Saturday, September 23, 2017

Superior 100

                                                          Superior 100   

Ah Superior 100... also known as Superior Sawtooth 100, and I fondly refer to as "Superior 103.3" considering we runners do have an extra 3.3 painful miles to earn the coveted 100 mile buckle, and let's be honest, those 3.3 miles are rough and deserve some recognition ;). Let's go back a bit to one of the reasons I chose to start running 100s in the first place though: the animal belt buckles! Not to say that the distance and spiritual experience itself was not desirable of course, but I am a sucker for an item in which I can use to draw on the memories created during such an event every time I look at it. Western States sports my beloved mt. lion so after failing to get into Western to attempt earning the mt. lion, I went to my runner up buckle, the wolf. Now, not to say the wolf is secondary to the lion by any means, I just happen to really like big cats. I promise that I did learn the history of both races, and indulged in more blogs for both races than I can remember. They are both historic 100 mile adventures, each very different but equally special. 

So back to the wolf. I entered the lottery for Superior and I was selected! Ah! Now I've gone and done it. See, the lottery is so exciting, maybe a little bit like the money kind of lottery. You are so pleased to have gotten up the nerve to enter, and then you are not really expecting to get much farther than that. And then you do. I had a bit of panic and then a pretty intense smile set in after I realized what had just gone down. I was going for the WOLF! And I was probably going to die trying. But hey, I had time to train. I would train hard and things would be ok. After finishing Kettle 100 and pushing through an injury that was more painful than I like to reminisce about (see previous blogs for more details if you are interested in listening to me whine for a while), I decided I needed to run at least one other 100 mile race to prove to myself that I could do the distance without succumbing to a severe injury in the process, and now Superior was going to be that race. (Planning below)

If you've read my previous blogs, you know that I had a pretty traumatic and challenging experience at World's End 100K PA in June. That race mentally cut me down to the core of my confidence as a runner, and was also such an incredible experience too. Coming into Superior I was dealing with a lot of mental and corresponding physical doubt because of my first DNF at World's End.  I tried to back out of Superior in conversation a few times leading up to it and my friends, Scott, Kim, and Brad would not hear of it. Thank you for that. We runners need each other, we need to push and to support and to repeat this order. We need to pay forward that which is given to us... so other runners should be wary of me... fair warning. I explained my concerns in that I felt I was not ready to give Superior the effort that I felt it deserved.  Scott said he understood but hoped to see me at the start and to give it what I had. After all, he paced me for the last awful 38 miles at Kettle 100, so hearing his encouragement to start the race was pretty vital for me. Training had not been good, but I had managed a few key runs I felt would help me which included an overnight "sunset to sunrise" run hosted by my friend Brad out at Kettle Moraine State Park in WI helping with the night time running and sleep deprivation a 100 will throw at you, and "Hilloopy" with the Runjunkee crew that helped with many 5k speed loops on a cross country course, followed by Mike Farrington's awesomely difficult "Frootloops" event the next day at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake. I also had many solo runs, which are really not my favorite because I love the company of others during a long run. It feels much harder to me when I run solo, and I'd really been missing the company of my sister who had decided to take a break from ultras and my running partner Loki, my pup, since I won't run him in warm weather due to his heavy coat. Thank God Fall is approaching and we can be running comrades again! I ran Marquette 50K with Kim and Brad in August and I couldn't have asked for a better course to help prepare me for what Superior was about to offer. 
(<-road trip to Minnesota!) Let's just jump into the race weekend because I can already tell this blog post is going to be more like a book. I'm nervous as hell for weeks, probably even months up to the race and I can't even remember so that should tell you something. I feel more nervous leading into this race than I've ever felt prior to another race, period. I'm not eating or sleeping well, I started having dreams about the race. I've never had that happen before. For good reason though,  as each race report I read, every chart I look at describes just how intense this race is! 21,000 ft of elevation gain, and a matching 21,000 ft of loss. And I had also heard reports of ground hornets and black bears which are often sighted in Northern MN. I packed my bags and included Benadryl for the bees and pepper spray for the bears. Then I decide to leave the pepper spray at home... let's be honest, a bear is not going to care about my pepper spray. I studied Minnesota wildlife and contemplated buying bear spray. It's too heavy to carry anyways, and I'd probably just end up agitating one if it were to attack and make everything worse. No one on any race report mentions bears, nor does the Superior website. My overactive mind is becoming a nuisance. I'll take my chances with the bears I guess. 

