Superior Trail 50k Race Report
In May for the past four years Anne and I have ventured up nordt near the date of our wedding anniversary. On these trips we combined my running of the Superior Trail 25k Race with some day hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and an otherwise relaxing weekend on Lake Superior’s scenic north shore. This year the race was set a week later than in recent years and Anne was not able to make the trip. We had an extended family picnic scheduled at a public park on Sunday afternoon. This would require a hasty retreat home on Sunday morning and not leave us time for much hiking on the weekend. Anne also wanted to volunteer our house as a backup for the family picnic in case of foul weather on Sunday. As it turned out, the Twin Cities area was struck by severe weather Sunday and our house was needed for the family gathering, so it was a good thing she stayed home.
So I headed north on Friday afternoon with friend Dave Coyne for the race. Long time running buddy Mike Madden and Mike’s wife Laurel also made the trip. Dave and Mike planned to run the 25k race and I decided to step up and run the 50k. This would be Mike’s third Superior Trail 25k and Dave’s first one. Now I’ve run seven 25k trail races and one trail marathon, but this would be the first time to run a race longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Any race longer than marathon distance is considered an “ultra” race, so this would be my first ultra.
We dined at the hotel restaurant Mogul’s Grille and then attended the pre-race briefing from co-race directors Mike & Gretchen Prebix (who do a terrific job putting on this race each year). We received a course description from course sweeper Don. Don is a bit of a character. He said “The course is flat and fast! Dryer than a popcorn fart!” We knew better. Trail races often (and this course in particular) have major hills and plenty of mud. Someone else said “You’ll get plenty of vitamins D & R – Dirt and Rocks”.
Saturday race morning dawned with cloudy skies, temperatures in the upper 40’s and light winds. Having never run this far or long before, my plan was to walk up the steep hills and run the flats and downhills. I’d run the 25k here four times in about 3 hours. I planned to go out slow and to continue running a slow pace to make sure I could finish the 50k. I thought 6:30 to 7:00 hours would be a realistic time for the race. Mike and Dave were there to cheer me on for the start of the 50k (their race didn’t start until 2 hours later at 9:00 AM).
The race is and out and back course. The first three-fourths of a mile is on a road past the top of Lutsen Ski Resort. There were still a few patches of leftover snow on the shady sides of some of the ski hills. Once you leave the end of the road you run on a portion of the SHT, which runs 277 miles on the ridgeline parallel to the north shore of Lake Superior. This mostly single-track trail is popular with backpackers and day hikers and traverses some of the most beautiful scenery in Minnesota. Of the three trail race venues I have raced, this terrain is by far the most difficult and includes some of the steeper hills along the SHT. There are several small streams and rivers that cross the trail. Many spots have small planks to cross the muddy spots or streams. Some of those planks are very unstable and often move under your feet. The trees are conifers, maple or birch. Medusa-like roots and ankle biting rocks often interrupt the dirt path. It takes great concentration to think through where you want your steps to land.
The race started promptly at 7:00 and we were off. After leaving the road, we descended to the bridge over the raging Poplar River and then ran up a moderate climb on an ATV-wide trail until the actual SHT splits off up Mystery Mountain, which is the first of several large hills on the course. Once we reached the first steep section on this climb the tightly bunched group of runners slowed to a brisk walk (I’ve learned this is a strategy experienced non-elite ultra runners often employ to conserve energy on long races). On a single track, if you want to pass another runner, you simply let them know and they move slightly to one side and allow you to progress. Trail runners are extremely polite in this regard. I started listening to conversations around me. Following just behind me, I heard fellow Marathon Maniac Warren from Chippewa Falls, WI talking to a woman who I later learned was named Wendy. It was interesting, because Wendy obviously had a tremendous history of ultra trail racing experience. Conversations on a trail race are often like introverted people talking, in that you rarely look at the other people in the eye, but rather at the ground. You are concentrating so hard looking at the possible foot landing spots in the next ten feet ahead of you that you can’t really look at the other person. The risk of doing so might put you on a first name basis with the ground.
