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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Superior 100 Course Musings

Trail marking on Carlton Peak

Following are some thoughts on the course, section by section. I include my splits from two years (2014 with a 31:36 finish and 2015 with a 29:34 finish, both years in 38th place; I don’t have splits for my much slower 2013 finish nor do I want to see splits for my 2016 DNF drop at County Road 6). I include the position by aid station because I find it fascinating that I finished in the same position in these two years, but I got to that position in much different ways. This year I'm heavier and slower due to a season full of injury. I hope to have as much fun as possible and make it to Lutsen on foot.

Gooseberry to Split Rock (9.7 miles): These don’t compare year to year. In 2015 the race switched course to follow the paved Gitchi Gumee bike path to the Split Rock River, where runners leave the pavement to follow the river. The course changed because the SHT changed due to easement issues with the owner. I prefer the pavement. It provides a nice opportunity for runners to spread out early before hitting single track. It helps avoid the starts and stops associated with every stump and stream. This year runners will have to cross the Split Rock river without a bridge. The river and its clink of rocks is always a lovely section and its fun to see and yell at runners across the river.

Split Rock to Beaver Bay (10.3 miles):
2014: 2:19, 73rd pos
2015: 2:08, 48 pos
I rarely remember anything about this section. The SHT guidebook says its “a challenging section with steep ascents and descents and dramatic views both of Lake Superior and inland.”I don't know why I remember nothing, only a stream crossing or something similar.

Beaver Bay to Silver Bay (4.9 miles)
2014: 1:20, 72nd pos
2015: 1:04, 43rd pos
This is where the fun starts. We get exposed climbs, rocky ridge-top running, and rootsy sections along the Beaver River. I like to swim the Beaver River when training, and it's not a bad idea to dip your head here if it's warm. We get several teasing views of Silver Bay before reaching it. For such a short section it can be tough, and it's here that the heat starts to play with you if it's going to play.

Silver Bay to Tettegouche (9.9 miles)
2014: 2:41, 71st pos
2015: 2:24, 38th pos
This might be the hardest section (or maybe the toughest section is whatever section you're on). We’ve run a marathon by now. The climbs are big and we are often on exposed rock in the afternoon sun. Leaving the aid station we start with a long climb to Bear Lake. Mount Trudee is another long one, but after that it is very runnable stuff through Tettegouche State Park. When I ran this section last week, I noticed multiple places where I’ve vomited in different years. I think that's been due to heat as much as terrain. This year I hope to back off and see if it pays off later. I need to make a conscious effort to slow down through here. I will use poles too.

Tettegouche to County Road 6 (8.6 miles)
2014: 2:40, 78th pos
2015: 2:20, 36th pos
I need to make sure I have a light when leaving Tettegouche—I got stuck without one in this section last year, my own stupidity. From the Tettegouche aid station to Highway 1 it’s very runnable. The Baptism River below the falls is one of my favorite places to swim. After Highway 1, the Fantasia climb is long and something most runners never talk about. It’s not known as one of the big climbs of this race, but it’s one of the bigger climbs of this race, at least in my mind. I love the view of the lakes by Wolf Ridge. After that it’s very runnable to the aid station. I love the view of the aid station from Sawmill Dome, such a welcome sight. This section can feel long, at least it did to me last year when I dropped at the end of it.

County Road 6 to Finland (7.7 miles)
2014: 2:43, 73rd pos
2015: 2:13, 34th pos
While there are some big elevation bumps in this section I don’t remember them as obstacles. But I forget things. I never remember going through Section 13. What I always remember is how fun it is to run the last few miles into Finland, and what a party it is once I get there, the halfway point. This halfway point is always a symbolic turn from day to night for me, even if I’ve been running in the dark for a while. It’s a time to make sure I have warmer night clothes and such.

