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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why Run Superior?

The following responses are from finishers of the Superior 100. I am grateful for their generosity. This is a part of my book about the race. It can be found here.

April Anselmo: My first 100 miler, Kettle Moraine, went so badly. I was ill prepared. But I finished. I knew I could do better at a 100 miler. I wanted to do better. I had heard from other runners the difficult nature of Superior, and the beauty. I was intrigued.  Plus I had run Afton Trail Run, and knew the kind of race John Storkamp puts on. I wanted to do more of his races.

Maria Barton: Why not? I wouldn’t even think about doing a hundred elsewhere until I got my finish at Superior. The SHT is my spiritual home. It’s beautiful, mystical, boreal forest views. The scenery, and of course, the people. If work told me I’d have to work that weekend… (looks down, shakes her head). It would be like them telling me I had to work when my kids are getting married. But my kids know better than to get married the second weekend of September.

Frayah Bartuska: My first two trail races have an unbelievable amount of elevation involved. When I did my first 100 (Kettle), I had the best experience. However, I missed the climbs, and I missed new scenery. I was so proud that I was able to complete a 100 miler, but I crave seeing a hill/mountain in the distance and knowing that I’m about to climb it. I was researching this race more than Kettle, and I was just fascinated by the scenery and the climbs that were involved.  I told myself that if I finished Kettle, I would add another 100 and it would be Superior. I crossed the finish line at Kettle knowing that I could tackle Superior the same year. It would be a lot for a rookie, and I would have to step up my training tremendously, but I was so ready to tackle that race.

Julie Berg: Because it is something I never believed I could do. Bonnie Riley was running her 100 there and I was running the 50 mile. When I saw how badly she looked I told myself I'd never do it. Ever. I then told myself after ten 100 mile finishes on other courses that I'd give it a try. Well, after ten 100 mile finishes I stayed true to my word and to myself. I gave it a whirl. It was beautiful, demanding, all encompassing. I only made it 77 miles. I knew that I'd be back.

Superior has a way of getting into my soul. I finished the 100 the following two years and again this year. My best friends run this race, volunteer this race, and direct this race. There is nothing like being among the people you care about the most while racing. It's the most difficult of my fifteen 100 mile finishes. It takes me the longest to finish. It beats me up the most. It's the most rewarding. The views are amazing. I've run the course a few times over a few days on my own—it’s beautiful, but not the same as the race. If I could only run one more 100 mile race in my life, it would be Superior.

Mike Borst: Superior has been deemed one of the toughest races out there and that means it is a beautiful and fun course to be on. If you have to run 100 miles why not do it on some of the most scenic trails around? Also John Storkamp is one of the greatest race directors ever.

Don Clark: It was my first 50, my first 100. It’s probably the toughest I could find. And there weren’t many 100s then. It was so personal to me, to do that one. And there’s that camaraderie that we share. What a glorious day.

JD Coolidge: Superior was purely opportunistic. Though I had visions of doing Superior at some point down the road, it was only after a failed attempt at the Leadville 100 that this vision became reality. I registered for Superior approximately 14 hours after I threw in the towel at mile 54 of the Leadville course. I was not totally disappointed with my efforts there, but I felt a need to redeem myself. My wife gave me the push I was looking for when I mentioned Superior the next morning. She said, "You should do it."

Susan Donnelly: Right time and right place. In my second year of ultrarunning, I found myself with a couple of early 40 and 50 mile races under my belt and saw a thin window of opportunity to jump up to the 100 mile distance. It wasn’t perfect training (I wasn’t even sure what that was), but based on what I’d done for the shorter races, I thought it might work. 

I had to decide whether to go for it, or wait until everything was more sure. I looked at the calendar in Ultrarunning magazine and found Superior Trail 100. I had run Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth several years in a row and had fallen in love with that part of Minnesota. A 100 miler there—on a trail—seemed too perfect to be true, so I took it as a sign that it was time to leap.

It also helped that this was 1997, before widespread use of the internet, and the Superior Hiking Trail was far enough outside my normal travel radius that my training partners in Tennessee wouldn't know if I didn't finish. That freed me from feeling extra pressure of external expectations. 

I sent my check, booked a flight, and trained as best I could guess how.

John Focke: I love northern MN, and the Superior Hiking Trail is one of my favorites. I've strung sections together hiking and the thought of spending a couple of days running for 100+ miles on it, while enjoying views of Lake Superior and seeing places I drove past but hadn't explored, was really enticing. Plus, it's known as one of the hardest 100's around that's not at altitude. If you're going to test yourself, really test yourself.