I found a really awesome little cabin to rent in Little Marais MN, about 2 miles from the Rt. 6 aid station where I could pick up my first pacer. My thought was that this place would be a perfect location for my team's headquarters being a half hour from the start and finish lines respectively. This was my first attempt at organizing a "crew" period, so I used what planning seemed sensible. The cabin actually worked out perfectly for my little crew of two pacers, my friends Kim and Stormy and my husband (and driver) Tim. I'd asked Stormy to join me for the overnight section, miles 43-72 and Kim to jump in from 72 through the finish.  

We arrived in MN around 5:00 with enough time to meet some fellow runner friends for dinner before heading to packet pick-up and the pre-race meeting. Never having stepped foot on the Superior Hiking Trail I decided to buy a Bean/Bear Lake picture (poster pictured left with a couple of my local running friends Andrew and Brad) offered at packet-pickup since what I had read on blogs determined this was quite the iconic spot.  I also had my first pre-race 100 mile portrait (above) courtesy of Ian Corless.  I have to say, there's something pretty cool about the pre-race portrait. I wasn't offered one at my first 100 mile race, Kettle 100, so the opportunity to have one taken was special to me, and Ian is so great at capturing the pre-race feels. Another special reason I had to select Superior over any other 100 is that it is held in Minnesota. This is the land of my heritage! I grew up playing at my Grandparent's Minnesota farm for a week every year during my childhood and teenage years. My Grandfather farmed Minnesota soil for much of his life. Minnesota runs in my blood! My first marathon was the Twin Cities Marathon, so it only seemed fitting that I run an iconic, beautiful 100 mile (well, 103.3) race in Minnesota too. To top that off, my husband's heritage runs deep in Minnesota soil too, so it just felt good to be there and remember family.

Packet pickup was really neat, yet intimidating. I was surrounded by legends in the ultra running community and I felt very small. I had contemplated being surrounded by these people for a long time, and when in the moment with these amazing runners I felt a mix of awe and intense inferiority. I didn't belong here, but I wanted to. I listened to the pre-race meeting and had some flash back fears about bees after race director John Storkamp warns runners of the potential impending stinging doom. No word about the bears. They wait undetected, I'm certain. ;)

We drive to the cabin in Little Marais after the pre-race meeting. We spend some time drinking wine and watching the moon and stars before bed.  It's hard to sleep with such beauty outside your doorstep, but I know I'll need the rest. I find out later that after our 10:30 bedtime someone captures photos of the northern lights at 11:30! I had four race priorities which I later re-prioritized after some deep thought. 1.Not dying 2. Finishing 3. Hearing wolves 4. Viewing the northern lights. I'm pretty happy to say that I accomplished #1 and #2.. but 3&4 are for another journey.

Sleep treated me the way it had been, without mercy. I tossed and turned and finally woke to my alarm with a start at 5:45. Race start was at 8, which is really pretty nice considering most ultras start at the crack of dawn in the dark. I was really looking forward to starting this run in the daylight!  I do my usual pre-race routines including coating my feet in Trail Toes, my favorite anti-chafing/blister prevention product, and divided a pack of Two Toms blister powder between my Drymax socks. Shout out to my girl Jen for supplying me with the peppermint lip balm (picture upper right, which she sells on Etsy if you want some too!) that I do not ever run without these days. This stuff is seriously like liquid gold for a runner.. so refreshing and all natural! I think I had a good dose of Tailwind mixed in my pack, and pretty much anything I could want for the first 30 miles. None of which I used. 

