If you’re going to dive into trail racing in Minnesota, the Rocksteady Running races are a must. They’re a consistent favorite of both locals and trail runners from all over the country. The reason they are so popular? Some of the best courses, and some of the best organization around. This was my second Rocksteady Running race (the Zumbro 17 was my first), and they lived up to their reputation. John Storkamp (race director) and his wife Cheri were all over the place doing everything they could to make sure things went smoothly, and they succeeded.
Last time I volunteered and ran the race, however because this was a single day race I decided to just run, while my wife did some volunteering. We stayed at the hotel that doubled as the Start/Finish area, which made things tremendously easy logistically. Friday night we attended the pre-race meeting and I picked up my bib. The next morning I was up bright and early, and decided to go out to the start line and cheer the 50K runners on their way. I’m sure I looked silly in my pajama pants and my running jacket, but hey, I wanted to stay as comfortable as I could, as long as I could, considering the race that was ahead of me.
Of all the big races that I have scheduled this year, this was the race that I’ve felt the most ready for. The weekend before, I banged out a 14 mile training run on some horse trails that felt great. I hit a couple more runs during the week, but kept the distance down so that I was getting a bit of a taper. I was also mentally completely ready for this race, and was looking forward to it with anticipation. Unlike Zumbro, I had also been on this course before, as my wife and I decided to hike the 25K trail last Fall to get a taste of what I’d be in for. On race morning I was as ready as I could ever be for what lay ahead.
I even had an auspicious goal for this race; I wanted to finish in under 4 hours. My finish time at Zumbro was 4:20, and I was pretty deflated at the end. Another month of training under my belt and I felt that 4 hours was within my reach. A lot of my optimism was just that… optimism, but that’s what it takes when facing some daunting running, on incredibly difficult trails.
Once I saw the 50K runners on their way I headed back to the room to get my family up, and get myself ready to go. I got changed into what I thought would be appropriate clothing for the day, shorts and two long sleeved shirts. The night before had been very foggy, dreary and cold. However, this morning was turning out to be sunny and beautiful. So about ten minutes before the start I made a snap decision to take off the heavy long-sleeve undershirt and just put on a t-shirt as an underlayer. I’m incredibly glad that I did, as the day turned out to be amazing and quite warm compared to the days that surrounded it.
I got lined up in the start corral and waited for John to give us our instructions. One of the things that I noticed in the corral was how loud many of the runners were being as instructions were being given, making it very hard to hear the loudspeaker. I don’t know if it’s because these were a lot of road runners who thought that this would be an easy course, and didn’t need special instructions, but whatever the reason, they quickly learned what kind of a day this was going to be once we started running.
As the start signal sounded we took off down the easiest part of the course, a paved road that brought us to a gravel road, before dumping us onto the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). The SHT is a singletrack course, and today’s race was an out-and-back, meaning that we were going to have to dodge oncoming runners eventually. As I progressed up the road I looked around at the 400+ people next to me and wondered how that was all going to work logistically.
I got my first answer as we turned onto the SHT and began a nice gentle downhill towards the Poplar River. My plan for running sub-4 hours counted on me running a good bit of the first part of the course, and pushing myself up the first hill. Then, suddenly, as we’re moving down the hill, everyone stopped, and my dreams of a 4 hour finish started to fade in my head. The crowd walked along slowly towards where the path shrunk even further and I discovered what it was that was slowing us down.
Mud. Lots and lots of mud. Dozens of people were trying to slowly work their way around the mud so as to not get their feet wet and dirty. If they had been listening to instructions they would have heard quite distinctly that trying to keep your feet dry is an effort in futility. This is spring in Minnesota, and we’ve had a ton of rain. There is no way that you can keep your feet dry on this trail in these conditions. Your best course of action is to look for the safest path through the middle of the mud and then prance. You want to do a prance, because you want to lead with your toes. If you try to run through with a heel-strike, you run the risk of your shoe sticking and staying behind when you try and lift off. Lead with the toe, and lift out as straight up as you can, and everything will be great.
I very quickly decided that I wasn’t going to hold up anyone behind me, and as I approached the first mud piles I threaded the needle right down the middle of everyone trying to slowly inch along the side of the trail. A bunch of people joined in behind me, and soon enough we all started picking up speed again and headed for our first climb, Mystery Mountain.
