"If you want to have the time of your life....change how you use the time in your life." Tim Fargo
Running and racing on the Superior Hiking Trail is something that is very special to me. For every summer of my life, except one, I have ridden or driven along highway 61 North to our cabin. Highway 61 follows the curve of Lake Superior to Grand Marais and beyond. But it's that stretch from Duluth to Grand Marais that is so special.
In those car rides I would stare out the window, either into the woods or at the lake, music pumping through my headphones imagining running, jumping over the rocks up and down the hills. Sometimes running, sometimes riding a horse (always wanted to be a cowboy) and imagining what I would find in the woods.
As I've gotten older I have had the chance to explore those trails via running and hiking and they have lived up to and exceeded my childhood imagination.
Running the Superior 100 last fall was amazing, to be able to experience that with my family and friends was really special, but this would be different. This time instead of trying to survive I wanted to race...it helped that it was a much shorter race and I felt in pretty good shape in the week leading up to it.
Ali and I were fresh off 7 days in Zion spent hiking up and down the Canyon plus I had an early season 50K under my belt on a much easier and less technical course where I cracked the 5 hour mark.
But a few days out from Superior I felt a twinge in my hamstring and wasn't sure how it would hold up, add to that 4 days of pouring rain had turned the course into a mud pit and I was worried how my hamstring would respond.
I treated it as best I could and on that Friday we headed North & wished for the best.
This race would be different from others in that Ali was going to run the 25K, her longest race to date. Last fall she ran the Surly Trail Half-Marathon and like me, fell in love with trail running, and after hiking the SHT and pacing me last fall she wanted to take on this challenge.
We made it to the Cliff Dweller around 11pm Friday, set our alarms for 5am and crashed to the sound of Lake Superior blasting the shore below our window.
I woke up juiced the next morning, sun was shining and while it was a chilly 40 degrees and there was fog over the lake it was shaping up to be a good one.
My race started at 7am so Ali dropped me off then went back to pack up her stuff & get ready for the 9am 25K start.
I took off feeling good, it was chilly, and I decided to bring just a handheld bottle despite aid stations being as far apart as 7.5 miles. John Storkamp, the race director, told us that when we encountered mud to plow right through the middle, don't try to widen the path. Well shortly after leaving the pavement we hit mud, and jumped right in.
The start was slow, a long train of people making their way up hill through the mud. I got a little frustrated, wanting to push it but kept telling myself to be patient. I fell into a group of people and we started chatting about different races we'd run, running documentaries we'd seen and books we'd read. It made the miles fly by and suddenly we were at the first aid station. I turned to a woman in the group and said 'Where was that massive hill I remember from the 100?' she said I think you just went down it...seemed so much bigger going the other way (and it was as I'd find out later)
In the 25K this is the aid station where you turn around and head back so I was thinking about everything Ali would have to deal with in her race and hoping she would find people to run with to make it fly by like I did.
I left the aid station with Nicole, we carried on chatting for a while before I decided I felt pretty good and my hammy was holding up. I pushed on ahead and with the sun now warm on my back wondered if I could get after it the rest of the way.
I was 10 miles in when I pushed ahead, slopped through the mud pushing all the time leading into the next aid station. I grabbed a few fig newtons, filled my bottle and took off up Carlton peak.
During the 100, we came down Carlton this way right after my blisters blew. I don't remember much of it as I was in a ton of pain. I had flashbacks at the aid station of taking off my shoes and the medical woman recoiling at the sight of them covered in blood, and saying 'Nothing we can do for them...'
This time around I was pushing up the hill, and I wanted to redefine my idea of what was runnable and what wasn't.
If I could see the top of the hill it was runnable, if it wasn't switchbacks, it was runnable. This stretch was a long, gradual uphill so I kept pushing finally scrambling to the top where a guy dressed like Daniel Boone was standing. He was the turnaround point for the 50K.
As I made my way up to the top he said 'John I just opened this for you' (my name was on my race bib) it was ice cold New Castle beer. I took a swing, ran around him and looked at my watch 308...
