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For my second hundred mile experience and my focus race of 2011, I decided to do the Superior Sawtooth 100. I’ve been wanting to do this race for the last two years. Ever since I saw the write up on it in Ultrarunning magazine. It was a short write up but the finishing times told the story that the few short paragraphs didn’t.
Two years and months upon months of hard training later I found myself heading up to Two Harbors, MN with nothing but good weather in the forecast for the weekend. This isn’t some awful foreshadowing, the weather really was beautiful. It was sunny and the skies were clear. It got perhaps a little warm at times on the first day, and the second, reaching about mid 80’s, but at least it wasn’t humid.
At the pre race briefing all the runners were introduced to the new race director John Storkamp. You know, the guy that won Arrowhead 135 and killed it at JFK 50 in 2010. He sheepishly told us that he did a little running too. He continued to give us the low down on the course markings, aid stations, all the usual stuff. Oh yeah, and then he said that in moving one of the aid stations closer to the road it might have added on some distance. Instead of 102 miles, the race is now somewhere around 103.5, or something. No one in the room batted an eyelash with the announcement; this was truly a group of hardy individuals. After the meeting I picked up my race packet and bib number and noticed that I had been seeded at the 4th female. That’s a lot of pressure. I dropped off my drop bags and Ben and I headed back to our hotel for a good nights sleep.
I was so nervous the morning of the race, I could barely eat. I got dressed in no time at all since I was wearing the same running outfit that I’ve been running in just about all summer. We hopped in the car and got to the race start super early. The only people there earlier were some volunteers and Kevin Grabowski, who was just as anxious as I was apparently. I paced a little 5 foot square area and chatted nervously with other runners as they arrived. Obligatory pictures were taken. I took pictures with my good friend Adam Schwartz-Lowe, who was seeded with the number 1 bib, and then some with Jake Milligan. I had jokingly told Jake that one of my goals for the race was to beat him. I was almost certain that it wouldn’t happen because Jake is a great runner, and getting better with each race he does. As a matter of fact, I had made a few different goals for the race and I ended up making none of them other than finishing. It was actually in the first 5 miles while talking to second place woman Clare that I decided to completely revamp my goals and we both agreed that Helen Lavin was a goddess for setting the course record.
Five miles into the race the trail was pretty easy and mostly runnable still. All the top women were grouped up together and we pretty much stayed that way until about half way in the race. I loved talking to all the women that were running. I’m in such awe of them. I’m a newbie and a know nothing compared to these women. All of the women that finished ahead of me had an amazing list of ultra finishes to their names. I think talking to all the amazing women was one of the main highlights of the race for me. It’s a great thing that when you talk to someone at a race it takes you outside yourself for a little while, which can be a huge reprieve from being so wrapped up in what is going on with your body and inside your head. Also, they become a part of YOUR race and you become a part of theirs. It’s neat.
Anyway, getting to the first aid station it was just starting to get hot and I had already drunk the water in both of my handhelds. After running down almost a mile long hill to get to the aid station I stood there and slammed down two cups of water, grabbed a banana and a pb&j quarter, while the lovely volunteers refilled my bottles. After a quick shoe retie, I was back up the hill and on my way again. I wore Hoka mafates for this race and the one thing that I regret about wearing them is that it seems to me that I can never get them tight enough. On technical trails my feet tend to slide around in them and already at 9 miles I was starting to get hot spots. I ignored them mostly and trudged on in the growing heat and growing technicality of the trails to the next aid station.
I ran most of this next ten mile section with a guy named Don from the Milwaukee area. Already right out of the first aid station I wanted to drain both of my bottles but I made myself ration out sips every 5 minutes or so. I don’t think Don did the same thing. Towards the end of the section he started talking about how he was dreaming about drinking simultaneously a diet coke, ice tea, and ice water. I wanted to scream and tell him to be quiet. Thinking about water was driving me mad. When I made it to the aid station and saw Ben, my boyfriend, sole crew member, and pacer, waiting for me I screamed to him to go get my hydration pack. He handed me full water bottles, which I quickly took the tops off of and drank both almost before he could even run back to the car and get my pack. I refilled both of my bottles, grabbed some food and put on my pack with a very full water bladder and went on my way.
The next section was a short one, only 4 miles to the next aid station. It was relatively easy too. I had full bottles and a full hydration pack so I spent the time running easy, talking to other runners, and getting caught up on hydration. I had been afraid in the last section that my race was doomed because I got in such hydration debt already. All was well now. I didn’t care how hot it got; as long as I had plenty to drink I was going to be ok.
