, Dan Cairns, also from St. Cloud, making his way to the Cramer Road Aid Station. Dan reminded me of a good line I had heard from Brian before, “This marathon isn’t a bad one, it’s the three that come before it that are the problem.” Funny to think 26 miles can be the finale of someone’s outing.

Chad and I ran together and among several others for the first couple miles, but after doing some occasional passing and picking up our pace slightly the crowd thinned and we soon found ourselves mostly on our own. With the cool weather and fresh legs it felt easy to pick my way through the tripping hazards and maintain a comfortable pace between 11:00 and 13:00 mpm, for the most part, depending on the trail’s pitch. Most of this section was runnable, with occasional and brief steep climbs/drops along the Temperance River as the trail alternated between following the river’s edge and then shooting back up to the ridgeline. Listening to the river roaring along its rocky bed and crashing into deep pools was invigorating. After 5 or 6 miles and being in front I needed to back off and asked Chad if he wanted to lead, which he gladly did. I followed him around a few bends and let him get farther ahead, stopping to take in a view of Lake Superior at a lookout. Not until after finishing would I see Chad again as he determinedly and quite successfully went after his 6-hour time goal for the race. It was fun sharing those beginning miles with you, Chad!

On the descent into the Temperance River Aid Station I reminded myself that I took a wicked digger here last year, rolling onto my back and sliding a few yards. The fall left me with some abrasions on my back and knees, so this time around I was more cautious, but still moving fast enough to appreciate gravity. Eventually I hit the aid station and was glad to be feeling great, thinking I must be ahead of schedule and ready to refuel then get back on the trail. Sarah and Elena, who were quite surprised to see me so soon, confirmed I was moving faster than anticipated. Plus, as Sarah pointed out, I wasn’t bleeding like last year— I must be doing all right.

Sarah and Elena

Sarah and Elena waiting for my arrival at Temperance River.

Temperance River Aid Station -- 1

Refueling at Temperance River

drinking Coke

Coke, nectar of the trail running gods…with sweat burning my eyes!

back onto the trail

Heading back onto the trail!

Miles 7.9 – 13.6, Temperance River Aid Station to Sawbill/Britton Peak Aid Station —

Back onto the trail I was ready to press on. Remembering from last year there was a nice section along the Temperance River where I was able to find a decent rhythm. Shortly after getting settled into a solid pace I clipped a rock and nearly ate trail. Just a loss of focus there, but the jolt from lunging and saving myself from falling woke my sloppy ass up good and proper. From the near wreck until the climb up Carlton Peak began, I moved well and was having fun. The best part was the roaring river and fact I hadn’t overeaten at the last aid station— the gut was still fully on board with the task underfoot.

Then the climb up Carlton Peak was on! I remembered from last year how it meandered and remained gradual for awhile. Then farther along, I was shown how steep the trail became and how rocky the peak was. In one section a clearing offers views of the rocky peak and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to get all the way up onto the shoulders of that beast so I can tweak its nose!” Steep, heart-pounding switchbacks and an endless supply of chunky rocks. Legs were still feeling pretty good and I was able to hike quickly. Passed a lady on the way up and we shared encouragement. She’d later catch up and finish the race ahead of me.

The descent from Carlton Peak was nearly as challenging as the climb— terribly technical with jagged switchbacks and numerous boulders to hop from and around. Eventually the rockiness abated and the forest regained its root-ridden grip. Arriving at the aid station after having been on the trail for about 2:55 I knew I was half done, but the toughest climb was yet to come. The second half would surely be harder than the first. Still, my legs felt strong and I was making much better time than in 2011. I reminded myself this was the aid station where I ate and drank way too much last year, causing a major slowdown over the next few miles while my stomach slowly processed the gunk.

The weather continued to be my savior. While not having to battle the heat I had an easier time rehydrating, snacking appropriately, filling my bottles and getting ready for more trail humping before long. Rain had begun at this point and temps were only in the 50’s, so I knew I’d have to move fast enough to generate enough heat in order to stay warm over the next 5.5 miles. I felt like I would be able to do that and turned down the extra shirt Sarah offered. The rain was coming down in buckets before I headed back into the woods. I was eager to taste more SHT and feel the forest as the rain poured from the clouds.

Miles 13.6 – 19.1, Sawbill/Britton Peak Aid Station to Oberg Mountain Aid Station —

Quite a different atmosphere under the trees on the trail as water drips and puddles along the way. Since I was still moving well, the rain was a reprieve from what was beginning to become an exhausting effort. Running on a ridiculously technical trail is as tiring on the mind as the legs for me. Maybe it’s just a lack of practice on such terrain, but the need for attention on every step wears me down. The cool water washed some of my fatigue and sharpened my focus as I persistently moved forward.

Ups and downs abound along this stretch, including Britton Peak and LeVeaux Mountain, but fortunately nothing monstrous. Legs and feet were wearing down and on LeVeaux Mountain I took my only fall of the day. It was on a slight downhill covered with massive roots. I simply made a poor choice trying to step between two roots while moving a bit too carelessly and caught my toe. Catching myself with my hands on the way down jarred the upper back. Getting back up, brushing myself off and moving again allowed the pain to pass and I knew there was no major damage. BE CAREFUL, PETITTO!