Mystery Mountain isn’t the worst of the climbs on the course, but it’s one of the more annoying ones in my mind. Unlike Moose Mountain where you shoot straight up the side, Mystery is a huge fan of switchbacks. Although I can see the advantage of switchbacks in terms of not climbing such difficult hills, it makes you feel like you’re climbing forever just to gain a dozen feet of elevation with each turn. Once I crested Mystery I was able to run again and tucked in behind some other folks to pick up some good pace times.
Soon enough we were heading down the backside of Mystery and that’s when I witnessed my first fall. The woman that I was running behind went flying to the ground, however, she managed to turn it into a nice tuck and roll off to the side. I quickly bounced to the opposite side to avoid causing a chain reaction, and then we all stopped to make sure she was OK (she was fine and got right back up and kept going). Once we hit the valley between mountains I got to experience the wonders of wooden planks placed over boggy areas. These planks are great for hiking, and awesome for running… if your feet are dry. Considering that most of us were already covered in wet mud, and the planks became opportunities for weird dance maneuvers to tip-toe across and keep our balance on a slicked up piece of wood.
Eventually the mud puddles and muddy boards gave way to our first real climb of the day, straight up the side of Moose Mountain. Although the climb starts somewhat gradually, it turns very quickly into a “hands-on-knees” type of climb over large tree roots and rocks. I slowed to a crawl at this point as the line arduously moved up the side of the mountain. I knew that once I reached the top, it was easy running for over a mile, and the thought of that is what kept me going.
Finally we crested the top and I broke out in a decent paced trot appropriate for the harshness of the terrain. Running along the top of Moose is one of the joys of this race. It’s mostly flat, contains beautiful corridors through pine forest, and at the southern end there is an amazing overlook with an amazing view. More on the overlook later, since I was still trying to see if I could get my 4 hour time back, I skipped stopping for a look.
The far side of Moose is a really difficult descent, and the trail association has even built something akin to a staircase on the way down. The elites can barrel down this part of the trail, but I know where my skill level stops, so I took my time and carefully descended to a point where it was a lot less dangerous. At this point in the race, the leaders of the 25K and 50K races were starting to return and pass us going the other direction. Soon the trickle of returning runners became a constant stream of people, and learning how to navigate a single track trail with constant two-way travel is tricky. I decided that the most appropriate thing to do is to give the returning runners the right-of-way, assuming that people would do the same for me on my way back. For the most part it worked, but there were a few moments on my return trip where I had to jump off the trail to get around people barreling down it.
The turnaround is the one and only aid station in the 25K race, at Oberg Mountain. At over 7 miles, this is one of the longest stretches of any race I’ve ever ran without support. I don’t drink a lot of water when running (upsets my stomach), but even I was running dry by the time I got between the Start/Finish and Oberg. I know some people consider running this without hydration, but I have no idea how they can do it, especially when the sun is out in full.
As I pulled into Oberg I looked at my watch and was astounded at the time. One of my sub-goals in my 4 hour strategy was to make it to Oberg in less than 2 hours, giving me a cushion for the slower return trip. I made it to Oberg in around 1:45, meaning I had a nice 15 minute cushion. I didn’t want to waste the cushion so I moved efficiently through the station. I grabbed some simple foods, some M&Ms, a banana, and a few pretzels to munch as I started back. I topped off my water bottle with a water/HEED mix, and ate as I started the walk. The first section out of Oberg is a bit of a climb, so I used my need for a pause to digest, and the incline, as an excuse to walk for a bit.
Once I was over the small hump around Oberg it was back to business and I knew I had to work hard to keep my pace up if I was going to make my goal. By this point in the race the mud puddles had become mud lakes and mud rivers. I told myself that this was just water crossing obstacles and plowed through them the best I could. I only had one worrisome moment when my heel came out of my shoe for a split second before sliding back into place. I’m sure other runners weren’t so lucky.
By the time I reached the climb up Moose I was surrounded by a small group of people and we all made the long march together. We bantered a bit back and forth to encourage each other, and as we neared the top, I announced to everyone that if we take ten steps off the trail to the south-east we can get our reward. The vista of Lake Superior, the shoreline, and an amazing view of the countryside. There was still a fog on the lake so you couldn’t see too far out into it, but the view of everything else was just as I remembered it from the Fall. Breathtaking. I spent 30-60 seconds admiring the view, with the companions who had joined me up the hill, before turning right back around and hitting the course again.
