Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Superior 100 2014

Prologue: My first encounter with the Superior 100: Eight years ago, I'm backpacking southbound along the Superior Hiking Trail in September. At a couple trailheads I notice these white canvas shelters. Underneath them, a folding table, a closed plastic bin or two with food inside (bananas), some containers of water and something like gatorade. By the way, my memory isn't the best. I spent years trying to destroy it--it's spotty and I confuse details and numbers. I camp beside a river, maybe the Cross River, or the Onion, and I wake in the morning to footfalls of runners on the nearby trail. Most have come by in the darkness. I watch some pass. I've run all my life. I offer encouragement and feel a kinship and awe. Some look fresh, like they're out for a Saturday morning stroll. Others look bloody, muddy, beat up and determined. I talk to the sweeps for a few minutes, although I have no idea they're called sweeps. I ask lots of bullet fast questions, and then they're on their way, carrying flags and water, lots of water, it seems. I'm newly sober. I love running. I love backpacking remote trails. My world opens up a little. I'll come back eventually.

Outside the prerace meeting, last year's winners, John Horns and April Cole, two supernice people, chatting on the right.
Prerun: My dad joins me for the prerace meeting in Two Harbors. We get there early.

Storkamps put on the best running parties in the midwest and they seem to have a blast doing it.
It's fun to see people. Like Jason Husveth, who I met while running this last year. We had leapfrogged each other through the night and ran together most of the morning and early afternoon. During the run we learned we have much in common. We kept in touch. We trained together on the trail some this year too. Dude's like a brother.

Husveth and Storkamp
I meet Ian Corless. He travels the world reporting on ultraraces. He seems like a supernice guy, and a great photographer too. Most people I meet at these things seem supernice. He'll be all over this race, taking pictures, interviewing--I'll even see him working aid stations.

Langton and Corless
We stay at Chateau Laveaux near Tofte. My posse includes Lisa, which my bib number notes is my "awesome hot wife," my parents, and Melissa, a family friend. The night before the race, I get a call from son Jake. It's great to visit with him. He wishes me luck. It feels good. Really good.

Team Langton ready to gogogo!
I think I'm ready for this. I've piled on winter and summer miles, mostly single-track. I've run several long races throughout the season, all with the ultimate goal of Superior in mind. My head and spirit are in good places--my therapist even let me out of our session early this week. I'm centered, like a solid yellow line on the middle of the road, and the call from Jake last night helped put me inside the paint.

It doesn't take long to get started. I'm standing by TJ, who I've been running with some, on his easy days, and Matt, who traveled here with us last year. It's TJ's first hundred and I know he'll do great. I'm as excited for his race as I am for mine. So much energy and excitement at the start.

TJ, me, Matt doing our best to represent Mankato, even though Matt moved away now.
This race can be brutal, but the weather is great and the first section is runnable but crowded at times. My focus is to breathe through my nose as much as possible to keep a reasonable pace, and to not expend energy jockeying around other runners. To focus on running at my comfort level. I'm following my adaptation of Jason Husveth's rule of "do no harm" in the early parts. My limited experience in these things has taught me that I can do loads of damage early by running stupid. Nothing really matters in the first 40.

My goals:

1. Finish
2. Stay positive and spread it.
3. Don't linger in aid stations.
4. Eat real food.
5. Move well through the night.
6. Have as much fun as possible.

I don't have much of a time goal in mind because every trail is different. It's like what they say about standing in the same river twice. Last year I ran a 36:17 here. This year the weather's cooler (yay!), and the course is muddier, much muddier. Different river, but I know I can best that time if I don't fall apart. See, the legs standing in the river are different too.

Lisa had some race rules for me too. Number 1 means no pity parties, I think.
The Run:

I have to pee as soon as we start.

Split Rock comes fast, with lots of feet in front of me most of the way.

I run behind a guy who introduces himself as Chris Hanson. Later, I realize that I followed the same guy last year along the same river. Crazy. Last year that had been too fast for me. This year, it's comfortable. Assertive perhaps, but comfortable. Nice guy with good race experience.

