What a great race this was, probably the best I've ever raced and the most I've ever had to push during an event of any distance. I felt more rewarded at the end of this race the even at Western States. The Superior Sawtooth is the 100 mile granddaddy of the three fall races on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). It is extraordinarily difficult as the footing is rocks and roots for almost the entire length as well as almost continuous hills, not that large, but many many of them allowing runners to accumulate over 20,000 feet of climbing and decent. Larry Pederson directs the event and does a spectacular job and has droves of eager volunteers to help him.
Amy and I drove up to Two Harbors for the pre-race spaghetti feed and packet pickup. We enjoyed a good dinner with Dan from Ohio, Sue Donnely (going for her 10th finish), John Taylor and a few others. In true Minnesota fashion Larry had everyone stand up, introduce themselves, and tell how many Sawtooth's they had done. These are great events, no posturing, and you can be sitting right next to the guy who is going to win it and have a good conversation. This would also be my packet pickup which included a nice cloth bag with the race logo on it, a race logo tshirt and some Hammer nutrition products. We'd get our numbers in the morning, which makes it easier for the race staff to tell who is starting.
After dinner we headed up to Gooseberry Falls State Park to camp for the evening. This park was also the race start at 8 the next morning, so it would be pretty leisurely for us. We had some hot cocoa, and with no moon that night, enjoyed some fabulous stars, something I definitely miss in the city. By 9:30 we were tucked in and slumbering. I was nervous, but not like at Western, and had a decent nights sleep.
The sunrise was phenomenal at 6:30 when we got up. I had a quick breakfast of oatmeal the got my stuff together. I wore my new Solomon compression shorts and socks along with a pair of Hokas. I for sure had the Euro look down pat. We did the quick drive to the visitors center and starting area to meet my folks and get my race number, 752 this time. We had the better part of an hour so I paced around and chatted with friends I hadn't seen in a while. Soon though, we were all herded to the starting line. Without any ceremony Larry shouted 'GO' and we were off.
I was feeling really good, as one should in the early miles, and ran with a number of different people. Normally I get frustrated when there is nowhere to pass on a singletrack, but I was having a good time talking to Molly and Dan and several others on our way to the first aid station at Split Rock, 10 miles farther on. Besides, it was going to be a long day, and going too slow early on is alright and fighting for position at this point would only make the late miles unbearable. So for these early miles I vowed to have fun and take it easy. I rolled into Split Rock at about 1:56 quickly refilled my water, shook hands with Mr. Don Clark, and rolled on. I make every effort to get out of aid stations quickly, it's far too easy to wallow in their comforts.
Up next was Beaver Bay, and the first crew point. So far the day had been beautiful, sunny, with a slight breeze, and awesome views of backcountry lakes and forest. I had even run with the sole Mexican, whom Susan Donnely had talked into racing, sadly he would later drop. But on we rolled, weaving over roots and rocks and crossing boardwalks. Chatting with each other while we still had the minds for it. As I worked through Beaver Bay and Silver Bay my Amy and my folks kept telling me I was going too fast, my dad the stats man had been keeping splits for me.
Somewhere in here I had a bit of a low, kind of around that point where you've been running for quite a while and are feeling the miles and where you realize just how far you've got to go. I always try to run aid station to aid station, but the overall distance is always hanging there. Six miles to go until the next aid, no problem, then only 50 miles until the finish. It's a big mental struggle. As I worked through Tettegouche I had climbed up to 7th, and was getting nervous. I could feel the push of competition on me, no longer running just against the clock, I was transitioning into running against other people. Somewhere around here I hooked up with Chris Hanson, as we were running a very similar race, he a little stronger on the ups, me on the downs. He was consistently just ahead of me and I'd catch up to him, then he'd jackrabbit away. This kept up for hours.
After Tettegouche I crossed over Sawmill Creek Dome, a place I'd rocked climbed at several times. I headed into the aid just behind Chris. We both sat, him to eat and me to switch shoes. I was feeling some hotspots so changed back into my original pair (I had changed once already). Chris left a few minutes before me and urged me out onto the trail, I said I'd be a minute, and didn't want to make it easy on him. At this point he and I had moved into fourth and fifth place and were still doing well. Soon after leaving the aid station I was passing over Section 13, another great rock climbing area. As I was moving down the trail below the cliffs a porcupine jumped out ahead of me. I clapped and shouted at it to try to get it off the trail, but it just puffed up and wadled on it's way. Nothing to do, but enjoy this encounter. It only lasted about a minute then the little guy wandered off trail and I was back to running. Chris was still somewhere out ahead of me and I only caught glimpses.
Soon enough though and Finland came up, the out and back section and the most confusing turn on the course, but really not too bad since Don and his crew had marked it really well, which I hit 10:39 into the race. I easily hit my target of getting halfway before dark, giving me a lot of time to hit my primary goal of 30 hours for the race. Not that I could face another 19 hours out here. Time for a warm shirt and headlamps. Amy also sent me out with my raincoat. Chris was out ahead of me again, but we had both caught the third place guy (Andy had been up there, but stopped with stomach problems), and we were now running three and four. Less than a mile out of the aid station I caught Chris, he had eaten again and needed to walk to let it settle. At this point I passed him and moved into third, too far back to hunt for second, but with a lot of people behind me. Time to just move steady and not rest.
