May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
— Edward Abbey
Some time ago, it seems like years now, I decided I wanted to move beyond the road marathon and push my body to do something different, something more difficult. So, I threw my name into the lottery for the Superior 50K and let fate determine my race destiny. Luckily, I won the lottery- which, as my mom pointed out, means I was able pay money to run outside for 31 miles. And it was worth it.
With a decent base from winter run-commuting, I began my 18-week training plan. After two disappointing and painful marathon finishes (both times hitting the wall around mile 18), I decided to increase my weekly miles while focusing on quality over quantity.
Following Grandma’s Marathon last year, a friend recommended Hanson’s Marathon Method and The New Rules of Marathon & Half Marathon Nutrition by Matt Fitzgerald. I also discovered the Racing Weight Cookbook (still my favorite). After trying a half marathon Hanson plan last fall, I used the advanced marathon plan as a guide with a max week of 70 miles and the longest run at 22 miles. My goal was high mileage spread over 6 days a week while focusing on eating healthy.
Besides a couple weeks of an on/off cold, training went well and I learned a lot. For example, not consuming calories on a 19 mile run is not a great idea.
For my final long run, I biked 20 miles from St. Paul to Afton, camped for the night and then hit the trails with my training partner, Mishka, on Saturday morning. As a side note, while on the run we ran by John Storkamp spending the day clearing trails at Afton. That speaks volumes to the kind of race director, trail runner, and great person he is. Neither of us knew what to expect from the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), but heard it was similar to Afton. That could not be further from the truth.
Starting 13 days before the race, I cut out caffeine and started on a high fat diet: 65% of calories from healthy fats- nuts, avocado, fish, dairy. I was warned that I would feel sluggish, but wasn’t warned about how much I would crave carbs. By the 10th day I was more than ready for the high carb portion. Starting on Wednesday before the race, I switched to 70% calories from carbs. What I huge and immediate difference that made! I felt cautiously optimistic heading into race weekend.
On Friday afternoon, Mike, Mishka, and I headed up to Lutsen. On the way we read some race previews (shoutout to Robyn for her great write ups) and listened to a couple podcasts on fueling for the race. The big takeaway: eat as much as you can when you’re feeling good and salt tabs are your friend, especially if your stomach is upset. Once in Lutsen, we picked up our bibs and listened to Storkamp’s race preview. Back at the hotel we prepped our gear and watched Unbreakable: The Western State’s 100.
The alarm went off at 5 am. Well rested and ready to go, I checked the weather: 54 at start, 73 by noon, and sunny all day. This was a continuation of the trend of rising temperatures every time we checked the weather. Based on this, I decided to go with a racing singlet, shorts, a new pair of American flag socks from my wonderful wife, and a handheld. I planned out my drop bags for each of the aid stations so I would have 200 calories of Tailwind with caffeine and 100 calories of Glukos chews. Because the race was an out-and-back, we would hit aid stations around 7.7, 13, 17.5, and 23. I hoped that even with the hot weather, 18 oz for a max of 7.7 miles would be sufficient. For breakfast I had a cup of coffee (the first caffeine in weeks) and some oatmeal with peanut butter.
Promptly at 7 am, Storkamp counted down and we were off! The race starts up a gravel path and quickly becomes a double-wide path. Mishka and I knew from reading race reports that there is sometimes a backup when the trail narrows to single track, but we decided to start nice and easy and take our chances. Pretty quickly we were at the front of a group of 5–6 people and headed up Mystery Mountain. The group of us took a consistent pace- up Mystery Mountain, down Mystery Mountain, up Moose Mountain and back down. The key was no expectations, feeling what the course was giving us and saving our speed for later in the race. As we neared Oberg Mountain, we picked up several more followers and our group grew to 10 or so. The group was quiet, focused. A couple times Mishka shouted back asking if anyone wanted to pass, but everyone was content taking her lead and following the trail.
Oberg to Sawbill
Pretty quickly, we hit the Oberg aid station. The drop bags were neatly lined up and the volunteers were ready to go! There was a buffet of option: gummy bears, potato chips, salt and potatoes, cookies, salt tablets, gels, everything you could want. We also ran into Mike, for the second time. He was ready to get us whatever we needed, which was very much appreciated. I grabbed my first drop bag, loaded up with Tailwind and chews, and we were back on the trail.
The first section of the race is difficult because of the climbs and the downhills, the second section is difficult because the course is hilly, but runable. This portion of the race is a bit of a blur. I was feeling great but it seemed to take longer to run the 5.5 to Sawbill than to run the first 7.7. One fun part of this stretch was seeing the lead runners on their way from Carlton back toward the finish. The speed and agility of these runners was inspiring.
Along this stretch we got a chance to chat with some fellow runners and learn about their experiences on the course. We could all tell it was going to be a hot one.
Sawbill to Sawbill
As we hit the Sawbill aid station, we were already feeling like experienced trail runners. Get in, get water, grab some food, get out. Once again, the volunteers were phenomenal.
As we left the aid station the number of runners returning from Carlton began to increase. They offered positive insights, “Just a littler further to Carlton!” and “Keep it up, you’re doing a great job!” After crossing a side-road, we started the climb up Carlton.
