Sunday, September 27, 2015

Running with the Wolves: The Superior 100

Author's note: If you're curious how a California girl ended up at a race in northern Minnesota, you can read my love-affair-with-Minnesota preview-post here.

Checking out the views of Lake Superior (Photo courtesy of Superior 100)

The aptly named Superior 100 (Yes, it’s on the Superior Hiking Trail, and parallels Lake Superior, but it’s also just superior as far as most events go.) is a point-to-point course through the Sawtooth Mountains of Northern Minnesota. While the term “mountains” is perhaps a bit generous here, the race does manage to pack 21K feet of elevation gain and 21K feet of descent into its 103 miles. That, plus the highly technical nature of many of the trail sections, makes its tagline, “Rugged, Relentless, Remote”, more than accurate.

I had been intrigued by this race since the late 90s when I guided teens on rock climbing trips on the Superior Hiking Trail. I was strictly a road runner at the time with only three marathons under my belt, and I couldn’t fathom how one could run on such technical terrain, much less do it for 100 miles. The mystery enticed me, and I knew I wanted to run it one day. I was an ultrarunner long before I was actually an ultrarunner. 

In many ways, the race turned out to be exactly what I expected: beautiful and challenging. It also turned out to be so much more.

A typical view from the course.

It reconnected me with a time in my life when I had been more open to new experiences, more capable of embracing the unknown. It gave me some much needed quality time with my sister, who graciously agreed to crew for me. It reminded me that I have so much more support from family, friends, and even perfect strangers than I often remember. 

One of the hardest parts of the race was squeezing it into a weekend during the second week of school. When I got permission in July to take two days off for the race, I thought, “Sweet! It’s on!” But I almost pulled the plug on it so many times between that day and race day. The travel would be extremely tight, the whole weekend would be expensive, I couldn’t afford to fly out anyone to pace me, and I carried major guilt about taking time away from my students during such an important time in the school year.

Thursday morning I got up at 3:50 AM to catch the first leg of my flight. Four hours of sleep on the night before the night before race day. Dammit! I hadn’t been averaging much better than that all week because I was so busy with work and trying to take care of the dogs and house all by myself, but, hey, that’s life. I was only taking a carry-on because I was too worried about the airline losing my bag, and there simply wasn’t any room in my itinerary for delays. Who travels to a 100-miler with only a carry-on! A girl with no drop bags, that’s who.

I landed in Minneapolis at about 2:00 PM, got the rental car, met up with my sister Laura who also flew in that morning from L.A., and we drove straight to REI where it took me about 20 minutes to drop $200 on race supplies. (The race was serving Hammer products. I can stomach Hammer gels for a 50K or shorter, but definitely not for a 100, and I abhor Heed. I needed GU!) After that, it was straight Up North, and we arrived just in time for the 6:30 PM race briefing. Whew!

On the road to Two Harbors! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Since I had Laura to crew, I didn’t need to take the morning shuttle from the finish line, and we stayed at a hotel near the start. This allowed me to sleep in to 6:00 on race morning, giving me a full 8 hours of sleep. It wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of sleep all week, but I was still incredibly grateful for it!

With Laura at the starting line.

The first part of the course had to be rerouted due to a trail closure. We would run on the paved bike path for four miles before jumping on the Superior Hiking Trail for the remainder of the race. This was actually fine with me because it gave us all a chance to spread out a bit before hitting the single track. It also gave me a chance to chat with other runners, which was a great way to start the morning.

Once we hit the single track, I felt warmed up and relaxed. I had opted to start with hand-held bottles for the first few aid stations. Even though many of the aid stations were 10 miles apart, I knew I would be moving decently in these early miles, and that the cooler temps meant I wouldn’t be drinking too much.

The trail was beautiful already, and I kind of enjoyed hopping along through the technical parts. Nearing the first aid station, I was running with another woman when a spectator told us we were the first and second women.

What?! Oh crap. This is absolutely not where I should be!

I consciously slowed down. If my training for this race had been what it should have, this wouldn’t have concerned me as much. But I had no reason to think I should be doing anything but surviving this thing. I certainly should not be thinking about the podium at mile 9!