A little farther on came a pleasant series of boardwalks traversing a marshy area. I remember sailing comfortably and having a blast. The boards are rather new here so most of them are stable and the wood wasn’t slippery enough to be problematic. With the boards bowing gently I was able to give my feet and legs an easy time. Eventually popping out of the forest and BOOM!, I’ve arrived at the last aid station with only seven miles to go!

Unfortunately Sarah and I greatly miscalculated my pace and our estimated time of arrival at each aid station was off by a lot, especially the last two. She barely caught me at the Sawbill/Britton Aid Station right before I headed back into the woods and missed me entirely at Oberg. The volunteer tracking runners at Oberg misread his list of runners’ numbers and didn’t spot my “371”. This meant even though I was long gone by the time Sarah arrived, she thought I hadn’t come through. After waiting for three hours she was quite worried and thought I had injured myself on the trail. Of course, I was fine and well on my way toward finishing. Too bad for Sarah though, not a fun time hanging out at an aid station worrying about my sorry ass. She was there for so long I finished the race before she even left that last aid station. Next time I will be sure to have my arrival times at each aid station from previous years noted and we’ll better predict the appearance of my ugly mug.

Regarding the actual stop at the Oberg Aid Station, I didn’t rush knowing the toughest section of trail was coming in those last 7 miles on the way to the finish. I took my time, drank ginger ale, munched some peanut butter and jelly along with pretzels, and got my bottles refilled by some very helpful and enthusiastic volunteers. I even slowly walked the very runnable dirt road leading to the trail hoping I’d catch Sarah before ducking into the woods. The rest here allowed my legs to recover slightly and head toward Moose Mountain with some go juice still in the tank!

Miles 19.1 – 26.2, Oberg Mountain Aid Station to Finish —

The climb up Moose Mountain is a real blast to the nuts after 20 miles and nearly 5 hours on my feet, but I knew I had to man up and deal with it if I wanted a respectable finishing time. I also knew I couldn’t entirely burn myself out on the climb because there’s another surprisingly challenging climb immediately after— Mystery Mountain. I managed to keep moving, sometimes at a decent clip, sometimes slower than molasses in January, but I never got light-headed nor had to sit down like last year. Again, the lack of heat changed everything.

The way up Moose Mountain offers views of the steep trail ahead and then you can’t see any farther, but you eventually hit the point where the trail changes direction and you look some more, realizing it only continues to climb. SON OF A BITCH! Gradually and persistently hiking, heart pounding out of my chest, sweat pouring from the bill of my hat— BANG BISCUIT! Eventually, the trail levels and starts to descend. Of course by then my legs were nearly shot and I was too beat down to move quickly without wrecking, so I took it easy.

After not nearly enough recovery time on the descent, the trail annoyingly starts to wind back and forth and climb again. This is the way up Mystery Mountain. The climb is only about 350 feet in a mile, but after 23 miles it’s a brutal kick to the nickels. Oh well, what could I do!? There’s no going back. The quicker I get it done, the quicker I can begin dropping toward the finish line, sit down, rest and laugh about it all. I wonder why they call it Mystery Mountain. It is entirely shrouded in trees so maybe its presence is a mystery, but for runners of the SHT the real mystery is how such a small mountain can be a cruel sucker-punch to the gut.

Once all significant climbing was over, I began my gradual descent toward the Poplar River. Still some ups and downs before the finish, but nothing overwhelming. Legs were pretty much ruined facing the last three miles, but I just kept doing my best to gut it out, walking the steep and extra gnarly junk and running the rest. I got to the point where I didn’t want to run at all anymore, but I forced myself as the six hour mark was approaching. I thought it’d be neat to beat my time from the previous year by a full hour.

Pushing through the pain and I eventually popped out of the woods onto the gravel road leading to Caribou Highlands Lodge where the finish line awaited. Crossing the line in 6:25:08, I was relieved to be done. With a 58 minute improvement over the 2011 race I felt I had put in a respectable day on the Superior Hiking Trail. Within minutes I was thinking of ways to knock off chunks of time and get under 6 hours next year. NEXT YEAR! We’ll see what I can get myself ready for in 2013.

Finally, I have to thank race director John Storkamp and all the wonderful volunteers. What a big challenge to host a major series of races (the 100 and 50-milers also take place at the same time) on such a remote trail! There isn’t even reliable cellular service much of the way so they have to use ham radios to communicate. Everyone involved pulled it off without a noticeable hitch to runners like me. Each aid station is well-stocked and every volunteer I encountered was tremendously supportive and helpful. The trail is endlessly gorgeous with occasional views toward the magnificent Lake Superior. Basically, it’s the best way I know to spend 6 or 7 hours on trail.

Official Finishing Time: 6:25:08
Place: 84 of 144 marathoners

If you’d like to see more numbers, here’s the Garmin data.

in Grand Marais post-race

Sarah, Elena and I in Grand Marais several hours after the race.