Tim, Kim, and Stormy are a bit sleepy, (Tim, Kim, Kelli (Brad's wife) and Stormy ->) but troopers nonetheless and head out to see me off for the day. We get to the starting line in plenty of time and I'm surprised at the plethora of people milling about, it's crowded! Lots of runners and their supporters I guess. I find Scott and Brad who I am really hoping are all feeling about the same during the race and we will be able to stick together. But every race is different for every runner, and especially in the case of 100 miles, so it may or may not happen and I'm ready to submit to whatever the race becomes for me. It's nice to find my friends though and at least start the race with them. Nerves are on edge to the extreme and I can feel the tension everywhere. Race director John Storkamp announces a few things and counts down to 1, off we go! The first 4ish miles are on a paved path and honestly a really nice way to warm up before hitting the roots, rocks, hills, and mud I know is coming. I find a nice easy pace to settle into and stick with Scott and Brad. I'm trying to calm my
mind and the beauty of the north country surrounding me is starting to work its magic as we cross a covered bridge and I hear the roar of a waterfall under my feet making its way towards Lake Superior. I remember hitting the single track path of the Superior Hiking Trail and having some bottle necking occur with quite a few runners lined up, but it's quite muddy and I'm actually ok with the slower pace so I can watch my feet and avoid sliding or slipping on the rocks and roots as I adapt to the rhythm of  the trail and focus on each moment as it comes at me. A sense of peace washes over me as I follow along in back of Brad and Scott. My body moves along with the curves of the trail, happily hopping over roots and climbing one hill after another.

 The training run dread is gone from my system, I think I'm finally back to feeling like myself again after months of just dreading running, a feeling I just can't explain. I'm thanking God and nature for this perfect timing of my burnout coming to an end.

My crew met me at mile 25, Sliver Bay, where I changed socks and re-applied Trail Toes and blister powder. Leading up to that point I had experienced some beautiful climbs with incredible views of Lake Superior, lots of mud which soaked my shoes and socks, a river crossing, and a really deep water section which was apparently the result of a beaver's shenanigans. (PC Cole Payton upper right). After the beaver section, we were all peacefully proceeding down the trail and starting to climb another steep section when Scott, who was in front of Brad, who was in front of me, yells "Bees, RUN!" and takes off at high speed up the hill we were until that point, power hiking. Brad, not used the normally placid Scott raising his voice in such a manner, froze for a minute while the bees started to attack and then sprinted up the hill after Scott. I was worried for a brief second that he may be having an allergic reaction, but it was just the shock of Scott's temperament, thankfully.. and rightfully so.  I was the lucky one of the three of us and only sustained one (PC credit above left to Fresh Tracks Media) sting, which is still itchy as I write this two weeks later!

The next access point for my crew was at county rd 6, where I would grab some overnight gear and pick up Stormy. (PC credit right to Cole Payton) I don't remember a lot about the next couple sections, they were hard and muddy. I do remember the trail leading into county rd 6, so high above the aid station. It was getting quite dark on the trails at this point and I could tell only a very small dirt trail separated me from the drop off cliff to my right. After making it down to highway 6, I looked up and saw all the tiny flickers of head lamps high above on the trail I had just traversed. It actually looked pretty neat from the
bottom of the trail! I see Tim, Kim, and Stormy. I change my socks again and re-apply the Trail Toes and blister powder, throw on a long sleeved shirt and a water proof short sleeved rain jacket to get me through the cold night. I was not anticipating how cold it was going to get, but I under dressed during this section for sure. Thankfully Laura (Scott's Fiance) was at one of the next aid stations and gave me a pair of gloves which were amazing! 

I forgot to mention earlier that during the race eating was problematic for me. I had a system that has worked in the past when this occurs.. gels. I hate gels, but for some reason my body can process them and they do give me the calories that I need when nothing else will go down if I'm consistent with them. I faithfully grabbed a handful of gels at every aid station and every 30-45 minutes would open a gel and start consuming it, even if it took 30 minutes to get down I made it happen bit by bit. I knew the one thing that could stop me in my tracks and potentially end my race was not keeping on top of my nutrition. I was burning probably more than 100 calories a mile during the night to compensate for the cold and climbs, so a 100 calorie gel was breaking even if I were lucky and could keep up the schedule for the rest of the race.  I'd never relied on gels to get me through even an entire 50 miler, but during a 100 you gotta roll with what is working for as long as it gels it was!  