Stephanie Hoff: Kate Leis [running friend] actually picked Superior. I'm more of a go-with-the-flow kind of racer. She picked it because it was supposed to be one of the toughest 100 mile races in the country. I said, Sounds good! I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. I just knew I loved hiking the North Shore, loved the trail running community, and I'm always up for a challenge.

After running Superior, I would tell everyone this is the toughest, most scenic 100 mile race they will ever encounter. And the people, volunteers and community are amazing. Superior should be on every ultrarunner's bucket list.

John Horns: Being a Minnesota kid I have to run it. It’s close by. My grandmother and grandfather had a place on Seagull Lake on the Gunflint Trail. My folks had a place on the North Shore. I can remember my mom (Mae Horns) doing hill repeats on Bridge Run at Lutsen, where the race finishes today.

David Infante: It was never on my radar. I thought Minnesota was flat. My friend Shawn Severson suggested it and I had a conference in town the following week so I volunteered to crew her. She said I should run it instead and we could pace each other. I needed to put something on my calendar to work for and that's why Superior was the race. I have to say that I did not adequately comprehend what I was getting into but I’m so glad I did it.

TJ Jeannette: That’s easy. I’m from Duluth. It’s home. It’s in my parents’ back yard. And it helps that their back yard is such a beautiful trail environment. That location makes it easier for family to be there. It makes it inclusive for my crew. It started with that convenience.

And after doing the spring run and the 50-miler last year (2013) there was no choice. In fact, I had asked my coach at the time (Chris Lundstrom) if he would train me for the 2013 100. He said no. He said I needed to build up to it. Give it more time. He was right. I did the 50 miler with negative splits, just flying at the end, feeling good and passing people. That really did it for me. It’s convenient, but it’s also awesome. It’s conveniently awesome.

Stuart Johnson: Why not? At first it was because it was a pretty place. Tough but not crazy hard. Then as it got tougher it was partly because of that. All 100s are hard. Superior Trail just ups the hardness scale a bit! People that haven't done it won't get it. 

Nick Koenig: was a few hours away. I was a newbie to the sport. I'd figured I'd rather fail a race closer to home than spend the money to venture out of state to fail. Quite the positive attitude. But hey, I’m often realistic with myself. Anything can happen out there on the trail. I’m glad Superior chose me to run with her. I will attempt a few more times to be sure.

Scott Kummer: Superior has a unique set of both beauty and challenges that no other race I have run provided. The beauty, the rustic nature, I love everything about the Superior Hiking Trail. I also think it’s one of the better put on races. John does an amazing job. It’s first class. He also keeps it small and intimate. It feels like family. It feels like a homecoming.

Kevin Langton: It's freaking Superior! When I was freshly sober, in 2006, I was backpacking the SHT southbound and came across the race, which was moving northbound, of course. Most runners went by while I was sleeping, but in the morning I met some runners on the trail. And I visited with the sweeps for a few minutes. I’ve always loved running, especially on trails, so I figured if I can hike it, maybe I can run it too. The SHT is a perfect playground for a long run. It’s truly magical. This race is special, from the directors to the volunteers to the rich history—when it started there were less than a dozen of these in the country. But there is always the landscape. It becomes a part of us. It shapes us.

Matt Long: It’s convenient. I live right here. It’s beautiful.

Matt Lutz: I got hooked on trail running when sometime in 2006 or 2007 I was hiking in Split Rock State Park on the SHT with two friends. We were way loaded down, nowhere near the ultralight set up I have now. And there was this dude who was just running up and over hills we were struggling to walk up. It was the end of the day, it was hot, and holy shit that guy was running where we were barely able to walk. 

I was already in love with the SHT at that time, and wanted to do a thru-hike (I did that in May 2008 with my brother). But Google and Dean Karnazes's first book led me to the Superior Spring Races, back when the Perbixes organized and directed them. And I was hooked. I'll always come back. Always.

I love this sign. And I hate it too.

Roberto Marron: It's a great local race, beautiful landscape, and a challenging course. Back in 2010 I showed up for the race as a first time 100 miler—without knowing anything about running a 100 mile and definitely unprepared! I had to drop at mile 74. It made me realize that I was weak.

Steve Moore: Superior was a Hardrock 100 qualifier and that is what drew me to sign up but the idea of a point-to-point 100 in a cooler-than-Texas climate solidified it for me.

Christi Nowak: I did Superior as my first 100 because I love the North Shore—I grew up visiting there—and I felt that the beautiful scenery would help get me through the challenges of the race. I was familiar with much of the course already, which made me more confident that I could finish. And on a practical note, the fact that I didn't need to travel far to get to it helped.

Larry Pederson: At the time it was the closest. Kettle and Rushmore were near too.