Finland to Sonju Lake Road (7.5 miles)
Splits aren’t available for this section as Sonju is more of a minimal aid station without crew access. I love the short gravel road section at the beginning—it makes the sky seem bigger. The highest point of the entire course is the forested ridge just beyond Egge Lake, but it doesn’t feel high and it doesn’t feel like it takes huge climbing to get there. Lots of this stuff is in forest with lakes and boardwalks. Beware the campfire at Sonju Lake aid station—it can be a difficult one to leave, especially if it’s a cold night.

Sonju Lake to Crosby Manitou (4.2 miles)
Splits are combined with previous section.
2014: 4:01, 61st pos
2015: 3:18, 36th pos
The elevation chart shows much of this section to be downhill, but I never believe elevation charts. A couple easy climbs lets me know I’m closing in on the end, and then we pop out onto the gravel road approaching Crosby Manitou State Park, lined with cars full of sleeping crew people. The sky opens up nicely on the road, and because it’s been awhile since a bigger aid station, this feels like a nice homecoming.

Crosby Manitou to Sugarloaf (9.4 miles)
2014: 3:43, 55 pos
2015: 3:14, 44 pos
When researching the book, I looked closely at drops by aid station. Crosby Manitou and Sugarloaf are the two top ones, and many years, especially the warmer ones, County Road 6 is right beside them. But this section is more of a mindfuck than anything. It’s dark and late and starts with a long and steep descent and ascent with three demoralizing false peaks through the Manitou River Gorge. It’s one of the longer sections. Your body wants to sleep. You may even see the sunrise on this one. You should definitely turn off your headlamp and look up while it’s still dark. And after that initial gorge, this section is very runnable, especially after crossing the Caribou River, which is a great place to dip your head in. I should bring poles.

Sugarloaf to Cramer Road (5.6 miles)
2014: 1:43, 54th pos
2015: 1:38, 38th pos
Even though I ran it last week, I don’t have much to say about this shorter section. It has a lot of creek crossings. It happens in that time when memory gets fuzzy for me.

Cramer Road to Temperance River (7.1 miles)
2014: 2:36, 48th pos
2015: 2:14, ? pos
A couple river valleys in this section. The Cross River is beautiful and sounds lovely in the early morning, but it can be irritating with its minor climbs, probably more mentally irritating than anything because I expect running beside a river to be relatively flat. It's a steep climb away from the river. Once you hit the park it’s a nice long descent into the Temperance River aid station. You’ve got less than a marathon to go.

Temperance to Sawbill (5.7 miles)
2014: no Sawbill data
2015: 1:42, 47th pos
Despite the Carlton Peak climb, this is one of my favorite sections. I love running along both sides of the Temperance River. I love leaving the Temperance River and the long and gradual and maybe-runnable-at-spots climb towards Carlton Peak. If you've only approached Carlton Peak from the north, the climb from the south can be a bit rockier. Even the longish drop off of Carlton Peak to Sawbill is fun with its boardwalk descents. 

Approaching Carlton Peak

Sawbill to Oberg (5.5 miles)
2014: no Sawbill data, 39th pos
2015: 1:37, 36 pos
Less than a half marathon to go. This section isn’t bad. It’s mostly shaded, as is the next section too. There are really no huge climbs, no big landmarks. It seems to be mostly about getting from one spot to the next. 

Tom Weigt and the Poplar River

Oberg to Lutsen (7.1 miles)
2014: 2:22, 38th pos
2015: 2:07, 38th pos
You leave the aid station wanting to cry because you’re going to get this thing done, one way or another. The climbs here don’t matter. They just don't matter. Bigger climbs are behind you. Moose Mountain is steep but short. Last time I did it during the race it felt like a funeral procession, silent and solemn and oddly serious. Somewhere from the top of that ridge you can hear the finish but it’s still an hour away. You’ll have to circle around to it, which means over Mystery Mountain, which is longer but has switchbacks. It’s one of the only times you’ll get switchbacks on this trail. Once you see that group campsite atop Mystery, it’s mostly downhill. Ride that fucker down to the river. No matter what the feet feel like, the sound of the Poplar River will temporarily erase that. Maybe. Then pavement. And that lump in your throat. Get yourself a buckle.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Isle Royale Runcation 2016 (Second Boat)