We had a pretty awesome overnight group.. and they were a key component to my happiness during this section. Stormy, my pacer, Scott and Marit (pacer) Brad and Greg (pacer, PC to Greg upper right). We climbed so many things, conquered mud pits, teetered on rocks and slippery edges, drank coffee and soup around dancing fires a couple times, and went through some highs and lows together that ultras will throw at you. I managed to eat a cheese quesadilla at one aid station.. it was not tasty, but it would have been amazing I am sure if not for my silly stomach. Thankfully it did go down though and stayed there. A huge THANK YOU to these amazing volunteers (photo credit to Amy Boardmoor) for working hard to to help us runners indulge in our dreams. 

As dawn approached I felt some life returning. Sunrises and sunsets are among my favorite things, so the energy of the sun coming up and sparkling through the trees was just amazing for me. Brad must be feeling it too, because he and Greg take off knowing the Sugarloaf aid station, mile 72 something is coming up in a few short miles. This is where I drop Stormy off with Tim and pick up Kim for the next part of the journey. I pick up the pace too and notice how beautiful the forest we are running through looks as the sunlight starts to light it up. I wonder how much of this beauty I've missed in the darkness we trudged through over the night. Guess I'll need to be faster next time... motivation is key! ;) I wanted to take a picture of this section to Sugarloaf but I was just too tired to muster up the motivation.

Sugarloaf aid station arrives. I hit the bathroom, change socks one last time, and exchange Stormy for Kim.  Kim is really full of happiness and energy... and I am not. I feel bad. She is so excited to be on the trail finally and I'm having a moment of 30 plus miles left... but she keeps her good spirits and we start down the trail. My new socks felt so great! AND then immediately we hit mud and water. Mud has been the staple factor in this race so far, so I don't know what else I was expecting to happen. It was just not my favorite thing at this point to get my sore feet wet again after they were finally feeling dry and better. I avoided the mud and water for a few feet, and then realized the energy I was spending to do so was needed for the looming miles and climbs ahead. Besides that, there was really not a way to avoid it since the mud was everywhere and I decided to just plow on through it and save what energy I could.    

I didn't take pictures of my muddy feet and shoes, or the muddy trails that followed, but know that they were the real deal. And if you want proof, just visit and take a peek at the amazing pictures these awesome race photographers captured! As we continued on down the trail Kim proceeded to thank every person we passed for "sharing the trail with us today", she's just really sweet like that. She also let a few of them know I was well on my way to finishing a 100 mile race... I have no doubt I looked the part at that point, and I don't think any of them had a desire to try it out for themselves next year! It was hard not crack a smile at her effort to keep me talking though, but my tired spirit was fighting all this positivity as hard as it could. She had her work cut out for her. My brain was in survival mode and not processing conversation very well. Everything hurt to some extent, but especially my muddy and probably blistered feet, as each step began to feel like a blow to the front of my foot pads. I was now onto phase "getting it done". I guess I failed to study the elevation chart and map closely enough, or had forgotten about one of the steepest climbs Carlton Peak, which now hit my tired body like a freight train. That climb was rough! I remember starting to feel really sorry for myself climbing up this peak, and then getting really aggravated as the severity of the grade just kept on going and eventually led to a bit of bouldering. At this point in the race (around mile 90) it just seemed mean at the time that we had to climb this monster. But now that I look back, it was a pretty awesome climb to remember.  

Oberg mountain aid station was next, and I was REALLY looking forward to this one at mile 96.2. This is the last aid station and the last check mark in my mind that I had to get through. The end was near! Just 7.1 miles and two more pesky mountains to climb... Moose and Mystery. It was during this section, the latter stages of it and somewhere around the 100 mile mark we were completely alone and could not even hear a runner behind or in front of us. My trusty pacer Kim, then, makes a comment that just did not sound right to my frazzled ultra brain. She said she was "going to just talk really loud for a while". I of course questioned this, and would not let the subject go until she told me she was certain she had heard a bear growl. Great. I made it 100 miles, and now a bear is going to make an appearance. Following a bit of panic, I immediately started to question why the bear had not already either charged at us, or away from us? Then I heard other runners behind if there is a bear, we are no longer the targets. :D. 