Early miles. (Photo: Zach Pierce)

The other thing the bike path re-route did was make the first part of the race pretty fast. There was no crew at the first aid station at mile 9, and I had told Laura to be at Beaver Bay (the second aid station at mile 20) at 11:30 AM. I knew there was absolutely no way I would run 20 miles in 3:30 during a 100 mile race. Even I couldn’t be that stupid! But I guess I hadn’t fully accounted for the speed of the bike path portion. (Or for my own stupidity.)

About three or four miles out from Beaver Bay, I could see that I might come in very close to 11:30 AM. I started stressing that Laura wouldn’t be there yet. Dammit, why was I running so fast? But I felt great. Totally relaxed. I didn’t feel fast at all.

I did a little more purposeful slowing down. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get through that aid station without crew. I knew I would be totally fine with just the aid station supplies. It was Laura I was worried about, and the possible cascade of events that could occur if she arrived there after I did.  First, I would feel bad for giving her inaccurate info. Second, she probably wouldn’t realize she had missed me. She wouldn’t think to check with the aid station that early on to see if I’d come through already. Thus, it could be a LONG time before she figured it out, meaning she would likely miss me at the next stop, too, and maybe even the one after that. Third, if any of this happened, she would feel really bad about it, meaning, Fourth, I would feel really bad that she felt bad.

When I explained this to my husband after the race, he just laughed and said, “You guys are hilarious.”

When 11:30 came and went and I was still running toward Beaver Bay, I was immensely relieved. 

Just before the aid station there was a little boy with his mom, and he was handing out those rubber band bracelets that kids make. He gave one to each runner as we came by, and you can bet I slowed down long enough to get one from him. Good luck charm for the rest of the race. What an awesome kid!

I arrived at 11:40 AM to Laura, completely prepared for me, saying, “Wow, you’re way ahead of schedule!”

Yeah, apparently I suck at predicting my own splits.

But Laura totally does not suck at crewing, and she mixed my electrolyte drink and refilled my pockets with GU while I ate real food from the aid station. It was a quick stop, and I was off for a short five miles to the next aid station at Silver Bay.

Last year Laura had her first experience crewing at an ultra when she and Jamie came down to support me at the San Diego 100. Before Jamie started pacing me, she crewed with Laura through the day and clearly helped turn her into an expert crew captain in a very short amount of time!

Laura is ready and waiting for me! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

At the pre-race briefing, I had seen one of the cooler things that I have ever seen available for purchase at a race. They had black rubber wristbands listing all the aid stations, total mileage at each one, and mileage to the next aid. This was so helpful for someone like me who was not familiar with the course, and totally worth the $5. I consulted my bracelet before coming in to each aid station so I would know the distance to the next aid. This allowed me to know just what I would need from the aid station – how much water, how much food I should bring with me, etc. I also consulted it upon leaving each aid station. There were some long stretches between aid, and it would be easy to feel like they were taking forever. I calculated my approximate arrival at the next aid so I would not fool myself into thinking I should be there any earlier than my pace would indicate. I loved this bracelet!

I think it was through this next section that I ran for several miles in between two men. We were all first-time Superior runners. The man in front of me was from Iowa, and we discussed the challenges of training for a race with so much climbing when you live somewhere with approximately zero hills. Fortunately, I did not have that problem in my training. It was awesome running and chatting with these guys, and I was sorry to separate from them when we reached the aid station.

At Silver Bay (mile 25) I dropped my hand-helds and picked up my hydration pack. During the week before the race, I had spent some time reading race reports from past runners and looking at race photos. It was quite effective in scaring the piss out of me, but one thing I learned was that most people carry hydration packs in this race. This makes sense with a lot of 10 mile stretches between aid, plus the possibility of bad weather.

(Photo: Zach Pierce)

I spent most of the day loving the scenery, remaining well ahead of predicted pace, and just feeling happy. With all the stress about travel and my, ahem, less-than-superior training, I was so happy to be simply running the race. There was absolutely nothing to do now but keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that single-minded simplicity is probably my favorite thing about trail running. I am responsible for nothing except forward motion.

Looking down on Bear Lake

I passed a runner with flaming red hair coming in the opposite direction, (She wasn’t a racer.) and she called out, “Gretchen?”

“Yes!” How could anyone out here possibly know me? She reminded me that we had met at Sonoma, and gave a few words of encouragement before we parted ways. It wasn’t until after she was gone that I remembered our conversation after the race at Sonoma. I was so excited that she remembered me!