Scott Rassbach: Larry Pederson [Scott’s uncle and previous Superior race director] is the obvious connection. I was thrilled to finish my first 100 miler at his race.
As a child, my parents took my sister and me camping at Gooseberry Falls State Park several times. I have great memories of this place and love to return when I can. It seems like a very “Minnesotan” thing to do.

Mallory Richard: I wanted to run Superior because I heard it got the seal of approval from Sue Lucas, who's the toughest runner I've ever met and I've always been a little in awe of her. I keep going back because the course has this ability like nothing else to expose your weaknesses and force you through them. I make mistakes and come up short in some aspect of my race each time, so I have to go back again the next year to fix it. Is "the perfect Superior performance" a white whale?

Jeffrey Rock: It's the most difficult course that I know of around this area. I'm sure no 100 miler is easy, but if I want to test the limits I want the most difficult I thing I can find. A lot of other reasons too. The beauty of the trail, lake, and woods. The people involved in this race are awesome, from the racers all the way to the race director. It's almost as if everyone is more concerned with your success than their own. Then you have the volunteers. I have no words to describe just how good they are.

Todd Rowe: Running the Superior 100 was always about doing time on this trail. Before running the 100 there, I have loved every minute I have spent on the SHT. From running the shorter races to backpacking Bear and Bean Lakes to a winter camping experience at Bear Lake to camping trips along the North Shore with day hikes on the SHT. So I didn't want to run a 100-mile race and then pick one close or hard or any of the other things about Superior that also factor into the equation. It was always about running on this trail, in this place, in a mind-numbingly challenging way. I still have no desire to run 100 miles at Zumbro, as much as I love being there and running there and helping. There are some mountain 100s that intrigue me—Bighorn, Black Hills, Pine to Palm. But the place matters to me way more than the distance. It was never about running 100 miles for me. It was always about tackling this trail in a big way.

Jordan Schmidt: First, I had to for Gnarly Bandit. But when I was in high school, on our senior trip, I saw the race, saw people finishing, and I vowed to come back. I DNF’ed my first try and I thought about that every day for that year.

Adam Schwartz-Lowe: It's local for me, the course is technical, which is one of my strengths, and it's low elevation (which is great for all of us Midwesterners). The first time I ran was mainly because it was close. Now it's a great end of season race, well organized, and it's fun to run on familiar ground, which isn't as stressful as traveling to a new race.

Helen Scotch: When I ran Superior in 2008 I'd been living in the Twin Cities for a few years and considered the SHT my home course so it was a natural choice for a first 100. The race organization and support is amazing but most of all the trail is a hidden gem. There are sections where you feel like you're in a fairy tale (even when your feet are screaming at you in pain).

Shawn Severson: It’s a Storkamp race. It’s local. It’s recognized as being difficult. It also counts as 4 points for UTMB qualification.  I knew the aid stations and safety would be top notch.

John Storkamp: Because it is one of the oldest/most historic 100 milers in the country—when it was founded there were only about a dozen 100 milers in the country. Because it takes place on the shores of one of the greatest, most powerful bodies of water in the world (Lake Superior) in some of the most diverse and fascinating forests anywhere. Because it is hard. Really hard.

Marcus Taintor: The first time I saw people doing Superior 100 was in the early 90's when I was out delivering papers. I just happened to be walking by as the race was starting in Silver Bay. I remember being 12 or 13 and going out in the woods behind Silver Bay and seeing the glowsticks still on the trees and being in total awe that these people were running all the way to Grand Marais. It wasn't until I moved back to Duluth after living out of my van for four years that I started getting into running again and realized I might actually be able to finish the 100 myself. Being it's where I grew up I guess the Superior Hiking Trail has always been my home.

Ed Thomas: I wanted to do a tough course. I heard Superior was tough. I just didn't know how tough until I ran it.

Jarrow Wahman: A few years after Harry Sloan started putting on the Superior Trail 100, I knew that I would one day do it as it was run on some very challenging but memorable trails. I DNFed at the 1994 race, making 85 miles, stopping while still in the lead, my biggest mistake being caffeine deprivation. I couldn't stay awake. It took me until 2011 to get back out there and finish the damn thing. It helps that they put caffeine in gels now. I'm glad I went back and finished it, although it was frustrating being so much older, slower and weaker than I was back in the 1990s when I could have perhaps won the race. But I knew I had to finish it even if I were much slower. It's great to be able to share the experience of finishing that race with others who have.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Superior 100 Frequently Asked Questions

Superior 100 Frequently Asked Questions
(with a lil help from John Storkamp)

1. How far is it?

Great question. Trail races are rarely standard distances, and the organizers like to make sure you get your money’s worth. The current course from Gooseberry State Park to the finish line at Caribou Highlands on Lutsen Mountain is actually 103.3 miles long. Don Clark and Bonnie Riley have measured this distance twice with a measuring wheel.