Because the race is a point to point Ben had to go check into our hotel at the end of the race and drop off all of our stuff so that when we finished there would be clean clothes to change into at least. That meant that I wasn’t going to have him there to help me at the next aid station, Silver Bay, at mile 24. I had planned ahead and I had a drop bag with gu’s, a headlamp, and a bottle of ginger drink waiting for me. In 5 miles I had managed to drink both 20oz handhelds and most of my 70oz bladder. I got into the aid station and was immediately met by volunteers asking me if I needed anything. I handed them my bottles and pack to be refilled and got all my supplies from my drop bag. The volunteers at this race really were top notch. You can never really know how great having knowledgeable and invested volunteers is until you go to a race where that element is lacking. They were awesome, they refilled bottles, knew how to refill my Nathan pack without instruction, and emptied out the gross used gu packets. That, to me, is going beyond the call of duty. No one wants to touch sticky used gu packets.
The next ten mile section to Tettagouche aid station was where it really started to get hard. The trail began to climb steadily up to the top of a ridge overlooking Bear Lake. The view was spectacular. The water below looked so cool and inviting, if it weren’t for the 200ft drop off from the ridge to the lake below, I would’ve loved to take a dip. The going was getting a little rough in the heat of the day and with all the technical climbing and descending the section felt like it was taking forever. I was wearing just a regular watch and I had no way of knowing how fast I was going or how far I had to go to the aid station. I don’t listen to music during races but I always have one song that pops into my head and sticks with me the entire race. The song of the day was Andrew Birds ‘Fitz and Dizzyspells’. I’m lucky it was that song. It’s got some great whistling parts in it, so that when I was feeling down I whistled to myself and sang the chorus which is simply “Soldier on, Soldier on” good stuff.
At one point I passed a group of hikers on the trail going the opposite direction and asked them how far it was to the next aid station. They said about one to two miles away, which made me happy because I was getting really hungry. For most of the day I had been taking in only gu’s and not eating very much real food. My stomach was grumbling from the outrage of having nothing real to eat. I picked up the pace a little bit until I hit what everyone lovingly calls ‘the drainpipe’. I stood at the top for a couple seconds trying to decide how to best make my way down. After a couple step/slides standing up I decided to lower my center of gravity. There really is no way to get down that thing without sliding down on your ass. I really couldn’t believe that the hikers that I had passed a couple minutes before had absolutely no words of warning for me. Oh well, I made it down to the bottom unscathed and into the aid station. Already there were some casualties of the race lying around looking dazed. I was right there with them. I grabbed some food and started stuffing it in my mouth, then I grabbed more and put it in the pockets of my pack. It was at this point that I started squirreling away food. At every aid station the volunteers would press me to eat more food but my stomach wasn’t really up to it most of the time. I would take it anyway and put it in my pack for later. I know I looked silly trotting along with a whole banana sticking out of the back of my pack, but I’m glad I had it there.
It was getting late in the day now, around 4:30pm or so. I knew that around 6pm the sun would start setting and I would lose the light fast. I had my good headlamp that a fellow runner had let me borrow for the race waiting for me 9 miles away at County Rd 6 and I wanted to get there before it got really dark. I tried to go as fast as I could but all the climbing, descending, and watching for giant roots and never ending rocks was finally taking its toll on me. My energy was coming and going. I upped my frequency of taking gu’s, even though now whenever I took one I had to psych myself up so I wouldn’t gag. I ate all the food I had stashed on me and just when I thought I was completely dry I dug underneath a pocket full of used gu packets and found a sticky lump of something. I grasped on to it, pulled out a slimy gu coated bit of salted nut roll and popped that baby in my mouth. I don’t think a gourmet chef could have made anything better to eat at that point in my opinion. It started getting cooler out and the trail was a bit more runnable now. The trail led up to the top of a ridge and I saw a pretty amazing sunset. The trail ran along the top for a bit and then suddenly there was a clearing and I could see the aid station down on the road below. Awesome, just another 300 ft descent straight down the side of the ridge and I would be there. I started down and suddenly one foot slid forward and the other slid back until I was down on the ground in a splits type move with my left foot twisted underneath me. I paused for a second waiting for the searing pain of a twisted ankle. When none came I got up, dusted off my dirt encrusted bottles and continued down the hill, a little more cautiously now. The trail dumped off onto the road and I broke into a run to the aid station, as if to say “yeah, I’ve been running like this the whole time, sure.”
