Coming back to reality after a big trail race is a struggle. My social media feeds are filled with people talking about their post-Superior hangover. As I sit here typing this, I too am feeling sad, longing to be back among the hills, woods, and trail family that I adore. I’ve long since learned that when I return from weekends such as this, I need to take Monday off of work, if at all possible. This year I also went down to the truck unloading party at the race director’s house on Monday for a couple of hours, and that also helped to ease the transition.
It seems that every year at Superior is special, but this year was different for me. As usual I was captaining the aid station at County Road 6. This is a job that I enjoy, and am good at, so I love coming back to do it year after year. I’ve also ended up finding myself on the photography and social media team, therefore much of my free time was spent taking photos up and down the race course. What made this year different for me was what happened on Saturday.
This year I had the honor of being able to pace my friend and trail mentor, Mike B. to his first 100 mile finish. I offered to pick him up at mile 90 (of 103) and pace him into the end. I’ve paced this exact same stretch before with another runner, and it’s an area of the course that I know well and love. Based on how I’ve been performing this year I probably could have paced even more, but it’s always good to be conservative when your weekend schedule is already packed, and you don’t want to get dropped by a runner with a second wind at mile 95.
I got a chance to see Mike the day prior at County Road 6 and he was looking well. The section before my aid station is one that is frustrating for many people. It’s a long 9 mile section that ends with a beautiful view of the aid station from on top of a ridge line. The problem is that the aid station is still a good mile and a half away, down a rocky descent. Many people come in to my station feeling frustrated and annoyed. I could tell Mike was a little bit of both (though not too bad).
County Road 6 is also the station that sends you off into the long night. Almost everyone, except for the leaders, has to bring a headlamp with them when leaving my station. Once you pass through us, you know that you’re entering into the darkest stretch of the race. It’s also the spot where pacers can first be picked up (after 6pm), and so we sent Mike into the night with his first pacer Shannon.
Eventually Friday night ended and we broke down the aid station. I managed to head back to the house for a few hours of sleep, and then drove to another aid station to see how Mike made it through the night. He arrived at Sugarloaf smiling and happy, despite being solidly behind his “A” goal pace time. He was nowhere near hitting cutoffs, so there wasn’t much to worry about. It was also here that I got to see a couple other friends who were also putting down strong performances, and were recovering from a long dark night.
After checking on Mike, I headed to the Sawbill aid station to work for the day until my pacing duties started. Sometimes it’s nice to be the one in charge, and other times it’s nice to just do work and let someone else deal with being in charge. At Sawbill I got to just do work, helping runners, filling water, etc.,. Soon I got a message the Mike was leaving the previous aid station so I took some time to get myself ready and waited. He arrived right at 4pm, with his second pacer Heather, and my evening of fun began.
Mike was in great spirits. He was moving well, eating well, and power hiking with purpose. We left with just under two hours before cutoffs at Sawbill, and 3 hours and 10 minutes to get to the final Oberg aid station. The rule in the Superior 100 is that as long as you can get out of the final aid station before the station cut-off time, you’ll get an official finish (even if you’re slightly above the 38 hour time limit). However, I didn’t need to worry. The section from Sawbill to Oberg is only 5.5 miles long, and it’s mostly flat. There’s only one big hill, and one other climb that’s noteworthy. Otherwise, you can power through it without much issue.
We also didn’t need to worry because Mike was on fire. He kept a solid 18-19 minute hiking pace through the entire section, and any little hill we came across wasn’t even an issue. Part way through the section I asked Mike, “So how do you feel about running?” He said he felt fine, and so we decided that we would try and run through the final half mile in to the aid station. This section is flat, buffed out trail, and goes through a beautiful pine forest copse. As soon as we hit it we started picking up the pace and before we knew it we were rocking a 10 min/mile jog into the final aid station. We arrived at 5:45pm, LONG before the final Oberg cutoff at 7:10pm.
Despite being well ahead of cutoff, I was also aware of Mike’s “B” goal, which was to come in around 8pm, or slightly after, during the award ceremony. It’s an awesome time to finish the race as the finish line is packed with people, and every time a runner headlamp appears from around the building the award ceremony stops and everyone goes bananas. I did some quick math in my head and knew that if we could keep moving strong, and maybe get in a bit more running, this goal was completely attainable.
Mike’s crew took care of a couple of his quick needs. Due to the massive energy boost we got from the crowds, we RAN out of the aid station. Mike is chugging along the road out of the station (uphill) and I turned to him and said, “You know we don’t have to run this, we can start hiking again.” He wasn’t hearing it though and kept moving. The road into the station is only 100-150 yards, so soon we were back on real trail, which forced us to move back down to a solid hike. The energy boost coming in to Oberg was intense and we were still talking about it the next day.