It began with wooden boards and quickly transitioned into steep stones. Most of this climb was too steep to run, which is both a blessing and a challenge.
As we neared the peak, we could hear the hollering of runners at the turnaround. HALFWAY in under 3 hours! The view was spectacular. We also ran into Mike again who provided us with sunscreen and took a picture for us.
On the way back down, things started to warm up. Luckily, we were both feeling good and the path down was not nearly as treacherous as other downhills on the course.
Sawbill to Oberg 2: Electric Boogaloo
Back at the Sawbill aid station, the heat really started to rise. At this point I’d been able to down around 300 calories an hour, but the gut rot was starting. Thankfully, I had learned about the power of salt to calm the stomach. I grabbed a couple salt tablets and felt better very quickly! There was a volunteer with a portable shower filled with ice cold water. Amazing.
As we left Sawbill, we reminded ourselves that it was only 5.5 to Oberg and only 7.7 from there to the finish. Shortly after leaving the aid station, Mike caught up with us and Mishka decided to change shoes, so I went off on my own.
Running alone, I decided to pick up the pace a bit. At this point in the race, the runners were all very spread out, so I was largely alone for the next 5.5 miles. This section felt longer and hotter than any other section I had encountered. There is some contention about the ultimate high temperature that day (weather.com says 73, but others have heard as high as 80). Either way, this stretch was tough. I ran out of water a ways away from Oberg. My singular focus was getting to the next aid station. The other difficulty along this stretch is the pounding downhills really start to wear on you. My legs were beat up, my water was empty, and I needed a pick-me-up.
Oberg to Finish- ALMOST THERE!
Luckily, right when I needed it, Oberg was there with the same amazing volunteers. As I jogged in, an unnamed hero, I’ll call him Ice Towel Man, came toward me and put a cold towel on my neck. Next thing I know, there is a lady filling my water bottle with ice cold water and a handful of volunteers asking me what I need. A big shout to Heidi and Mike who were there to grab my gear and anything else I could want. After not seeing another human for what felt like hours, it was the lift I needed. I took some more salt, ate some chips and potatoes, and swallowed some ginger ale. Ice Towel Man wrung out the towel and splashed me with some cold water. It felt amazing. At this point, I naively decided I was on pace to try and get under 6 hours. 1:20 to push through a tough 7.5 miles, which included a climb up Moose Mountain.
Off I went back into the woods feeling energized, hydrated, and refreshed. The downhill to Rollins Creek was tough. Lots of roots, lots of rocks. There were several times through this section that I could hear other runners yelling expletives (and I was guilty of one or two) as they fell or narrowly avoided a tumble.
After the downhill, it was time for the moment I’d been waiting for- MOOSE MOUNTAIN. A climb of ~500 ft. The cities do not have hills anywhere near as steep as Moose Mountain, but I’d spent a good amount of time doing hill repeats and felt relatively strong for 23 miles into the race. I’d been passing other runners fairly consistently and came up behind two runners at the base of Moose Mountain. As we looked up and surveyed the mountain, I said to them, “I heard this was a hilly course” and later said “at least it’s a change from all the downhill.” Neither seemed to think it was funny and instead moved to the side encouraging me to pass them. After climbing for a good amount of time, I thought I was almost to the top. I had forgotten the stairs. As I turned the side of the mountain, I looked up and it just continued on and on and on…
At some point, I made it to the top of Moose Mountain, down and back up Mystery Mountain and was on the home stretch with about a half hour to get under 6:00. I kept pounding the Tailwind and Glukos which both tasted terrible by this point, but tasted better if I mixed them in my mouth. The things you learn alone, in the middle of a trail race.
I decided at this point to flip the switch and push it for at least the next half hour. Worst case: I was further from the finish than I thought. Best case: I’d finish around the 6 hour mark. As I pushed through this section of switchbacks and rolling hills, I recognized how lucky I was to be in this moment- out on the trail, pushing my body, and having the opportunity to be in nature, doing what I love. After the struggles earlier in the race, this was pure bliss.
The last section of the race was deceptively long. I could see the resort, I could hear the finish at times, but I still wasn’t there. Back and forth. Back and forth. This section reminded me of the finish at Grandma’s, so close, yet so far. The best part of this final section was the 25K racers. They were excited to see someone running and were very supportive. The 6 hour mark came and went, but I was able to keep pushing. I could taste the finish.
After running for over 6 hours, I crossed the Poplar River, and was on the gravel. My friend Bri had mentioned that the sight of the red ski lift would be one of the greatest moments in the race. That was absolutely true. As I came around toward the finish I saw Michael who had finished the 50K, Mike, and Carly all cheering like crazy. And like that, it was over. 6:10.55.
For a long-distance runner, the end of the race is when you pause for rest before
beginning a long and patient preparation for the next race and that sense of rebirth it will bring.
— The Longest Race
After months of training, it was over. A wonderful blur and some tight muscles were the only reminders of an amazing adventure. I’d read a lot about distance trail running, but you can’t understand the emotions of a long trail race until you experience them. I can’t wait to do it again.