I was glad to get to County Rd 6, the 43 mile point just as the sun was going down. I could have technically picked up my pacer here since it was after 6:30pm but I didn’t think that I could do that to Ben. It was already enough that he was going to pace me for the full 50 miles. I love him too much to subject him to an extra eight miles on that trail. Instead I got restocked, flicked on my headlamp and headed back onto the trail. After climbing up onto another ridge I came across what could only be bear scat. It looked pretty fresh and right then I heard something large crash through the woods to my right. I’m glad I was still running at this point, but I did pick it up a bit just to be sure I put some distance between me and whatever the large thing was. This whole section was delightfully easy. It still had plenty of hills, but the footing was so much better. I actually ran just about the whole 8 miles. It was great.
I was so excited to pick up Ben at the Finland aid station, mile 50. I said to him “Are you ready to stumble” in a wrestler announcer voice. I’d been thinking about that line for the last 3 hours. I’m glad I got to use it. I also wanted him to see just how horrific the trail was. I told him that it was a lot like the trail at Mt Cheaha 50k only it was all Blue Hell, which is particularly ironic considering the Superior Hiking Trail is marked with blue blazes just like the Pinhoti trail. More ironic was that the next section was pretty mild. We trotted along talking and slowed to a walk where the trail got particularly difficult but despite it being dark we were moving pretty well. The near full moon and clear skies helped a lot here. We made it to Sonju Lake aid station and were told to look up by the volunteers. I hadn’t really looked up for hours probably. I’d been concentrating so hard on the trail in front of me. I looked up and saw the northern lights flashing dull green across the tops of the trees in the distance. What an amazing thing to see.
Through the night the going got a bit more difficult with some really challenging climbs and descents. I’m talking grab onto trees to stop you from pitching forward on the descents and wishing there were fixed ropes on the climbs. I think we slowed to somewhere around 20 minute miles. We were going so slow. I was getting frustrated at how long it was taking. Despite being impatient I forced myself to focus on solely getting to the next aid station. Calculating how long until I took my next gu also took a lot of mental energy so there wasn’t much time to think about too much else. When the negative thoughts did start creeping in I went back to my mantra “This isn’t hard, this just is”. It’s something Ben told me the sherpas of an Everest trip said when they had to carry their climbers down the mountain in a huge storm. What an attitude to have, right?
Before the race I had made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t complain to anyone. I’ve never used a pacer before in a race and I didn’t want to annoy my lovely boyfriend with a ton of complaining. Besides that, this is something I CHOSE to do. No one is forcing me, and I can quit at any time, so why complain? At this point the sky was beginning to lighten with early morning sunlight and we were getting pretty close to the Sugarloaf aid station where we had a drop bag. My blisters were getting pretty painful, every step hurt. I simply told Ben that at the next aid station I would need him to help me change my socks because I didn’t want to see how bad my blisters were. We finally got to the aid station and tears started welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t help it, I was so glad to see people, to know that I was making progress, that I had made it to one more aid station.
I stared blankly at the table of food for a bit before being cajoled by an aid station volunteer to take a breakfast bar that she had made. I’m glad I did too, because it was the best thing I had to eat all day. For the first time during the race I sat in a chair and waited for Ben to get everything together and change my socks. I felt a little better once I had on different socks. In hindsight I probably should have done something about my blisters right then. Either pop them or put some tape over them, something. At that point I didn’t think anything could make them feel better so I decided to suck it up and keep going.
When we were all done at the Aid station Ben sent me off ahead and said that he still had to grab some stuff out of the drop bag for him but that he would catch up to me. I walked out of the aid station feeling a little bit better but still in death march mode. A few minutes later who of all people should come trotting past me, but Jake. He looked like he was running effortlessly. He passed me and said “good job, see you at the finish.” Just like that. I was stunned. What the hell just happened here? Jake passed me running and looking like he was out for a morning jog. I walked on a little more dejected than before but then I got pissed, at myself. I was not going to let him win so easily. I still had something left to give, I was sure of it. I started walking faster, slamming my feet into the ground. I didn’t care if there were roots or rocks in the way anymore. My feet went down wherever they went down. I ran a bit where I started feeling good and the trail allowed. We were moving now. We made it to the next aid station at 8:30am, only 30 min after the marathon had started. Alright, things were looking better now, at this pace I could finish in 33 or 34 hours. That’s not too bad, it was what I had in me at the moment.