Isle Royale National Park can only be reached by boat or seaplane. This journey makes the destination more magical. For Tom and me, it first meant a long drive from Mankato, but it allowed us to stretch our legs with some trail miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. Since we are both used to running the Superior races, I wanted to show Tom the trail north out of Lutsen for some variety. We ran along the Poplar River but we didn’t make it as far as Lake Agnes, one of my favorite SHT spots. After the run we met up with Jason and Amy Husveth and their french bulldog Luna.

The next day (early May) we took the Voyageur II’s second crossing of the season from Grand Portage, Minnesota. It’s a two hour boat ride to Windigo, the ranger station on the west end of the island. These early crossings are festive, with research scientists and volunteers, park staff and rangers and return visitors. It’s a reunion of sorts. Someone brought a cake with the Voyageur II drawn in icing and we all ate it. Once the boat entered the calmer water (and warmer air) of the harbor, we stepped out of the cabin to watch the shoreline. We were wondering if we would see much snow, and we only spotted a few patches near the water. After dropping us at Windigo, the boat circles the island, delivering mail and goods and passengers on its two-day circumnavigation. 

I was traveling with Tom Weigt and Jason Husveth. Tom’s recently retired and a trail running mentor. Jason’s a long-time runner and botanist. We unloaded our gear from the boat and, after the dockside Leave No Trace talk from Ranger Val, we carried our stuff the full half-mile to our base camp on Washington Creek. In normal tourist season, the three-sided and screened shelters on Washington Creek have a two-night stay limit. But there’s no limit during the early and late shoulder seasons, so this would be our base camp for the week. It’s a lovely spot beside the creek, where moose often appear. It’s also the place where all trails on the west side of the island converge, a perfect spot to spend our runcation. 

I’ve hiked and paddled this island many times, but our goal for this trip was to run as much as we could or wanted to. Or maybe we didn’t have a goal. Still, lots of people talk of running the island end to end, about fastest known times, say along the Greenstone Ridge, and how to coordinate with the Voyageur to move their gear around the island while they run (it’s early spring on Lake Superior—you need gear to keep warm, especially at night). By base camping here we dropped all those worries. It allowed us the freedom to run without pressure or destination or coordination. We wanted to run simple, carrying nothing more than a small amount of snacks and fluids and maybe a camera. And if we didn’t feel like running, if we woke and preferred to sit and stare at the movements of water or to lay in the grass and watch clouds and birds hover over us, we wanted that freedom too.

That first afternoon we loosened our legs around the Huginnin Cove loop, a nine-mile run around the northwest corner of the island. We ran through snowbanks. Jason pointed out plants with fascinating names, although he spit out the latin name first. Along the north shore the trail turns mossy and rootsy with dramatic overlooks. Our return trip had great views of Washington Harbor through fir and spruce and leafless trees. We had the campground to ourselves that night.

On our first full day Jason and I ran the Feldtmann Loop. Tom ran with us to Rainbow Cove. We stumbled through a lovely fog along the shore and up to Grace Overlook. We found moose antlers beside the trail. When we got to Feldtmann Lake the fog still whispered across the water. We took the spur trail to Rainbow Cove and the rocky beach opened up to us like a milky cathedral. Jason walked along the beach finding agates and Tom and I soaked in the eerie atmosphere, the fog, the sound of waves rolling rocks, the cold breeze, the overwhelming solitude. We hadn’t seen anyone all morning. It felt like we had the island to ourselves.