Marcus Taintor across the Split Rock River
Split Rock Aid Station is crowded, so I simply grab a cup of water and eat a Gu packet walking back up the hill to the trail. It's one of two gels I will eat through the run. I've become a big fan of Tailwind nutrition. It seemed to work for me at Black Hills and Beaverhead this year. I hope it works here too.

Lots of sweat. It's humid. Makes the cool breezes even better, especially after climbs.

Aspens bent all askew as if the hillside had bedhead.

A fresh shirt at Beaver Bay.

That lovely sprawl of Silver Bay skyline.

Meeting Pearl, the English Bulldog, at Silver Bay. Aid station dogs do wonders for my spirits.

Is this where Robyn Reed has a plate of bacon? That's good bacon.

A cold can of Coke and the sugar hits fast like an airplane taking off.

The gift of breezes at Bean and Bear Lakes, and Mount Trudee.

Passing the rock I threw up on last year gives me gratitude for the lack of heat this year. So many places I remember that heat and am lifted by its absence.

Happy to see Matt Lutz and roll down The Drainpipe with him. I appreciate his good spirits.

I remember nothing of Tettegouche Aid Station, but Lisa says I'm there seven minutes and eat watermelon and drink a couple cups of water.

Woo! Photo by Maranda Lorraine

I've run Tettegouche to County 6 about a month before, out and back, so this section is familiar. It starts with climbing and turns runnable for long portions at the end, with great views at Sawmill Dome.

A three minute sit on a rock with a view. Heartbeat in my forehead. Some cramping and soreness. I allow myself the time.

Breathing in. Breathing out. Stay in the here and the now. There is no other.

I get an idea for what the next writing project should be. Then I tell myself don't trust any ideas in this race. Then I can't let the idea go. 

The back piece of this section has flow!
From a hillside, through a break in the trees, the first glimpse of County Road 6 Aid Station in the distance,  a line of cars and campers on a ribbon of pavement.

I catch up with Shawn Severson or she catches me. I try to stay with her on the pavement leading into the aid station, but the cramps are really hitting me--they've been knocking loudly at my door for the last couple sections. Calves like a flat tire flapping. Time for S-Caps and soup broth.

At County 6 we ready for darkness. Sleeves, fresh buff, headlamps. I sit and eat melon. Lisa worries I'll get cold. I worry I'll get sweaty and then cold.

Night running is magic, especially on this trail. Especially a couple days before a super moon.

We build a nice train from County 6 to Finland. Shawn is in there for awhile. And two guys who are doing their first hundreds, Eric and Nick. I love Nick's Canadian/Australian accent and Eric's energy. We find some really runnable trail and make great time. 

That moon turns Lake Superior into floating fragments of sparkling glass.

There's a party going down at Finland.

Lisa corrals me into a chair inside the rec center at Finland for a shoe change. Lisa does the dirty work with the shoes. She's amazing. She's not a mud person, and I can smell the putrid on them. My mom tries to help me pull off the wet socks and I shush her away (sorry Ma). It feels like I'm peeling skin though.

The soup broth here is needed and warms me. Melissa always seems to have in her hands just what I need at aid stations, water, soup, soda.

I leave Finland with Eric. We're hoping to bop into Nick too along the trail, good chemistry and teamwork happening. 

I leave Finland expecting my feet to feel better with these fresh shoes. But they don't. They burn.

A month earlier, I ran much of this night stuff, from here to Sugarloaf, with Jason Husveth and Joel Button. The familiarity helps so much. I hope Jason and Joel are having as much fun as I am.

That flat gravel road out of Finland starts a nice rhythm. Eric and I are overwhelmed by the open night sky so heavy with stars and moon.

Somewhere I catch Nick and fall in behind him. We stick together for a couple sections. We carry each other. When I need to be quiet his conversation pulls me along and when he gets quiet I'm babbling away.

Climbing ahead of me, he says, "Shall I teach you to talk Australian?" He gives up quickly, sees a lost cause. But when I'm alone through Crosby-Manitou, I'll repeat it to myself and the darkness, "G'day mate."

Pancakes at Sonju. It's tough to eat anything but I force them down.