We left the 77mi aid station in hot pursuit of the marathon runners. I had a friend running the marathon and even though I didn’t think I could catch her at this point, it wasn’t completely out of the question. I kept up my fast power hike. I kept getting faster and faster when I suddenly realized the trail had become runnable and why not try and run a bit? I broke into a run and cruised for awhile. Everything hurt, but then I thought about Scott Jurek and his amazing recovery at Badwater. I thought, what if I decided that my legs didn’t hurt anymore? I concentrated on that thought and magically my legs did stop hurting. I went faster and faster. The trail started going downhill, and I leaned into it letting gravity do the work for me. This was fun! I was loving it. I don’t think I had run this fast the entire race so far. I was right in the middle of this awesome surge when I popped out on a road and there was an aid station there. I didn’t quite know what to do. I turned around and I didn’t see Ben behind me, but I didn’t want to stop or even really talk to the people at the aid station. I thought if I said anything to them they would make me stop, bother me about drinking or eating. I couldn’t let this feeling go right now. I just had to GO! So I ran right through without saying anything. Once again, in hindsight I should’ve told the aid station people to tell Ben that I had gone on ahead. I really wasn’t thinking all that clearly at this point. What was done, was done.
I was in the Temperance River valley at this point. I knew from the elevation chart that there was a really steep climb, close to 1,000 vertical feet in less than one mile, up to Carlton Peak. I kept my momentum going. There was no stopping to take in the view of the rapids from the bridge crossing the river. I kept going at the same frenetic pace I’d held for the last 20 minutes. I was getting a little woozy now and thought that I should take a gu, but I had none. Ben was carrying all the gu’s. Where was Ben? Still nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t worried because he is infinitely faster than me and I was quickly approaching a huge climb. Ben would definitely catch me on that, no matter how fast I was going. The thought did creep into my head that what if I really did drop him for real and I had to finish on my own. No, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to finish without him there next to me. If it came down to it I would wait. Just as I was weighing these options, Ben ran past me. I got a glance at his face and he did not look happy. The short of it was that he didn’t know where I was. He thought I had perhaps gone off the trail to ‘use the facilities’, and that he might have gone past me. He said that he ran back and forth for awhile trying to decide what to do. All ended well, we found each other. We broke up and got back together in a matter of minutes. I apologized and asked him humbly for a gu. It’s a story as old as time. Doesn’t this happen to every couple during an ultra?
Now for the big climb up Carlton Peak. It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Yes, it was steep, the steepest climb so far. I was still going at a quick pace, not wanting to lose steam, but climbing up the big boulders was hard and my quads were burning after a short while. Luckily, the climb was a short one. Before I knew it we had reached the top and were cruising along again. I was relieved that what I thought was going to be the hardest section was done with. I did remember thinking that I heard someone say to save energy for mile 95. I thought they were joking though. Save energy for mile 95, as if that’s even possible in a 100 mile race? It’s all just a struggle to survive after mile 70 in a 100 mile race. They were right, I had neglected to really look at what I was up against after Carlton Peak but going up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain were easily the hardest part of the race.
My surge of before slipped through my fingers and I was back to the ultra death march and it had started getting hot again. Previously I had thought that I might have been able to break 30 hours but now I was just hoping to finish before 5pm that day. At least now we were starting to pass a few of the slower marathoners and they told us a bit of what we had ahead of us. I was done, so ready to be done, but the trail kept on climbing up and up. Near the top of Moose Mountain I saw a Russian rocket in the woods. I saw USSR painted in red on the side of it. I continued walking on without comment. Who was I to question why there was a rocket in the woods of Minnesota? This is what happens when you’ve been awake for over 30 hours.
The 50 mile leaders passed us and I asked them how much father we had to go. They said that they weren’t exactly sure but maybe a mile or two more. Hallelujah! That was the best news ever! We walked on a little bit more until I could actually start to hear the finish then I started to go a little bit faster. We popped out on the road heading up the Caribou Resort where the finish was and I started running. This was it, I was nearly done. I choked back tears as I crossed the finish line in 32 hours and 25 minutes. My emotions were all over the place. I was so glad to be done, but in disbelief of all that had transpired in the last couple days. Now I could finally sit down, take my shoes off, inspect my blistered feet, and relax with a celebratory shower beer while I washed off all the dirt and sweat from the last 32 hours.
All in all, even though I didn’t make any of my goals I’m glad I had the experience. I know now that I can take a lot physically and even more mentally in a race. It was an amazing life experience and I’m excited to return next year.