We make our way out of that quiet bear forest and I know we are getting close. I hear the river I've read about on so many blogs, the one that they say welcomes you to the finish line. Of course it is not as close to the finish line as I had hoped, and we continue through a field with a few people who told us we were "almost there" (PC Fresh Tracks Media->). At this point I have no idea how long I've been moving since I haven't been using a watch to track miles and time. But I do know the sun is still out, and I had originally expected IF I were to finish, to finish in the dark. This is a very encouraging thought, and we start running the last portion of the course to the finish line. 

I crossed the finish line in 34:39:36, with the sun still shining behind me (PC to Mike Wheeler->). I am met by my dream team Tim, Kim, and Stormy. Also by Brad and Scott's crew members Marit and Kelli. I'm given my wooden wolf medal and my buckle and then waited my turn to thank race director extraordinaire John Storkamp for all the intense effort he puts into this race to make it possible for the runners to enjoy so much. He's just as nice as I've heard too, but then again, he's from Minnesota... so I'm not surprised. :) The equally nice guy (probably also from Minnesota, and I feel bad but I don't know his name) who handed me my finisher awards tells me I need to get a blanket or something warm on quickly. I'm still covered in sweat from my attempt to get to that finish line so this doesn't sound like an appealing choice to me. Then I look down and also see that I'm also covered in goose bumps... hmmm... he may be right. I let Kelli and Kim throw a blanket on me and feel bad as I know how sweaty I still am. Note to self for next year's post race items: blanket. I get to a chair and then decide removing my shoes is the best "next step" as I wanted to be close to the finish line to see Scott and Brad cross. Kim helps me get my shoes off and into a long sleeved shirt. Kelli give me one of Brad's coats to wear for a bit because another important item I had neglected to have with was my coat. I swear I had everything I could possibly need for this race and then 10 times that, and now here I am finding myself borrowing things from others. Thank goodness they are such awesome people. At this point I'm having some nice little bouts of chills and shaking pretty severely and Marit gives me the most amazing chili I've ever tasted (thank you again!). I'm now concerned about my lifetime finishers hoodie though.. I've thought a lot about this hoodie
and am so excited to see it. I'm one of them now! My feet hurt really badly though, so Tim offers to go and get it, and Marit captures the hoodie moment perfectly for me. 

Scott comes through the finish line and we move to the fire to stay warm while waiting for Brad. I have to move my chair because someone comes through carrying a runner in their arms to the emergency tent or vehicle they have somewhere. I feel thankful that was not me this year and hope the poor runner is ok. Brad makes it to the finish line and is ready to go home. So with happy and tired hearts we all head out to our respective sleeping habitats for the night. We get back to the cabin and look up at the stars. You can clearly see thousands, and the milky way! I'm still disappointed we didn't see the northern lights.. but I have nothing to complain about.  I really wanted to stay awake to drink some wine, watch the stars, and listen to the lake while hanging out with my dream team, but staying up for 40 hours was taking its toll and sleep came quickly.

I woke up kind of early the next morning. I guess my body just did not want to sleep any longer. So I hobbled out to the kitchen and made coffee. Kim was using the roll out bed and had woken up, so we chatted a bit and watched the sunrise through the giant picture window facing Lake Superior. What a crazy time this weekend has been! A huge thank you again, to my dream team, Tim, Kim, and Stormy.
Thank you for sacrificing your time and energy to help me along this journey. I will never forget it. 

Superior is a very special race with a lot of amazing components. Thank you to the organizers and volunteers who spend countless hours to make it what it is. And thanks to the runners who gave and give me motivation to keep challenging myself!  I'll be back in one way or another I have no doubt. Until then, I'll be getting ready to tackle the winter trails with the guy below the wolf. :)



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