Trail markers blowing in the wind.

At Tettegouche (mile 35) Laura informed me that I had a pacer! This is a case of the Minnesota network coming through. Also a case of “my husband really didn’t want me to run alone through the night.” Andrew had contacted a couple friends of his who lived in Duluth. My pacer would be Andrew’s friend Abby’s friend Shirley’s friend Mary. Woo hoo! In a flurry of last minute texts, I had only texted Mary that morning on the drive to the start. I had left her Laura’s #, and said, if she could make it, great, but if not, no worries. She would run with me from Finland (mile 51) to Cramer Rd. (mile 78). This had been my best prediction of what would be my “late night” stretch – where a pacer would be most valuable.

Happy at Tettagouche! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Changing socks. The only time I sat down at an aid station. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

I had picked up my small headlamp at Silver Bay because I was paranoid. Also because the race director told us to. When he had said, “Only the faster runners can make it to County Rd. 6 before getting their lights,” I had not included myself in that category. I guess I should have, but ultimately there is nothing wrong with carrying your headlamp for a few extra miles. Or 25.

A "plank bridge" across a swampy section.

Coming into County Rd. 6 (mile 43), I was ready for dinner. All I could think about was a ham sandwich. I wondered, could they possibly be serving a ham sandwich here? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? That was the first thing I asked for upon arrival.

“No, I’m sorry, no ham sandwiches.” They felt genuinely bad about not having ham sandwiches. But the offer of chicken noodle soup was met with excitement by me. Apparently I was in need of salt and protein. Yum!

I talked to a volunteer here who, I was told, had been asked by someone in Andrew’s Minnesota friend-network to pace me. Even though he hadn’t been able to pace me, it was great to have someone at the aid station looking for me and offering support. 

It was also at this aid station that Anthony’s wife came up and said hello. I had met Anthony randomly on a training run in July, and we had been stunned and delighted to learn we were both running Superior – two of only three runners from California in the race.

Sometimes one of the mentally challenging things about traveling to a race outside of your own running community is that everyone there seems to know each other, but you don’t know anyone. When I’m at Tahoe Rim Trail, or Western States, I feel like I know everyone. Even at Hardrock, I always have a lot of friends. At Superior, it was just a nice surprise to have one or two people with even a remote connection say hello. Yay, Minnesota!

I arrived at Finland (mile 51) still in the daylight and still feeling great. I was two hours ahead of my fastest prediction, but I knew that I would be slowed by darkness and by some notoriously technical sections of trail that were coming up in the next 20 miles. Think steep, rocky descents; think tree roots a la Hurt 100; think mud.

A typical stretch of technical trail. Going up these was not nearly as bad as trying to get down them.
I still wanted dinner, and I was thrilled to be offered beef stew at this aid station. While I was inhaling my stew, another volunteer offered me a hot dog.

“Sure!” Why not, right? It was delicious!

My stomach, obviously, was doing very well. I also partook all day long in what I had taken to calling “dirty candy.” On a brutal but beautiful 48 mile training run through Yosemite and Hoover Wilderness in August, Jamie and I were hitting “zombie mode” with 8 or 9 miles still to go when Jamie had abruptly stopped to inform me that someone had dropped their candy in the trail. We hadn’t seen a soul for at least ten hours, but the Mike & Ikes scattered in the dirt were temptation incarnate. A little dirt never hurt anything! We picked them up and brushed them off, and they were SO AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS! Mike & Ikes will now forever be “dirty candy” to me.

A guy with a mustache and goatee and wearing a Superior sweatshirt (indicating he had finished the race before) told me how great I was doing.

“You’re on 25-hour pace!” he enthused.

“Ha!” I rolled my eyes. “That will change, trust me.” I told him I was keeping my fingers crossed for 28 hours at this point. Still, that was two hours faster than my original prediction.

Heading out from Finland with Mary. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

This was also where I picked up Mary, my pacer. She hadn’t done any 100-milers herself, so she asked me what I needed.  I was comfortable with my abilities on both pace and nutrition. Truthfully, all I needed was distraction and entertainment, which is exactly what I told her. This was perfect, because it turned out Mary was a talker. Hooray!