On our way up North we stopped and had dinner with my buddy Mitch who ran the 50K a few years back & was doing the 25K this year. He ran the 50K in 630 while battling a knee issue. He said I could probably get it done in 6 hours. So with 308 out I wondered...could I get back in 6 hours?
I pounded down Carlton peak, leaping over rocks, sliding through the mud in my mind saying 'let your body flow over the trail' I hit the wooden bridges slowing down so as not to slip on their wet surfaces, looking to make up as much time on this downhill as I could.
Hitting the aid station I realized I was out of Nunn and would be drinking just water the rest of the way. It was warm now so I took a salt tab too and put down a few more fig newtons and took off.
The thing that frustrated me so much during this stretch of the 100 was how runnable it was but at the time my feet were ground beef and I just couldn't run it, not even really a shuffle.
This time around though I could run and pushed myself through. I literally threw myself at the huge swathes of mud skating to the other side, sometimes stepping down in spots where the mud came up to my knees.
I knew there was one solid uphill in this stretch that I would need to walk so I vowed to run until I got to it, passing a number of people along the way. Finally I came to it and used it as recovery before pushing once again when I reached the top.
During this stretch my mind was blank just repeating my flow over the trails phrase, my eyes so dialed in on the trail a few steps ahead to keep myself upright.
I hit the last aid station and looked at my watch, there might be a chance I could catch Ali who started 2 hours behind me. We originally pegged her finishing around 4 hours so I grabbed a sandwich and headed out.
As I walked towards the trail letting my food digest an aid worker said 'You can make up a lot of time over the first few miles' so I took off wanting to catch Ali and maybe finish together.
During the 100 this stretch was with Paul and Alex, and it was hard...really hard. This time though I ran up the gradual climb again redefining what was runnable, pushing to make up that time until I hit the mountain...
The giant hill I didn't notice on the way out was there on the way back...I pushed my knees down with my hands, huffed and puffed power hiking to the top (Great quote from the 100 on this hill. Alex said 'You're almost there' to which I replied 'Except that I'm NOT!')
I knew at the top there would be some flat ridge running before dropping down and going back up a long set of switchbacks.
I pushed on the top until I felt a cramp coming on. Being out of Nunn and low on water I went to grab a salt pill when I suddenly found myself on the ground. Took my eyes off the trail for one second and BAM down I went. I was fine, a little sore, but mostly bummed that I had lost all but two of my remaining salt pills. I got up, brushed off, took one and took off.
In the distance I kept seeing women in shirts similar to the color that Ali was wearing so I'd take off, pushing to try and catch her only to find out it wasn't her.
If she was going to finish in the 4 hour range I was close. So I kept pushing, floating down hills, feet skipping just over the rocks and roots, mind blank with my goal of catching Ali.
More mud, sloppy after 50K and 25K runners had gone through it. I laughed watching people trying to go around and sneak past while I just jumped right in and plowed through getting mud on my face and all over my clothes.
I put my head down to power hike the switchbacks where during the 100 I had seen bags of flour littering the trail as my mind began to desert me. I huffed and puffed and started wondering if I was part canine cooling myself through panting.
Hitting the top I could hear the finish line but knew there was a long way to go. Again I pushed, passing more people, totally surrendering to the trail and letting it carry me down.
Finally I could hear the rushing of the river and knew I was getting close. I hadn't caught Ali, I hoped she had a great day, and in the back of my mind feared something happened & she had to pull out.
Over the bridge and back on pavement, during the 100 Paul, Alex & I strolled thinking we were pretty much done but it's still a ways away.
Cramps started to hit me, I slowed a bit, they left I pushed again, had a shot to get under 6 hours. Saw the final stretch, pushed down the hill, tight turn around the pool and right through the finish line, hearing them mispronounce my name above the din.
There was Ali, she'd had a good day & just like at the 100 we shared another finish line kiss here. The smile on her face lit up the whole place. She was so excited, I felt bad I hadn't been there at the finish but was so glad she had as much fun as I did.
Ali had a great day finishing in 3:30 while I was able to crack 6 hours...by a few seconds finishing in 5:59, and if we get some lottery luck we'll be back next year.
*Many photos courtesy of Mike Wheeler & Rock Steady Running*