The trip back across Moose was uneventful, and I managed to run almost every last yard before resigning myself to a walking stumble down the far side. At this point my tired legs, and slippery shoes, were impacting my confidence to maintain my footing. At one point down Moose my right foot slipped while climbing down a tree root, and my leg went flying out to the side. I felt an immediate, and uncomfortable pull in my groin before I was able to pull my leg back in. I took some gingerly steps, hoping the pain would subside, and thankfully it did. I continued down the rest of the hill, perhaps a bit slower than moments before while I made sure that everything was OK.
The trip back across the wooden planks was mostly uneventful, just slower than desired because of the layers of caked mud on top of them. I did manage some running in this section, but mostly I was trying to keep myself upright and save some energy for the killer switchbacks up Mystery. When I arrived at Mystery I wasn’t alone and a long line of us took the trip up together. There was some good conversation with some 50K runners who ended up passing us by, amazing us with their stamina so many miles into their race.
Once we crested Mystery I looked at my watch and realized I had over 45 minutes to finish the race and beat my goal. With just a little more than 2 miles to go it hit me that I was going to make this. I ran as much as I could, with walk breaks to deal with mud and terrain. Eventually I could hear the roar of the Poplar River in the distance. I knew I was close. Before I knew it I saw the bridge over the river and one final climb before the gravel and paved roads. I walked up the short hill, finishing off my water bottle as I reached the top.
I started to break into a much faster run down the road and realized, on hard pavement, that I had a horrible pointy rock in my shoe. I stopped for a second to stick my finger into the side of my shoe only to realize that there was no way I could dig it out. The only option would have been to take my shoe off completely. Looking at my completely caked laces I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I just kept going and tried to step gingerly on that foot. At one point a guy I had met at Zumbro (Rob I believe… I’m terrible with names…) came barreling past me saying “Hey man, finish strong!” Considering the pain in my foot, I was going as strong as I could. I rounded the bend to take the path around the swimming pool to the finish and as I came up the path, one of the best sites I could ever see. My wife, who I mentioned was volunteering, was there waiting to hang my medal around my neck.
I stumbled past the finish line, gave my wife a kiss, and started assessing the damage. One of the first things that surprised me was that I felt pretty darn good for having just run such a hard course. My body with tired for sure, but I didn’t feel completely wasted. Maybe I could have run a bit harder on a couple sections, but I’m still new to this trail running thing and I wanted to just finish, and wasn’t sure how my body would react. I looked at my watch and I had beat my goal by a wide margin (wide in running terms), with a finish time of 3 hours and 44 minutes. I was tremendously happy and ready to break into the cooler of beer I brought with me.
I decided rather quickly to ditch my shoes and socks, instead of waiting in a long line to wash them. My room was only a few steps away from the finish line, so I wiped off the bottoms of my feet and made my way to the bathtub to rinse myself off the best I could. Within 10-15 minutes I was sitting back outside with the first of many beers in hand, enjoying a beautiful afternoon, cheering on the other runners coming in, and meeting tons of new people (thanks Bob and Lindsey for the Castle Danger beer!). I even ran into a couple people I know, like Mark who I run with sometimes on Saturdays, and Robyn who I met at Zumbro while volunteering. We all bonded over chili and beer in the afternoon sun enjoying our accomplishments.
My son came out and joined me for a bit, and eventually my wife’s shift ended. While they retreated to the room I wandered around a bit more and just soaked it all in. After a while I went in and showered, but eventually I came back out in time to see the sweepers arrive after collecting up the course. Things wound down as night started to fall, so I went back to the room for some well earned rest.
Superior was an amazing race for me. I was ready for it, and I achieved what I set out to achieve. I finished the race still feeling good, and had such an incredible time hanging out with trail people. Don’t let anyone fool you, this is a tough, tough race. Even without the constant mud, the course is very unforgiving. I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of it this year, as I know many people were not able to get into the race before it filled up. I’m really growing to love the trail running culture, and with a bunch of other trail races on the docket for the rest of the year, I’m hopeful to meet many of these great folks again.
Thanks Superior, it was everything I hoped it would be.