I stay away from the Sonju campfire. That thing has the potential to suck me in for hours, a lifetime maybe.

I lean my elbows on the table and my back muscles stretch and spasm. 

This is the third station I see John Gustafson working. That guy's always talking me through 100's, telling me what I need at the right time. He's an aid station wizard. This time he tells me I stink, says I need to get moving to clear the air. He's right.

Shadows move with the headlamp, briefly become anything but shadows.

Goal 3. I'm moving well through the night. 

Coming into the road that leads to Crosby, a long line of parked cars, each with a sleeping crew person inside. Blankets, foggy windows, faces against the glass.

Those Gnarly aid station ladies at Crosby, dancing to "What Does the Fox Say," thrusting hips at food offerings with their dick jacket arrows. I'm so grateful Lisa's there to tell me this is real.

I leave Nick at Crosby. He needs a little time. I know he'll make this. And he does, eventually finishing a place behind me. That makes me so happy to see him at the end.

Todd Rowe is coming into Crosby backwards. He's guiding a runner returning to the aid station--she's a little confused maybe, perhaps needing to regroup before handling this rough section.

Todd deserves more than a mention here. His story represents an army of volunteers. He's been registered for the run, but decides against it at some point. Instead, he volunteers in a big way. In many ways. Early in the run, he's taking photos, snapping shots in a few different places. Then I see him cooking at an aid station. Maybe two aid stations. Then he paces Kathy Jambor, but when they meet this runner in distress, he helps her back to Crosby, finds a ride to Sugarloaf, runs back until he finds his runner and keeps pacing her. Postrace he'll be processing his photos and giving them to runners as awesome memories. He does even more than I'm mentioning here. We could nominate Todd for supervolunteer, but we would need a truckload of capes to hand out. There are lots of other people doing the same kinds of things, selflessly leapfrogging this parade for days, working so many roles and giving up sleep and other stuff to offer us runners every opportunity to do this thing. It tears me up. Thank you all.

The Caribou River beneath me, foam in the lights through little holes in the bridge.
Climbing, I look up and see the moon so bright. No, it's a headlamp. The runner asks if we're still on trail. We're climbing over rocks, using our hands to get up. We're on trail, I tell him. The only way here is up.

He's the only person I see in this section.


That setting moon orange as a pumpkin.


A beaver splashing her tail somewhere behind me sounds like Sasquatch skipping boulders. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

Bats flutter the headlamp's circle again and again.

That setting moon red as an ember.

On long runs I've been training myself to override my governor. When walking, I've made it a habit to say, Why am I walking? When the word "Why" hits my brain now, if I'm not climbing, the feet automatically stumble and at least attempt attempt running. A little momentum. Forward. Progress. Making good time through the night.

A ship with its lights out on the lake looks as if it's floating on clouds.

I barely remember Sugarloaf Aid Station, only that I'm grateful to get there. 

Daylight creeping into the sky, then pouring through branches, bouncing off water and rocks.

Sunlight normally equals resurrection for me. But there's not much to resurrect from. I've moved well through the night with minimal suffering. Still, light equals energy and I have a new bump in my step.

In the light, everything becomes dogs. Stumps and rocks and discolored branches. Dogs. I couldn't choose a better thing to hallucinate.

The feet burn wet. The cramps come in waves between S-caps and soup broth.

Mushrooms from fairy tales. Such colors and shapes.

I pass the marathon start area about a half hour before their go-time. They smell soapy and clean.

I want to stay ahead of them as long as possible. Every muddy area I slop through is one more before even more feet stomp it wetter. And really, after the trains have passed me, I notice no difference--mud is mud--but it gives me a reason to keep moving quickly now.

I catch Todd and Kathy along the Cross River. Marathoners come around us. Todd's voice is a life-rope pulling me through the water. I feed off it. At some point I slowly move around them. 

On the other side of the river a bee stings the back of my leg. I yell out. I'm embarrassed. The sweat burns. My feet burn. I'm having a blast.

These marathoners give great energy. I jump in their trains and try to hang on.

