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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.