If someone tells me a race is really tough, my reaction is to dig a little deeper, do some research, and find out just how tough it is. So when I heard the Superior Sawtooth 100 (actually 102 miles) had a 38 hour cutoff and average finishing time over 36 hours, I was very intrigued. I read race reports, looked at the elevation profile, and studied everything I could about the Superior Hiking Trail. What I found out was that the race is indeed difficult. It is also extremely beautiful, run almost exclusively on singletrack trail that traverses the Sawtooth mountain range along the North Shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. I also found that there is a 50K in the May that covers the last 15 miles (out and back) of the 100 mile course. My good friend Vince moved to Minneapolis a couple years ago, so I figured this would be a great chance to visit him while scouting out the course. Another motivation to do this race was that my running had been in a rut lately, and I was coming of a really bad experience (from a personal racing standpoint) a couple weeks prior. I wanted badly to get out of the Texas heat and into the mountains. This was my chance.
I flew into Minneapolis and met Vince and Jen for lunch before beginning the 4+ hour drive north to Lutsen, where the 50K would start. The first 2 hours of the drive were uneventful, but the remaining section north of Duluth would hug the coast of Lake Superior, offering stunning views of the vast waters. Wanting to see as much of the Superior Hiking Trail as possible, I stopped off at Gooseberry Falls (which serves as the starting point for the 100 miler in September) for a run. It was after 4 in the afternoon, I was operating on very little sleep, and I had flown for 3 hours and driven another 3. Needless to say, I was tired but excited to be in the mountains. After a few miles in which my legs felt sluggish, I began to experience the high that only running on pristine singletrack in the mountains can provide. I meandered past numerous rivers and cascading waterfalls, hopped over roots and rocks, and stopped to soak in the occasional view of Lake Superior. The trail was narrow and technical, both of which I enjoyed. Wanting to get back in time to finish my drive before dark, I turned around and ran nearly 7 miles back to Gooseberry Falls (14 miles in all), where I hopped into my car and drove the remaining hour to Lutsen. My hotel was situated right on the shores of Lake Superior, meaning the air was cool and crisp, much to my liking. After grabbing some food, I was off to bed for a few hours of sleep.
I awoke early (4:45AM) to gather my gear, drink my customary cup of coffee, and drive across the street to the ski mountain where my race would at 7. Even at this early hour, there was enough light to see without a headlamp. The forecast was calling for warm(er) temps and a 70% chance of rain. At the moment the skies were clear, and I hoped the rain would hold off for at least a few hours (in fact it would remain beautiful all day). I checked in at the race start, grabbed my packet, and headed back to the car to relax and take car of any last-minute necessities. The guy who had parked next to me was also a teacher, so we chatted about that as he told me how he hit a huge deer on the drive up the night before (glad I had arrived before dark). He has run the race several times and was able to give me the skinny on what to expect. I laughed when he complained about the hot weather they were having and expecting again for the race. He remarked how anything over 70 degrees was hot for him, which gave me a good chuckle. At 7AM sharp the race director sent 125 of us down the gravel road where we would link up with the SHT for the next 14+ miles to the top of Carlton Peak, turn around, and head back the same way we had come. I settled into a nice easy pace, my legs being a little fatigued from the previous few days of working out and running. We hadn’t been on the trail for 5 minutes when my foot caught a root and sent me stumbling. I tired to catch myself and stay upright, but it was in vain as my knee crashed into a rock and my arms hit the ground. I was unhurt, save for a gash on my knee that was already dripping blood, but the trail definitely had my attention. There were roots everywhere, and just enough rocks to make you pay attention to every step. This race was going to be as much of a mental battle as a physical one. This section of the Sawtooth range includes several small mountains that we would run up and over. None of the climbs or descents were particularly long or steep, but they were constant and never-ending. Up and over one peak, then immediately up and over another. The race boasts 4200’ of ascent and another 4200’ of descent. We wound our way through densely-wooded forests on narrow singletrack trails that were littered with toe-grabbing roots. There were some very runnable sections too, if you paid attention to footing, and I was really enjoying myself. Despite the temps being in the 50s at the start, I was soaked to the bone from the humidity (at least I was accustomed to this already). My legs felt good, and my energy was great as I nursed my Carbo Pro. Over 7 miles into the race we came into the first aid station (Oberg Mountain), where I mixed another bottle of Carbo Pro, grabbed a couple Twizzlers from the table, and thanked the volunteers. The sky was blue, my legs felt good, and I was having a blast.