A marathoner in front of me catches herself from a fall. I say, "Good save," but before I can say it I'm down, bouncing instead of rolling. Two ladies stop to help me. I surprise myself by popping up, asking how I looked going down, if it had an entertainment factor.

Photo by Ian Corless
At Temperance, I'm surprised by how little I've suffered. I'm scared to jinx it. I'm simply feeling an absence of bad. Or maybe I've broken through something, learned to accept it. After all, my feet are on fire and my legs are still cramping and sore. Of course there is hurt involved. I've gone 85 miles. I'm enjoying this.

I tell Lisa I can finish within six hours. Somehow, I've been doing math.

That writing project is a full book now and I've written chapters in the night despite focusing on being mindful and present.

The trails through Temperance State Park are not as technical and it's nice to get a rhythm and movement out of the aid station. I'll take advantage of what I can before Carlton Peak. 

A passing marathoner asks my name, touches me and says a prayer for me. Hail Mary full of grace...I hear as she moves forward.

Carlton Peak has been big in my head.

On the climb I tuck in behind a group of Ojibway runners who brought a huge group for the spring runs and have returned with three. I love the video they made about that spring run. Their energy feeds me on the climb and I am grateful. Carlton Peak is as big as it's been in my head. It takes hands, oxygen, persistence.

Once we're at the peak, it's an easy slide of gradual downhill and boardwalks into the aid station.


My crew. So grateful for their support and encouragement. Photo by Ian Corless.

A half mary to go and this next section drags. I enter self-pity territory, but quickly reach for food (my second gel) and release the negativity into the wind. We're too close for that now.

Breathing in. Breathing out. There is here and there is now. There is no other.

Instead of trying to step around mud or looking for rocks and sticks to get me through the nasty parts, I'm splashing right through the middle. That seems to take less energy. 

This step. This breath. That's all that exists.

I'm in and out of Oberg in two minutes. I ask Lisa if she can find me a Coke, a root beer, and a Mountain Dew at the finish.

The parking lot helper tells me and Lisa someone mistakenly circled the Oberg loop. Twice.

I tell a marathoner to get in my back pocket for the climb up Moose Mountain. We work it together with measured progress. Up top, I'm able to run in spurts. The spurts get longer as I recover.

100 miles done. 3.5 to go! Roughly speaking.
There is no better sight than the top of Mystery Mountain.

There is no better sight than the Mystery Mountain Group Campsite. It's truly downhill from here.

The sound of the Poplar River brought tears to my eyes. All these emotions rumble around and tighten the throat.

There is the crossing of the bridge.

A hundred miler and his pacer pass me on the pavement. There's no chance I could swing their pace.

A smell of burgers.



It's happening. I see the faces. This is happening. This is now.

I give Storkamp a big manhug. I really put that shit together, I tell him.


This is happy. Photo by John Storkamp
I'm hugging Lisa. I'm hugging my mom. I'm hugging my dad. I'm hugging Jason Husveth. I stink bad and I'm soaked in sweat.

There is the table. I plant myself there. Lisa removes my shoes for the second time in this run. I'm blown away that she does that. I do the socks. Even seated, the hips and quads argue as I reach forward. Food appears at the table. Someone brings me chili, cookies. Nancy Griffith brings a cold bottle of water. My hand is in Joe Boler's potato chip bag. I'm in a daze. 

I check Lisa's phone to see how TJ did. He rocked it. I knew he would. This makes me even happier. I check on other runners. I'm curious about friends running the fifty. I hope Rich and Shelly are having fun.

I'm so lucky I got to experience this with Lisa. And my parents. So lucky. And thanks Melissa!

I'm with good friends and the people I love. I've been lucky to do this thing I love. It might be a foolish thing, this run. Or it might be selfish, or transformative, life-altering, or all those things. It might be a simple prayer of gratitude. Or a great shout to the universe to remind us of our aliveness, our connection to whatever there is. Maybe too it's that reminder of how small we are, and yet how much our smallness counts in the big scheme. It's our dance around a nighttime fire. It's our community, our family. No matter, this weekend, this run, with these people, was right where I was supposed to be, and it felt good and it felt right. 

In the end, there is gratitude. So much gratitude.