Early this year I decided that I was going to start doing more trail running. I like the variety that you get when trail running, both in terrain and scenery. I like that a slow guy like me can still succeed because I can somehow persevere through the discomfort. Plus, I LOVE the people in the trail running community.
I started picking out trail races to run this year, and the top ones on my list were run by Rocksteady Running. John and Cheri Storkamp, and their tireless team of people, put on amazing races and I wanted to be a part of as many of them as I could. Earlier this year I ran the Zumbro 17, which was a tremendous experience as my first long trail race. I also ran the Superior 25K which tested my fortitude when it came to mud. All of this was leading up to this past weekend, the Moose Mountain Marathon. Twenty six miles on the brutal Superior Hiking Trail, running from just outside Schroeder, MN all the way to the finish line at Lutsen, MN. At the same time that the marathon is going on, there is a 100 and 50 mile race, all ending at Lutsen, but with different starting times and locations.
As I talked about a couple days ago, this race had me more anxious than any other race this year. I spent most of Friday evening watching the live runner tracking of the 100 mile racers, to see how people I knew were doing. I finally crawled into bed at our hotel a little after 9pm and sleep took me right away. It was too good to be true, as I started waking, and tossing and turning by 2:30am. Because of our hotel troubles, we had a good 90 minute drive to the start line, so I had to be up and out the door by 5am.
My wonderful wife agreed to do all the driving on Saturday and as we drove in the pre-dawn light to the start line, I tried to calm my nerves for what was to come. My phobia about being late meant that we were the first ones to the start line, but soon the busses from Lutsen arrived and familiar faces started to disembark. My race buddy Adam and I found each other pretty quick and started going over our thoughts and plans for the day. I kissed my wife goodbye a few minutes before start and we moved up to the line. John Storkamp kicked us off and before we knew it we were underway. Almost immediately I felt my anxiety and nervousness creep away as we began an amazing adventure.
The weather for this entire weekend was phenomenal, with highs in the mid 60s and no humidity to speak of. Soon Adam and I were cruising down the trail, quickly joined by another runner we both knew named Janet. The three of us set out at a good clip, taking turns in the front to rest our eyes from watching another person’s feet constantly. The trail was pretty crowded right from the start, but things started to thin out once we hit the first aid station.
I always break these big races up by aid stations, as a way to keep my mind focused on the immediate goal, and not the entire journey. Whenever I looked at my GPS watch, it was to see how far the next aid station was, not how far the finish line would be. The first 7+ miles mostly ran together in my head and we arrived at the Temperance River aid station holding a decent 15-16 minute pace. I knew that my dream goal of 6.5 hours was pretty unrealistic, but seeing that we managed such a solid pace for the first potions gave me hope that I could make at least one of my goals by the end of the day.
Janet pushed us through the aid station quickly and before we knew it we were off and heading down the part of the trail that runs alongside the Temperance River. This stretch of trail is beautiful with the sound of the rushing water next to you to keep you company as you run. We arrived at the bridge where we cross the river to find lots of people standing around and watching all of us crazy runners make a quick U-turn and head back up the river on the other side of the bridge. To say that this was one of the most runnable portions of the course is an understatement. We powered through the start of the climb to Carlton Peak with a 13 and 14 minute mile, all while enduring a slow steady climb.
The euphoria quickly passed however, as the reality that is Carlton Peak loomed before us. Before we knew what hit us we were struggling up a brutal climb that just kept going and going. To add more insult to the situation we came across multiple false peaks where everything seemed to flatten out for a tenth of a mile or so. Then, we would round a curve and stare straight up at yet another climb. The ascent of Carlton was one of the most difficult and demoralizing things I’ve ever done. I’ve climbed Moose Mountain on multiple occasions, and frankly I’d take Moose Mountain any day then the asshole that is Carlton Peak.
We managed to make up some good time on the way down from Carlton and clicked off a good 14-15 minute mile into the aid station at Sawbill. This was by far my favorite aid station as my wife was there making pancakes! She saw me roll into the station and immediately jumped into action by grabbing my drop bag and pulling out a short sleeve shirt for me to change in to. Another guy that I run with (Mark) was also there waiting to pace a 100 mile racer. Mark grabbed an icy buff and slapped it on the back of my neck, granting me some much needed refreshment. I know I was dawadling longer than I should so my wife kicked us back on the trail with some pancakes and away we went. Janet was never one to hang out at an aid station for long so she was already long gone onto the trail, leaving Adam and I to tackle the next section on our own.
The trip from Sawbill to Oberg is perhaps the easiest full section of trail that you will find in this race. There were a few small rolling hills, but for the most part it was tremendously runnable. Although our pace had slipped closer to 17 minutes per mile, we both were feeling really good through the section. We were also amazed at how diverse the landscape along the SHT can seem. At one point we found ourselves running alongside a swampy pond that was unlike anything we had seen so far. It was really refreshing and if it wasn’t for the fact my body was quickly tiring into a slump, I could have run that section all day long.