2. Do you run it all at once?

You run, walk, and crawl it all at once, if you are lucky. Many (usually 40 or 50%) will not make it to the finish line.

Runners have 38 hours to finish. In addition, runners must reach certain aid stations before cutoff times. The first cutoff time is at Silver Bay aid station at 4 pm on Friday. That means runners have 8 hours to cover the 25 miles from the start to Silver Bay. If they don’t get there by 4 pm, a course sweeper (someone who follows the race running/walking the course picking up markers, stray trash, and runners) will pull them out of the race.

The 38 hour cutoff is one of the more generous of 100 mile races. Cutoff times can be an indication of course difficulty. The Lean Horse 100, a relatively flat race on a former rail bed in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has a cutoff time of 30 hours, while the Hardock 100, a ridiculously mountainous Colorado run, has a cut off of 48 hours. With that said, any time someone runs 100 miles it’s difficult, and climbing and elevation are only some indicators of difficulty. Lean Horse is not easy—after all it’s 100 miles, in August, with little shade.

3. Do you run the whole way?

Most don’t. Many power hike the hills to keep their heart rates somewhat level (less energy expenditure). Some walk because it’s all their legs will allow them to do at the time. Forward progress and staying ahead of the course sweepers is key to finishing. “Run when you can, walk when you must,” is mid-race advice that helped me get through my first hundred.

4. But I don’t even like to drive a hundred miles.

That’s not a question. Many ultrarunners don’t like to drive that far either. Although they will to get to a race.

5. What is a pacer?

A pacer is a life-size, walking and running punching bag / glutton for punishment—not really necessary but runners are welcome to have them. A pacer can run with the racer after the 43-mile point (County Road 6 aid station) after 6 pm on Friday. A pacer gives company to the runner, keeps him or her moving, and can be an aid to safety if the runner is out of his or her mind and not paying attention to important landscape challenges like cliffs and waterfalls. Pacers have been known to fight off possums and other wildlife. Pacers tell stories and bad jokes and sing songs. They can’t carry, or “mule,” equipment, food, water, etc. for the runners. Some runners use pacers and others don’t.

6. What’s a crew?

A crew is the runner’s posse. A crew is like a pacer but they get abused by their runners just once every few hours, at the trailheads. These people drive from aid station to aid station, wait and wait, and then when the runner comes through, they experience a couple minutes of chaos, then drive to the next aid station and wait some more. During the chaos period, crewmembers may provide emotional support, cowbell, foot rubs and blister drainage, food, a change of clothes, a much-needed pep talk, sympathy, and Facebook updates. My wife tells me not to be a Sally. She unlaces muddy shoes at 3 am when my fingers won’t work and the smell makes her gag and she puts fresh socks on my swollen feet. She refills my hydration vest with Tailwind and Gu packets. Then she tells me to get moving and sometimes offers a kiss (or maybe I ask for one), unless I’ve been puking in the woods. The emotional benefit I get from seeing her at aid stations is priceless.  

Lisa's instructions

7. People run marathons in just over two hours. Why is the pace so much slower for this?

As the race director says, “It’s a little hilly and the terrain is not what most people would consider ideal running surface.”

Wynn Davis once said that running the Superior 100 is like trying to solve a puzzle with your feet for two days straight.

Aside from the obvious (it’s longer), trail running is a much different beast than road running. Road running is about repetition, putting many quick strides together over an even, paved surface, while with trail running every step is different and unique. The Superior Hiking Trail is a challenge not only with its constant climbing and ascending, but also with the roots, rocks, and mud that runners dance through. Running or hiking it helps a person find humility. And blisters and broken toes and lost toenails. When people unfamiliar with this trail experience it with a runner, the first question or comment is often, “You really run on this?” Adam Schwartz-Lowe’s winning pace in 2014 was just over 13 minutes per mile. That’s beast-mode fast on this trail.

8. Do you eat while running?

Fueling is key to a successful finish and that means eating. The body burns an incredible amount of calories in these events. Aid stations are buffets.

9. What do you eat?

An easier and simpler question to answer would be: What do you not eat? Visualize army ants eating their way through the jungle. They eat what you put in front of them. Hopefully most of it stays down. Standard aid station foods are boiled and salted potatoes, cheeseburgers, pizza, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bacon, pancakes, cookies, potato chips, oranges, bananas, grapes, Gummy Bears, Twizzlers, Coke, Ginger Ale, chicken noodle soup, potato soup, energy gels, electrolyte capsules, and so on. And runners bring their own variations too. Salts and simple sugars that the body can easily break down are popular. Some odd favorites are Pop-Tarts, burritos, Ramen noodles, even Spaghetti-Os and chocolate milk.