We made it over the top of Mystery and went down the backside at an easy pace. The tight-knit group of runners was good for me in that it kept my pace slow so I wouldn’t go out too fast. Next up was the toughest hill on the course – Moose Mountain. The climb up Moose involved a few spots where you needed to grab a tree or rock to get up and over a ledge. The flat section on top of Moose allowed for some speed, but there were several downed trees that required you to slow and either climb over or under to get past. Sometimes you needed to detour into the woods around the downed timber.
The backside of Moose is long and steep. I decided to employ my “running stupid” downhill technique. That is, I lean forward and run faster while lifting my knees high, landing my feet under me and kicking my feet out behind me as I go. This allows me to avoid hammering my quads in braking down the hills. If my feet hit a rock or root, they are immediately moving backwards so I don’t get tripped (so far anyway). In my youth I used a similar technique in downhill skiing, which gave me more balance and control on steep hills. There are some downhills too steep for me to confidently use this technique, but having run this section of the course I knew it was in my comfort zone. Warren went with me on this downhill. We made it to the bottom without eating dirt and started the climb up the third big hill, Oberg Mountain.
The first aid station is just past Oberg Mountain. This is the turn around point for the 25k. I was not as familiar with the rest of the course to the 50k turnaround ahead. I stopped long enough to drop my long-sleeved shirt (tied around my waist since the start line) and baseball cap. I downed some fluids and wolfed down a small PB&J sandwich. While I came into the aid station ahead of her, Wendy showed her experience by getting in and out much quicker. I took off and caught up to her a half mile down the trail. We conversed and I plied her for trail racing knowledge and learned more of her history. She was running her 61st race of marathon or longer distance (mostly longer) compared to my 45th race of marathon or longer (this race was my first in the longer category). Wendy had run many 100 mile races, including completing the Grand Slam, or running the four oldest hundred mile foot races in the country during a single year. She gave me great advice, including suggestions on what time of year to run my first 100 and what course I should consider. At the time I was thinking more about how to finish my first thirty-one mile race, but I soaked in the wisdom. Somewhere we missed a course turn. After making several false turns and stopping to try to figure out which way to go, we reversed course and backtracked to find where we last saw course markings. When we found the markers, we saw the trail turned sharply to the right and went slightly downhill at that point, so the ribbons marking the course were not obvious. Looking at my Garmin GPS splits later on, I estimated we lost 25 minutes and covered about 1.5 miles of extra trail. The thirty-one miles of a 50k were not going to be enough for me, so how about thirty-two and a half? I later learned one of the lead runners from last year’s race also missed the same turn. On the way to the next aid station Wendy and I passed several runners who were surprised to hear faster runners coming up on them from behind. With a little chagrin we explained we had gotten lost.
We went through aid station #2 at Britton Peak fairly quickly as we knew it was only 2.2 miles past the aid station to the 50k turn around point on Carlton Peak. So we would be back at the aid station in just 4.4 miles and could stop longer if needed then. Close to Carlton Peak, the trail turns sharply steeper and the rocks grow from ankle biting size to knee biting size.
We walked / climbed where necessary and ran where the terrain allowed. We exchanged a few words with race volunteer and local ultra running legend John Storkamp at the Carlton Peak turn-around and headed back down the trail back to aid station #3 (Britton Peak again). I refilled my camel back hydration pack with fluids from my drop bag and since it was still cloudy and dry, I choose to not grab my rain jacket or cap. That later proved a little unwise. I did stuff a whole PB&J into my mouth and concentrated on not choking while simultaneously eating and running.
For the section back from Britton to the last aid station at Oberg, Wendy was farther ahead of me, but I did catch up to two runners, a man in an “Army Strong” shirt and a young woman wearing Vibram Five Fingers minimalist shoes. On this gnarly course, I was surprised to see her wearing shoes with little protection or support. As I recollect our conversation went as follows:
“Have she had run a trail race in those shoes before?” “No.” “How was it going?” “Just fine.” “Have you run a lot of trail races?” “No, this I my first trail race.” “Have you run marathons?” She said, “No, my last race was a 5k”. “Why did you choose this race as your first trail race / ultra?” “A friend called me a wus. I have to prove my friend wrong.” I later learned her name was Sarah. She dropped back a while after this conversation.