We arrived at Oberg to an incredibly friendly station crew. They were right on top of us getting us whatever we needed and before long we were back on the trail for the final 7 mile segment to Lutsen. At this point in the race my body was starting to struggle. As we hiked up the trail from the aid station I told Adam that I was losing steam and to go on ahead, that I’d see him at the finish. He had a bit of steam left in the tank and proceeded to run off into the distance and I started to push myself into a determined power hike.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the stress of the week before, or numerous other factors, but at that point in the race all I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap. I know the route from Oberg to Lutsen well, as I’ve traveled it back and forth twice before. I knew what laid ahead of me with Moose and Mystery Mountains, but I knew I didn’t have anything left in the tank at that point to do more than a 19 min/mile hike.
The climb up the backside of Moose Mountain is very intense. You go from a slow steady climb to a sudden ascent up a staircase, and it doesn’t let up until you reach the summit. I know that a lot of people hate this mountain, but personally I’ve come to appreciate this climb. I know where it starts, I know where it ends, and despite being horrendously steep, it’s over before you know it. Whenever I arrive at the top of Moose I step off the trail a few feet and reward myself with a view of the lake. It’s one of the most beautiful vistas on the trail and well worth the short pause to enjoy. I snapped the requisite selfie at the top and started down the ridge line on top of Moose.
As luck would have it I also ran into local ultra running legend John Maas, who I’ve met a few times before. Apparently John was doing the 100 mile race, but he committed to not running a single step of it. His goal was to hike all 103 miles of the race at a solid 18 min/mile pace, finishing before 4pm that day. John is an incredible inspiration, and despite knowing I could maybe run the ridge on top of Moose, I elected to hang with John, keep a solid pace with him, and enjoy the company. Another runner joined us as well and the three of us made our way to the descent down the opposite side.
After traversing the valley between Moose and Mystery, John said he had some power left in his legs so he was going to go on ahead and that I could catch him on the downhill. Sure enough, he floored me as he powered up Mystery Mountain with locomotive precision. Another 50 miler blew past us as we ascended, but before long I was all alone again to finish the climb as best I could. As I was climbing I decided to take one more shot of Cliff Blocks to see if I could get a final boost of energy. Perhaps it worked, because when I crested Mystery I finally felt like my legs could move again. I started into a light jog and sure enough I was moving at a solid 15 min/mile pace as I descended the backside of the mountain.
I passed John up again and he gave me some great encouragement that helped spur me along. I knew that soon enough I would be hearing the sound of the Poplar river, which is an amazing sound. As soon as you can hear the Poplar river you know you’re almost done, and so the sound of that river is like a slice of heaven after a long day. I powered over the river bridge and checked my watch… 7:20. I had ten minutes to run .75 of a mile to make my goal of a sub-7:30 day. There is one final climb as you come up to Ski Hill Road, before a long steady downhill on pavement to the finish. I powered up that hill as best I could and started into what could possibly called a “sprint”, considering my condition.
As I neared the finish line I didn’t dare check my watch very often, but when I did, it gave me a small boost to push harder and harder. As I rounded the pool to the finish line I saw the clock and it said 7:29. I sprinted as fast as I could and dove across the finish line, with a time of 7:29:28. Thirty seconds shy of my goal time and elated and happy to be at the end. Adam had managed to come in about ten minutes before me, and Janet had blown away her previous best time by over 20 minutes.
I started the long slow process of recovering, first by finding a bunch of water, and then by removing my shoes. The amazing Kevin Langton, and his wife, invited me to sit with him and his group on a nice patch of grass, and a bunch of us reminisced about the day. My wife finished working her shift at the aid station and joined us (and brought me a beer!), telling us of all the crazy runners she had seen come through the station.
The next few hours were spent talking and meeting up with familiar faces, some people such as Jeff who I had never interacted with outside of social media. Julio, the main guy behind Break the Stigma stopped by and sat with us for a few minutes to chat, and I got to give some congratulations to my co-worker Jason on his 100 mile finish. I ran into Mark again and thanked him for helping me along the trail. Every single one of us marveled at the winner Jake who crushed the course record by over an hour and a half. On and on, I ran into people who I had met at other races, or knew from social media groups. It was like one big family gathering, albeit one where most of us stunk really bad.
When I talk about loving the people at trail races, this is what I mean. These are people who are all just a little bit crazy like me, and no matter which distance you were attempting, or what time you came in at, everyone treats each other with respect for what they’ve accomplished. It’s a wonderful community, many of us misfits, that come together to accomplish amazing things. But, the humility of every one of these people means that no one is bragging, or showing off. We’re all there fighting our own demons and every accomplishment is celebrated.
In the weeks before the race, I would mention to other trail runners that I was heading up to Superior for the fall races, but I was only doing the marathon (as opposed to the 50 or 100 miler). Every single one of them would chuckle, then say “heh… ONLY the marathon…” and smile in a very knowing way. Even “just” the marathon distance is no joke on this trail. Places like Carlton Peak will chew you up and spit you out broken. I know there are places I can improve on my performance, and I need to find a good way to stave off the exhaustion that plagues me around mile 19. But, I’m proud of what I was able to do, and I have zero regrets about how I ran this race.
This was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. Running for seven and a half hours is brutal, but around the 6.5 hour mark I started to realize that I WAS going to complete this, and that I could do even MORE. That thought alone drove me into the finish line with a single word in my head. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…. yet