10. Where do you sleep?

Most runners don’t sleep. Some do, usually out of necessity. It’s possible to see runners dirt napping under tents in aid stations, on rocks on the course, on gravel parking lots, etc. Some runners claim to have slept while actually running. The lack of sleep can cause emotional roller coaster rides and hallucinations.

11. What are the hallucinations like?

They can be nonexistent, fun, or irritating. Mostly they’re irritating. They usually aren’t the kind of cartoon-like hallucinations one might experience when tripping on LSD. They’re softer than that. They might begin with auditory hallucinations—I often think someone is running behind me only to turn around and see no one. Then the visuals might kick in, maybe after a full night without sleep. In the 2014 Superior 100, tree stumps, rocks, and branches were dogs for me on first glance. Since I’m a dog person, it was a good thing.


12. Do you get lost?

It’s possible, but the Superior Hiking Trail is one of the best-marked long trails in the country, with regular signs and blazes (a blue paint stripe on rocks and trees). In addition, before the race, markers walk the course, placing an incredible amount of orange ribbons on the trail. At Superior there are at least ten ribbons per mile. These ribbons are reflective and easy to see at night, based on a marking system that Don Clark developed. In the early years, these ribbons were placed on tree limbs. Don realized that most runners have to keep their eyes focused on the ground, so the race switched to a system of ribbons attached to metal wires (originally clothes hangars that Don, Bonnie Riley, and Maynard Lagace cut and straightened) that are placed in the ground.

Still, it’s easy to get confused when you’re tired. Runners have gotten lost, but they have all been found. Eventually.

Remember Storkamp's pre-race instructions to “keep Lake Superior on your right.”

Race Director with blue blaze marker on tree

13. How do you train for such a long race?

Lots of time spent on the feet. Long runs are a must, sometimes in daily succession, what is called back-to-back or even back-to-back-to-back (say Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) long runs. The goal is to teach the legs to run when they are tired, when they don’t think they are capable of running more.

Lots of hills, or hill repeats, help. Some do speed training as well, but the strength training of running hills is a necessity.

Because trail running is such a full body sport, cross training is helpful too. Cross-country skiing, biking, yoga, and swimming are all popular.

The idea of training specificity, of emulating course conditions, is especially important, and one of the only ways to emulate the unique nature of the Superior Hiking Trail is to run the Superior Hiking Trail. When they can, runners will try to invest some miles on the course itself.

14. Do you take bathroom breaks?

Yes. Runners will pee, shit, and vomit in the woods. If they’re smart they carry toilet paper too. Knowing how to go in the woods is a critical skill in any long ultra.

15. What happens to your feet?

Few runners leave the course with perfect feet. They will hurt. They will be swollen and blistered. The amount of rocks and roots at Superior triggers broken toes, ankle sprains and so on. Some people lose the skin under the heel pad. After the race, toenails continue to turn black or purple, and eventually fall off. Some runners like to share pictures of their post-race feet on social media like a badge of badassery. Please don’t do this.

16. How long does it take to recover?

Few runners cross the finish line thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again.” Some may take a blood oath right there to never run again. Conveniently they may already have plenty of available blood spilling out of them. Some runners are back at it within a week, while others might take a month or more off. During the week after running a hundred miler, I often experience increased appetites, fatigue, and an inability to focus, but a runner like John Taylor spends that same time packing for his next hundred-mile race.

17. What is wrong with you that you would run 100 miles?

Plenty. Obsessiveness helps a person get to the finish. While there might not be anything “wrong” with people dealing with mental health issues or recovering from alcoholism/addiction and eating disorders, higher numbers of us seem drawn to ultrarunning. A long run in the woods can be good, cheap therapy.

18. What’s the deal with belt buckles (or, Whose idea was this anyway)?

In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh completed the Western States Trail Ride in California on foot. Buckles were given to finishers of the horse ride, and Gordy got one too. His feat evolved into the Western States Endurance Run, and the idea of awarding buckles to finishers stuck.

In 1983 Harry Sloan, the original Superior Race Director, completed his first Western States Endurance Run (he now has 13 finishes there) and Western States became his model for Superior 100. The first Superior buckle was awarded to Bob Stavig in 1991. That buckle was the shape of a wolf’s face, with a runner’s profile between the wolf’s eyes.

Tom Weigt's buckle (left) and mine.