I kept running behind the Army Strong guy. Somewhere along the way I passed Wendy again. Lost her on some downhills and kept going. By this time my hips and right knee were giving me discomfort. I noted my laces were loose. On trail races you often run alone. The tread of miles wears and tears on your body. To distract myself, I tried to listen to the bird calls wafting through the canopy. At stream crossings I heard the impatient battle of water propelled by gravity while it fights the rocks obstructing the flow. You see less scenery than you’d like as it takes tremendous focus to scan the trail ahead. It takes just a moment of inattention to stumble over a hungry trail rock or root. Eventually I made it to aid station #4 at Oberg Mountain again. I felt a sharp rock in shoe. I found a bench, removed said rock, then grabbed some fluid and headed out. Now I only had the last section and three big hills to go.
I caught up to Army Strong and was running behind him on the slope down from Oberg. On one of the many stream crossings, the wooded plank bridge nearly collapsed under Army. He winced in pain as the quick drop had wrenched his back. We found a loose rock nearby and slid it under the most unstable end of the planks. He said he was okay, so I went ahead. It started raining about this time.
I caught up to Wendy shortly after beginning the long ascent up the backside of Moose Mountain. This was brutal. Merely walking took your breath away. The rain kept intensifying as we climbed. I really started to regret not grabbing my rain jacket from my drop bag at aid station #3. The rain felt a bit cold wearing just a running singlet and shorts. The skies darkened and the mud started to get a little more slippery as we crested Moose. I noticed my legs seemed cleaner as the rain had washed off much of the mud. Then I realized that was just the front of my legs, as the backside still carried a half-inch coating of mud. I had to remove a small stick from my shoe just as I started down the steep front side of Moose. For the next few miles I ran mostly with Wendy and Sarah. After gaining the crest of Mystery Mountain I started pulling slightly ahead of them. Almost lost a shoe in some deep sucking mud. By this point in the race I had long since given up efforts to step around the worst muddy spots. Now in the last mile of the race I passed a couple of runners approaching the Poplar River Bridge. I climbed out of the Poplar valley and hit the dirt road at the beginning of Lutsen Ski Resort. Only three-quarters of a mile to go! Running on solid footing seemed a dream, but I wished I could get my legs to turn over quicker. I wasn’t sure if my dead feeling legs were due to fatigue or just the extra weight of the mud in my shoes. I soon heard footsteps closing in on me from behind. Wendy was catching up to me. We turned off the road to make the loop behind the host hotel to the finish line.
Standing just off the path were Dave Coyne and Mike Madden watching from under umbrellas as we stomped through the red clay mud down the cambered slope. Although a little slick, we kept our footing. Wendy crossed the finish line just ahead of me. I had finished my first ultra in 7:31. A couple of minutes later I saw Sarah cross the finish line. I approached her and said “Young lady, you are no wus! You just finished a 50k ultra! She smiled and gave me a high-five.
I caught up to Mike and Dave and went inside to enjoy some post race refreshments. They served “1918 Root Beer” and chili. It was amazing how good that tasted. After a shower and nap we had a great dinner at the Cascade Lodge with a few brews. We followed that up with a nice breakfast on Sunday morning and we headed home. As I alluded to earlier, the Twin Cities (thankfully not our neighborhood) were hit with tornadoes on Sunday so my family picnic was moved to our house. Within an hour of arriving home we had twenty-five relatives at our house and most of us met my one-year old great-niece Janelle for the first time. It made for a complete weekend.
Lessons learned: I need to work on my efficiency on going through the aid stations and improve my course navigation skills. I was happy with my fueling and energy level for the distance. As I held back my pace to make sure I could finish the race, I’d like to try picking up my speed on my next attempt. Yes I am confident there will be another 50k in my future. I’m not ready for a 100 miler yet, but maybe a 50 miler not too far down the road.