Lisa and I drove up with Darren Reed (my awesome coworker who ran the 25k), and his wife Jill on Friday. We ate dinner at The Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais and I had the grilled trout (it didn't taste angry at all) with spinach fettuccine and pesto and salad. It was amazing.
|Food porn from The Angry Trout|
On Friday we also checked in at the race HQ. I normally don't care much about race shirts. In fact, at the last two local races, I've said, "You keep it." Nothing against those shirts, but I have enough, too many. However, these shirts from the Superior Run are mind-blowingly cool. Again. So are the race numbers. Again. John Storkamp puts on some fun running events. Again.
|Don't forget to tie your shoes, dude.|
I love the Superior Hiking Trail. Except for a couple blank spots, it runs from the Canadian border to Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth. I could say I've backpacked it all, but they keep adding more connections and trail to the southern end. It's a lovely place to spend a day, a weekend, or a month if you can. This run starts at Lutsen ski resort and follows the trail southbound to Carlton Peak, then returns to Lutsen, a distance of 50k (31 miles) with a 25k (15.5 miles) that starts a couple hours later. In between are a few hills, some rocks and tree roots to watch out for, and some stellar views.
The weather was perfect, low fifties, cloudy. People said they had driven through downpours to get there. The most we would get during the race was a light cooling rain.
That first section to Oberg was an exploration, trying to settle into a pace, trying to figure out what I could expend, knowing that there were some things on the way back that could drain my legs: hills, mud, hills, and distance. In my excitement, I hardly noticed Mystery Mountain and I really enjoyed running down its backside. I felt strong climbing Moose Mountain and appreciated its ridgetop. Descending it, I remembered there would be a return trip and this is where things could get ugly fast if they hadn't yet.
|Following Zack and Alicia|
I moved through the Oberg station quickly and fell in behind Alicia, who I would follow most of the race, and Zach, whose always taking pictures at these things, so I was grateful I got a picture of him this time, although it's fuzzy and his back was all I could see. Also in our little group was a guy named Joshua. I was feeling like I had found a good pace running with these people, something that required some effort, but felt patient enough to make this whole thing doable. I was worried about Carlton Peak because last year it really messed me up somehow.
|Working Carlton Peak with Joshua|
Joshua and I worked Carlton Peak together. It didn't feel nearly as tough as it did last year. Joshua's company helped. Although we had already been climbing a while when he pointed out the peak. I thought we were a lot closer to the top until he went and did that. It was a good reality check.
Finally we spotted the top. An awesome guy was waiting to greet us with offers of a handshake, cookies, gatorade, and beer. Last year I spent some time up there enjoying the views (catching my breath, holding my knees), but this time, with all the fog, there wasn't much to see, and I felt good enough to keep going anyway. It was a fun descent, and I made sure to let many of the folks still climbing know that the way down was more fun. For some reason, this thing had been bigger in my head than it really was, and I was so happy to be through it.
|Sawbill station, second time|
At the second Sawbill station, I got to see Lisa and Jill for the first time. That's always so encouraging. And these volunteers at the aid stations are amazing. They don't get to keep moving like the runners, building heat. What's perfect weather for running certainly isn't for volunteering, but these folks fill water, block roads, divert rain puddles, do so many things with smiles, positivity, encouragement and a sense of humor.
As I was leaving the aid station, I leaned in for a good luck kiss from Lisa. Watching her recoil made me realize I was a muddy, sweaty, stinky, snotty mess. She said it was the smell of the Gu I had just eaten.
|Pond between Sawbill and Oberg|
This next section from Sawbill to Oberg was draining simply because of the mud and the roots. It was sloppy. I felt my good running coming and going in waves. I ran much of it alone. There are no major hills here. From what I could hear, the Oberg aid station seemed to be moving around the forest, receding and approaching, teasing me with the distant enthusiasm of its volunteers and cowbells.
|Darren doing it|
Not long after Oberg, I found Darren on his way back too. He looked great. I totally admire this guy running his first 25k. He looked to be enjoying himself despite what he said ("Miserable").
My watch had quit working early, as it does when it gets wet. Trail running isn't the best place for worrying about times, as conditions change, but when we left Oberg my sort of secret goal of a sub six hour run appeared sort of possible, if I could handle this last section from Oberg to the finish in roughly ninety minutes. No problem in the first half, but this was the return trip and I knew what Moose and Mystery could do to me. Still, the time was heavy in my head and I was pushing what I could even on these climbs.
Coming out of Oberg, I found myself once again behind Alicia. I had followed her for so much of this race. I thanked her for dragging me along. In the latter parts of the few ultras I've run is when I learn about the value of working together with other runners. She helped me through much of this last section, and I hope I helped her in some small way too. We traded leads and words of encouragement. That return trip up Moose Mountain was still there, waiting, and we somehow tackled it.
|Moose Mountain ridgetop|
The fog was thick on the ridgetop of Moose Mountain. I forgot how much climbing there was to be done even up here. Hills grow that way in a long run, I guess. But it felt good to open my legs up going down Moose, and then we started climbing Mystery. It had grown too. This demoralized me. It's not so steep as the previous climb, but it's long enough. Alicia took the lead here and pulled away. Finally, I was able to return to some kind of a run. On the way down, my legs cramped with every step, but I've learned I can often run through such a thing, and I did, though I must have looked funny clenching up in a hop, hop, step on the downhill run. The sound of the Poplar River was a welcome treat. And its crossing was a stunning sight in that fog.
|Pavement, about a half mile to go. Yaaaay!|
Then there was pavement. A stretch of snow and mud. A surprising pump of arms and legs. And it was over. 6 hours and 3 minutes even. I was happy with that. Ecstatic. I still am. It was 45 minutes faster than last year's run. I cramped up changing clothes in Lisa's trunk; my muscles were fish swimming around under the surface of my skin. I thought I might puke in a puddle in the parking lot and wondered what color it might be after so much Gu. But I felt great, knowing I had given what I could that day.
|Darren Reed's doing it|
Lisa and I walked up the road to find Darren materialize from the fog. We ran a few steps with him and he was still smiling. This guy had worked to get here, to the race, and he had worked throughout the thing. He deserved that smile. He earned it.
The chili and company at the finish were spectacular.
I still have a shirt from a run I did 7 years ago, my hometown (at the time) Fun Days 5k. It has a June 24, 2006 date on it. I'm sure I ran it. Somewhere there are results to prove it. But I don't remember anything about that run. Nothing. I had been drinking and I don't drink like normal people. I black out, don't stop, can't stop. Two days later, June 26 of that year, was my first day of sobriety, of this new life. Thinking of that shirt now makes me appreciate what's here. I'm so grateful that I am able to do this thing with the company of such an awesome woman, with friends old and new, at one of my favorite places on the planet. This weekend I was a little kid on one of my favorite playgrounds again. Some might argue that I should be dead, maybe many times over. They might be right. Like many of us, I'm a miracle. I'm still breathing. I'm still here. Thanks Superior Endurance Run for that valuable reminder of just what it means to be alive and to share this life with good people.