The final segment of the trail is 7 miles, and it is one of the tougher parts of the course. It includes climbs up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain, before dumping on to the final road sprint to the finish. Some of the trail in this area is very, very technical, and so we moved as fast as possible, considering Mike in his very depleted state. However, something that kept Mike fresh was coming across other 100 milers on the trail. He seemed to feed off of their energy, and as we approached each one he got a burst of speed. In this final 13 miles I think we passed over a dozen people on the trail, not counting folks that were taking longer to leave at the Oberg aid station.
Finally, the long climb up Moose Mountain was upon us, and we powered up with as much determination that Mike could muster. In the end, we managed to climb faster than I did when I did the marathon a couple years ago. We arrived at the top, in pretty good shape. It was here that we took the requisite selfie over the big lake before tackling the mile long spine of the mountain. We had talked previously about this section, and decided that we would run it as much as Mike was able. We got in some solid jogging time before reaching the other side and the technical descent.
At this point in the race downhills were much, much tougher for Mike than uphill or flat. It took a little bit of work to surmount some of the large steps down the mountain, but soon we reached the valley below. Due to the perfect weather conditions there was virtually no mud anywhere on the course. This meant that the boardwalks in the valley were dry and not caked with slippery slime from hundreds of runners walking over them all day. It made for a quick passage before coming up to the switchbacks of Mystery Mountain.
By this point it was starting to get dark and somewhere on the mountain we had to turn on headlamps. Every 100 miler hopes to get in before darkness sets a second time, but I don’t think it phased us much at all. Mike was feeling great, and had managed his race well. The previous time I had paced someone on this section they came in before dark, but they also were pretty trashed and couldn’t move nearly as fast as we were going this year. These events are about being smart about your endurance.
Although we had held a conversation during much of these sections, the final pull to the finish was done quietly. The night was dark, and the air was filled with the sound of the Poplar River, and the cheers from the lodge in the distance (2 miles away). The Poplar is the final marker that denotes that you’re done. From there, it’s a quick climb up off the trail and a run down a road to the finish. We hit the start of the road and Mike started running. We were actually hitting a sub-10 min/mile pace at times and I could tell that his energy and adrenaline was spiking. I cranked my headlamp up and ran along side Mike to give him more light on the road, as this was a very unfamiliar surface for him after 36 hours. We rounded the final path to the lodge and I fell back behind to make sure Mike got a great finish line picture.
We crossed the finish line at 8:23:02pm… right in the middle of the award ceremony. Mike briefly sat in a chair before the overwhelming desire for the coveted Superior sweatshirt made him walk a few more steps to the tent to receive his prize. The rest of the evening is a blur of people congratulating him on his finish and stories of hardship and struggle on the trail. We stuck around to the end, and got to see other friends cross, many of them finishing their first 100. Soon though the finish line was being broken down and it was time to get Mike to bed. Though, not before a quick stop off at a local hotel bar that was still serving food so that we weren’t going to bed hungry.
The next day we began our journey back to civilization. We opt’d for a quiet breakfast at a local bakery and hitting the road sooner rather than later. A nice meal at OMC Smokehouse in Duluth capped off the adventure of the weekend. Mike had done something incredible, and I was humbled to have gotten to be a part of it. He’s been a key part of my trail running journey, and I feel like I maybe was able to pay him back, just a little bit, in this last 13 miles.
Now we’ve arrived back at reality and the cold harsh world of work and responsibilities. I’m still having some type of allergy or cold issues bugging me, most likely from depleting my immune system over the weekend. I’m anxious to get out and run more, but can’t really manage more than 3 miles right now with my head stuffed. I know that there are still more races this fall, and that I’ll be a part of many of them. But, there’s something special about Superior. People talk about how amazing Western States 100 is, or Badwater 135. Yet, much of what makes them special is the community that surrounds them. Superior is like that. It’s a community that comes together to experience the best “Minnesota mountains” we can muster.
In the end, it’s not the height of the mountains that makes for a memorable trail race. It’s not the insufferable mud, the ankle bruising roots, or toe-stubbing rocks. It’s the act of being present with those roots and rocks, surrounded by nature and those that love it as much as you do. We learn about ourselves, and how to accept ourselves in success or defeat. We learn what we’re capable of and how much we can overcome. Being a part of the Superior tribe isn’t about just finishing a race. It’s about being the best that we can be, both on and off the trail. Discovering the beauty of our world, and of humanity, one small mountain at a time.