We left Tom at Feldtmann Lake. He would run back to camp, while we continued the loop. Climbing, we turned to see the smaller lake below us, the big lake in the distance, and a juvenile eagle on a perch near us. We were hot from the ascent but the breezes were cold and wet. By the time we reached the Feldtmann fire tower I needed food and I was happy to dig through my pack for some. I took my shoes and socks off and aired my feet. The temperature was so different in the inland forests and ridges than the shoreline areas. The descent toward Siskiwit Bay was cool and gradual but somehow I was shirtless when we reached the shore. We must have looked like fools to the campers pumping water by the campground and dressed in layers of down. They seemed worried about us. They kept a safe distance. We were fools. It was cold. We had been running over 20 miles. We filled our water bottles straight from the lake without filtering it. We ate more food. We moved along the beach. I reminded Jason that we were committed to the loop now, that turning around would take much longer than moving forward. I wondered why we were doing this. I was giddy and drunk with happiness. I questioned my place in the universe, asked if I was doing life right. We startled ducks. Loons wailed in the distance.

The climb to the Greenstone Ridge rises 800 feet in 3 miles. We took our time with it. We explored old mines. We discussed heavy existential matters that I’ll never remember the details of. We ran through muddy highways of moose tracks. Eventually, we ran through the Island Mine campground and thick and open forests of ash and maple. Once we reached the Greenstone Ridge, our final six miles was a gradual descent. It felt liberating to surrender to gravity and open the legs, a long slide on the soft spring ground.

The next day we went up the Minong, the primitive and rocky and achingly scenic trail on the northern part of the island. We lay down on ancient volcanic ridges. We pointed out Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park across the lake. We bushwhacked through thick cedar swamps to the Greenstone Ridge. Fiddleheads grew beside a creek. We scared up a moose. It was a blur of brown and a drumbeat of breaking branches. Back at camp, Jason made tea from leaves and moss he gathered. Tom read a mystery novel and identified birdcalls. I sat beside the creek and watched the water flow in and out with the seiche. We may have napped. It was that kind of afternoon.

The following day Jason returned to Rainbow Cove. Tom and I explored the Greenstone Ridge, the spine that cuts across the middle of the island. We ran through birch forests carpeted by uncurling ferns and spring flowers. Once we topped out on the ridge, a lovely blowing snow softly pelted us. We ran boardwalks through swamps smoky with snow. The flakes seemed to sizzle as they hit their reflections on black water. At some point, Tom turned around and I continued east. The trail opened up on rocky ridges to views of inland lakes and Lake Superior on both sides and Canada in the distance. Everything was below me. The running felt smooth and effortless. Twenty miles in, I took the spur trail down to Hatchet Lake and from a campsite watched snow blow sideways across the water. I figured I would eventually get tired and slow down, so I decided to turn around. I hadn’t brought a headlight on this run and I wanted to beat the darkness back to camp.

The climb back up to the Greenstone was steep but short. Yet I couldn’t believe how good my legs felt. I was in no hurry. I was enjoying the movement, running, one of the simplest things a human can do, and I felt lucky to be doing it, blessed. My gps watch died. I didn’t need it any longer. The handcuffs were off. I had been running over six hours and time didn’t matter anymore. Perhaps it was bent, accordioning in and out with my breathing, just as the island breathed in and out with me, my oxygen running through it as its blood ran through me. I was physically tired and I was in total bliss. All my masks were falling away. I was doing this thing I was made to do. In this moment, on this run, I was completely free and weightless.

I was floating down a gradual descent toward a boggy swamp when a sandhill crane took flight ahead of me. I heard its unique call before I saw it. I stopped running to watch it circle. A steady wind whispered through the treetops, a wind you hear in layers, the kind of wind you only hear on an island. Just off the trail to my left, a bull moose stood from a wallow. He turned his head to look back at me. His antlers’ spring blooms were velvet knobs. When he seemed to decide I didn’t matter to his world, he bent his neck to eat, still watching me while he chewed the vegetation. I clicked a couple pictures. Then I moved on, quietly, allowing him his space, in his home.