(Typical Section of Roots)
(Climbing Up and Up)
The section from Oberg to the second aid station at Sawbill was less technical than the first, but still had rolling terrain. I ran way more than I would have normally, as my legs felt good enough to run many of the slight uphills and cruise the downhills. I enjoyed talking to locals on the trail and meeting lots of new people. As much as I enjoy running races close to home or with people I know, it is refreshing to be far away from the familiar, in a place where no one knows who you are or anything about you. During this section we saw the race leaders charging up a hill coming towards us, already on their way back. This meant they were nearly 10 miles ahead of me and should finish in under 4 hours! It was pretty amazing to watch them glide effortlessly up the hills. Based on my Garmin’s mileage, I figured I had another mile before I hit Sawbill, so I was pleasantly surprised when I rounded a corner and saw the aid station in front of me much sooner than expected. The volunteers filled my bottles and sent me on my way quickly.
(One Of Many Bridges Along the SHT)
(The Climb Up To Carlton Peak)
(Very Technical Near the Top)
(View From Carlton Peak)
(One of Many Rivers the SHT Crosses)
My stomach felt a little bloated as I left, a feeling that I attributed to the water and carbonation from the ginger ale since I had felt fine up to this point. No problem I told myself, I would hike for a few minutes while things settled down and then start running again. After a few minutes I did just that, but I quickly realized that my stomach wasn’t getting any better. I kept on going, hoping the feeling would pass. I used to get sick in all of my long races but hadn’t done so since I switched nutrition strategies (to Carbo Pro) after Wasatch last September. Unfortunately, I got that all-to-familiar feeling and soon was doubled over on the side of the trail, emptying all the liquid (and calories) I had ingested earlier. I usually feel much better after throwing up and hoped this would be the case now. The problem with getting sick is that you lose much of the nutrition you have worked so hard to keep up with, meaning you are immediately in a deficit. Nevertheless, I pushed on, jogging where I could and trying to hike anything else. I could feel my energy waning and had to stop and regroup on several occasions. I knew I need to take in calories, but Carbo Pro just wasn’t sitting well, so I wolfed down a peanut butter GU, which seemed to help a little bit. At last I was back at the final aid station (Oberg Mountain), less than 8 miles from the finish. If I could only take in enough calories and water to get me to the finish feeling good…
After eating 2 pb&j squares, a couple orange slices, a handful of gummy bears, and a cup of Coke (amazing what things sounds good during a race), I trudged off down the trail, hoping the energy that had left me would return for a final push. I hadn’t moved a mile when I felt that sickly feeling yet again. This time was much worse, and I spent several minutes littering the trail with aid station goodies. Instantly I felt terrible. I had no energy, my heart was racing, and my legs were shot. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. The next 6 miles would take me over 2 hours to complete, as I found myself leaned up against trees, stumbling around, and generally feeling crappy. After what seemed like an eternity, I hit the gravel road and slowly jogged the road back to the lodge and finish line.
As bad as I felt those last 10 miles, I had a blast in the race. The trail is remarkable in both its beauty and its difficulty. Now I know why the Superior Sawtooth 100 is billed as one of the toughest in the country. I can’t imagine trying to navigate over those roots at night when your body and mind are tired. So of course it is now on my list of must-do races, just not this year (I’m going back to Wasatch in September with some specific time goals in mind).
After the race I drank 140 ounces of liquids and still hadn’t peed, further evidence of the dehydration my vomiting had caused. Instead of driving the 4 hours back to Minneapolis as I planned, I stayed at the hotel an extra night and relaxed. I was in no shape to drive (I drove back on Sunday and spent the day touring the city with Vince and Jen), so I sat in a chair on the shore of Lake Superior, sipping on a local brew and listening to the waves crashing on the beach. At that moment, life was perfect. I’ll definitely be back at this race in the future.
(I Got This One Early In the Race)
(My Post Race Recovery Spot)