On May 18, 2013 I completed the Superior 50KM Trail Race on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) along the north shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. A wildly technical course full of rocks, roots and—thanks to our long winter with heavy snowfall accompanied by spring’s late arrival—standing water atop heaps of deep mud. For a mostly average runner like myself there is no conquering such a trail, but there is give and take, highs and lows. There is adventure and an invaluable, rewarding journey. By the end the trail had pummeled the piss out of me and I was left a withered shell of the confident man I was at the start. I was exhausted, sore and bewildered, but not broken nor disappointed, and not at all discouraged. I sit here today intrigued and hungry for more just like the other times I’ve taken on this incredible stretch of wilderness trail.
In summary, the Superior Hiking Trail proved its superiority over this undertrained, soft runner who tried to move swiftly over its face for 31 miles. It reared up, grabbed me by the squishy bits and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until I relented. Even then, I didn’t entirely stop. I kept going for over seven hours and that was enough for this day.
That’s it, that’s essentially the story. Go away.
The rest is all the extraneous details, cussing and raw emotion, because it’s still fresh with frazzled nerves and aching muscles driving me to improve and get the lead out. The wish to get stronger and overcome weakness is part of the core of my ongoing struggle. Even more so, the inexhaustible urge to push boundaries is alive and well. So don’t tell me I didn’t warn you if you read on, don’t tell me I’m a disrespectful, vulgar, no good something or other, because you’re an adult and so am I. Life is hard and if you pretend it isn’t, choose to stay in climate-controlled environments sipping tea and taking it easy all the time, then that’s your choice, not mine. I’ve got a hell of a lot more to take on. The Superior Hiking Trail has much left to show me, so LET’S GO!
I mean, for shit’s sake! Every one of these good for nothing races on the SHT has brought me to a point of exhaustion and pain where I know deep within I am capable of continuing and yet I mentally weasel out of a strong finish and give up the fight before it’s done. Maybe that’s for the best since I did not want to risk major injury so early in the season, but I’m left wondering what’ll happen if I lean on the throttle a touch more instead of coasting. Will I stumble and fall? Probably. Will I hurt myself seriously? Probably not. I’m not talking about sprinting wildly over the last 7+ miles, I’m talking of not giving up challenging myself just because I’m tired and hurting.
Before giving in and acquiescing to the fatigue, I had a strong run of around 23 miles. For that I am glad. Those 23 miles were almost entirely exhilarating! Those hard 23 miles on that crazy-ass trail will pay dividends soon enough. Throughout the first four and a half hours I kept doing a mental and physical check and coming up with, “feeling good, having a blast!” I knew though, with my current level of fitness and the deteriorating conditions of the trail, it’d be extremely difficult to keep it going so well until the end. However, I held out hope and kept my spirits up while cruising along contentedly through three quarters of the race.
Thing is, I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the trail on the way out. The course is an out and back and we had been warned the night before and prior to race start that mud was a problem— deep, shoe-sucking mud. I was already intimately familiar with all the elevation change (8400 ft.), endless rocks and roots, twists and turns. It’s a seriously rugged trail! So, when we started out and got through an early muddy section it wasn’t bad at all the rest of those 7.75 miles into the first aid station at Oberg Mountain. I showed up and greeted Elena and Sarah with full smiles, feeling unstoppable. I decided then and there to ride the good feeling while it lasted even though I knew it would not. After a quick stop with some chatting and refueling I headed back onto the trail very much ready for more.
Oberg Mountain to the Sawbill Aid Station, again, not a terribly sloppy stretch of trail. Still running strong I was able to navigate the technical difficulties happily and joke around with fellow runners. A mile or so before coming into the aid station we encountered the front runners and hot damn, seeing them fly along the trail faster than I can currently marathon on pavement gave me a huge jolt of FUCK-YEAH-MOTHERFUCKER!, because they were moving with authority and I’ve got mad respect for that level of skill and training.