Chris never caught up to me, as I kept forging on. My pace had definitely slowed down, but as long as I kept going and didn't feel like stopping, I'd be alright. Unfortunately I don't remember a lot of the trail after this since I was tired and heads down working out the footing. This trail just never let up, hard rugged surface almost constantly, and when there was a nice smooth patch it was usually only a very short stretch. I never even put my headphones on because the trail was taking so much concentration.
Sometime around Sonju Lake, around 10 PM, it started raining, and wouldn't stop until 8AM. And it was cold. I was really happy to have gone out a little hard and have as much dry ground behind me as possible, since the rain would really slow things down. The approach to Sonju was great, up Benson Lake Road. They had placed luminaries all down the road, so I turned off my headlamp and ran up in the dark, following the little glowing bags. Amy saw me near the top and screamed 'runner!'. They had a full on tiki bar set up here and were catering to the crews, so far just mine and a couple others. But they were having a blast. I didn't spend long here as it had just started raining and I wanted to move and stay warm. Amy walked me out and sent me on my way.
I never saw another runner since passing Chris until the finish, and that made me run 'scared'. I ended up being alone on the trail for 16 hours. It was incredibly trying in that cold and rain to just keep moving and especially getting out of aid stations. I did well, though, and managed to only spend 3 minutes at Sugarloaf and 1.5 at Cramer Road. Through these sections I had to run almost all the time, if I walked I got cold. It made me a little nervous, but my mind wasn't slipping so I certainly wasn't in danger, just really uncomfortable. Upon hitting Cramer, Amy asked if I wanted to change shirts, but I said no, even though I was soaked, at that moment I was warm. Big mistake, instead of spending a couple minutes changing shirts here I'd freeze my way to Temperence River and spend 16 minutes warming up.
The trail to Temperence River was flowing with water, rivers running down the trail and huge standing puddles. At this point, nothing to do but run through them. It was two hard hours getting there, but once there it was into a couple dry t-shirts and a new rain coat and sitting by Helen's fire for a few minutes. I kept asking how much of a gap I had, finding Chris had dropped way off, and Scott Meyers was now behind me, but an hour back, his wife having recently just shown up. I wasn't comfortable with any gap, so I got myself stiffly to my feet and once again Amy escorted me to the trail. She was set to run with me, until she saw the first few feet of it and said no way. I should mention, my parents where there all along, but they were pretty quiet, tending to my needs and letting Amy do all the directing.
Just out of Temperence is the longest climb, 900 feet up to Carlton Peak. This starts out nice and gradual, but turns into some scrambling for the last 50 feet or so. Before some delicate downhilling on the way to Britton Peak aid station. In here the first whisps of dawn started lightening the fog. Now the fog was brutal to run in in the night, like running in a bubble and really messing with your depth perception. It was foggy before Temperence and all the way to the end. Much more tolerable in the daylight, though. When I got to Britton, I quickly changed raincoats and tossed a t-shirt and my headlamps. Some warm broth sent me on my way to Oberg.
The section to Oberg is normally supposed to be pleasant and runnable. After the rain, though, it was a chain of streams and puddles, unavoidable and ankle deep. All I really remember from this section is how bloody wet it was. It felt like forever getting to Oberg, but once there I was told I was still in third and nobody behind me. Little did they know that Nolan Ming had come back to life and was mere minutes back, but since he had no crew, my folks had no idea he was there.
The last section had a couple monster climbs in it, the first a veritable wall up Oberg, just a big straight climb. That was followed by some big downhilling, at this point really difficult and slow on my sore legs, then the climb up Moose Mountain and it's monstrous switchbacks. The aid station crew had told me that once I could see Lutsen I'd have three miles to go. The problem with that was that it was so foggy I could only see a few hundred feet, I had no idea where I was, of even what direction I was headed. I kept telling myself, count on 20 minute miles and be surprised when you get in early. In due course, I started heading down off of Moose Mountain and crossed a bridge over a raging river and passed out onto a road. Very close now. Charging down the road at what must have been a blistering 12 minute mile pace I followed the flagging until it turned down a muddy hill next to a lodge. Just down this hill I saw Amy and she started screaming, a few more yards and I came up onto the patio at the back of Caribou Lodge.
Only six people were there, my crew, Larry and his wife, and a couple of others. I had to ask if this was it, since there was no obvious finish area. Larry said, yep, this was it. 26 hours 58 minutes. Wow. I blew my 30 hour target out of the water, and ended up with one of the fastest times on the course (though winner Brian Peterson was 4.5 hours ahead of me). What an adventure, and a trial, through some beautiful country in my own backyard, absolutely horrible weather conditions, and a brutally rough trail. This race felt so good to do and get through. I had my head screwed on right almost the whole way, had a solid nutrition plan, and only made one big mistake by not changing to dry clothes when I had the chance. I held onto my third place overall and finished second in my age group. This first time I'd placed in any race I'd ever done.
This is one race I'll be back for next year.
A special thanks to Vicky, Dennis, and Amy whom twice this year have nursed me through hundred mile events. It has to be hard watching someone you care about suffer, but they stuck with it and every bit of my success is shareable with them.