Coming into the Sawbill Aid Station, I was feeling decent, but the cumulative stress of 13.3 miles on tough trail was starting to take a toll. I was beginning to feel some fatigue, but still had lots left in the tank. I took my time refueling and had a bit more of a break since I knew the climb and descent of Carlton Peak wouldn’t be easy. It’s very steep and technical with lots of boulders to navigate around and over. Plus, with all the rain that’d been falling throughout the morning all that rock was sure to be slick. At this aid station I saw Brian Klug come through and it was inspiring to see him looking strong and focused.
About three quarters of the way up Carlton Peak I passed Shawn Severson coming down. She was looking great and encouraged me saying I was really close to the top. A couple others around there warned of the slipperiness of the wet rock on the summit, but I wasn’t too worried since I was being cautious and patient on the way up. Besides, my only bumble in this section was an uphill stumble where my toe caught a rock and I fell rather gently into the hill. Falling uphill is always recommended in the mountains. At the peak runners were greeted by Minnesota trail-ultrarunning legend Charlie “Chuck” Hubbard in full western regalia. What a sight to see him standing authoritatively on the peak in crappy weather! He stood there and shook hands and gave support to everyone before they turned and headed back down. I grabbed a Chips Ahoy! cookie and took in the fog-shrouded view before beginning my descent. Charlie even apologized for the lack of view on this rainy, cloudy day. I didn’t care, because it felt fantastic to run 15.5 miles across mountainous terrain and to have reached the top of the area looking triumphantly toward Lake Superior. I was pumped and ready to head back down toward the Sawbill Aid Station.
No major issues on the way back to Sawbill, just more fun trail times and lots of encouragement exchanged with runners heading up Carlton. The out and back nature of this course resulted in more contact with others than usual, which was definitely welcome since trail runners are such awesome folk. A quicker refueling stop at the aid station this time and then I was back on the trail toward Oberg.
On the way to Oberg is where it started to get tough, but I was maintaining. Hiking more of what I was gladly running earlier, I hoped to still be moving well for the final stretch. However, when I was within two miles of the aid station I could already tell the death march was coming. The legs were starting to fail.
Relieved to arrive at Oberg, I wanted to be done then and there. I knew I wasn’t going to stop, but a big part of me wanted to lie down and call it a day. The trail had already begun to get sloppy from all the day’s rain and foot traffic. Also, I was yet to come into the section where the huge wave of 25K runners tore through the course already. All I could do was take my time at the aid station and refuel. Thanks to a few minutes of rest, helpful volunteers, Coke and half a peanut butter and M&M sandwich, along with love from Sarah and Elena, the idea of getting back onto the trail began to seem less overwhelming.
There’s not much to say about the final section of trail between Oberg and the finish. It was hard, incredibly hard. On a good day with strong legs it would have been hard, but on this day after constant rain and hundreds of runners making their way across the rugged terrain, what had been soft sections on the way out had turned into wickedly slick, pudding-like mud bogs. It would have been one thing to push and pick my way across those rocks and roots if not for the mud, but dead legs and the lack of reliable footing was too much. So I hiked probably two thirds of this stretch, not just the climbs and tricky descents, but even the mud-laden flat sections were hiked somewhat gingerly. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the climb up Moose Mountain. Holy hell that son-of-a-bitch is killer on tired legs! My hamstrings almost jumped off and went the other way. The trail goes on and on and the legs burn and burn! Whatever, it’s still a wonderful opportunity, especially in retrospect, to be out on the trail in a self-imposed difficult situation. So I kept moving rather slowly and deliberately until I could hear the Poplar River again, then mustered up the strength to cruise the final mile back to the finish line. Whew, did it ever feel great to cross the line and be able to stop! That was a wild day on the trails.
Finish Time: 7:08:10
Average Pace: 13:47/mile
Place: 110 of 158 runners
Of course, after everything is said and done, race performance or lack thereof is quite irrelevant, because of this:
Thanks for all of your support and help leading up to and during this race, Sarah and Elena!