I know I could have finished this race without a pacer, and part of me was curious to try it. I don’t know if I would have been any slower without a pacer, but it definitely would have been a bigger mental challenge. As we trotted along, Mary and I exchanged life stories, and I basically did not have to think at all. I think this was a best-case scenario for me as far as what kind of pacer I could have ended up with. Thanks, Mary!

The night, in so many ways, is just a blur. I slowed down as predicted, but not much more than everyone else. Upon leaving one aid station - it might have been Sugarloaf – Mary had paused to fix something with her shoe, so I was running alone. I heard this odd noise in the distance which I thought must be a wolf howling. Was I making that up? In my three summers and one winter living in Northern Minnesota, I had never once heard wolves howling. I kept hearing the noise. Perhaps it’s just a really strange owl? Truthfully, I wanted it to be a wolf. I found myself wondering, if I didn’t have a pacer, would I be scared to be out here with the wolves? 

When Mary caught up, she confirmed. Yes, it was a wolf. Amazing! Soon we heard more. Wolves talking to each other in the moonless, Minnesota night. The temperature had dropped into the low 30s, and I occasionally turned off my headlamp to admire the insanely bright stars packed into the vast, dark sky. This moment right here – this is why you want to travel somewhere new to run a 100 mile race. They kept up their haunting song for another half hour, and I couldn’t imagine any better soundtrack for running through the woods at night than the howling of those wolves.

I had sent Laura off to get some sleep while Mary ran with me. I really wanted one of us to be operating with some sleep on Saturday! Laura met me at Cramer Rd., where Mary would stop. When I had last seen Laura at Finland, I had told her 5:30 AM at Cramer, but she said, “No, I think 3:30!” So my 3:50 arrival made her, again, more accurate than I. 

I wasn’t too worried about running for another two and a half hours alone before the sun would come up. I still felt pretty darn good. I bid Mary farewell, and set off into what would turn out to be the hardest section of the race for me. 

I was 78 miles in, it was after 4:00 AM, and I was totally and completely falling asleep on my feet. I mean it was bad. SO. BAD. My eyes wouldn’t focus, and I kept veering off the trail. I had sipped half of a 5-Hour Energy at Cramer, and now I took the other half. Not only did it not help, but it made me feel a little loopy. Usually I know better than to drink more than half of one of those things, but I was desperate. Three separate times I had to stop and sit down to close my eyes and put my head down. I think I only stopped for a minute each time (who knows!), but even when I was moving, it was pathetic. I totally suck with sleep deprivation, and now my week of very little sleep was catching up with me.

At some point, a woman passed me, moving me from second to third female. I just couldn’t summon the energy to care, and I had known it was inevitable anyway. The only thing I cared about at that moment was sleep, and I knew the only way to get any was to get to the finish line. Just keep going, just get there. I imagined crossing the line and promptly laying down in the grass to sleep for 10 hours.

Temperance (mile 85) was the first aid station where I came in behind Laura’s prediction. A full hour and 20 minutes behind. Twenty-eight minute miles will do that, I guess.

Sleepy-eyed, with sister. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

I have experienced the “horrible sleepies” once before in a hundred – at the TRT 100 in 2010. During that race I had sat down at every aid station during the night and fallen asleep for a few minutes. I had enough experience now to know that kind of thing wouldn’t help, and unless I was truly falling off the trail, I just needed to keep going. The aid station workers, God bless them, told me how great I looked. Hilarious, but that’s also exactly what a runner needs to hear. 

I still felt horribly sleepy running along the Temperance River, even though the sun had come up. I was still operating on Pacific Time, and 6:00 AM felt like 4:00 AM. I distracted myself with taking pictures of the river, even though there wasn’t enough light. After a few more miles, I finally woke up. Hallelujah! The climb up Carlton Peak was almost enjoyable because I felt so much better!

It was also through these last 20 miles that I began playing leapfrog with another runner. He would pass me, I would come through the next aid station not realizing he was there sitting down somewhere, I would leave the aid station, and then a mile out, he would pass me again. With each of these passes we exchanged very brief words of encouragement. I think he was the only other runner I saw between mile 85 and the finish.

I think this was Sawbill AS, at mile 90. I don't know; it's all a blur. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Laura said I seemed super focused and fired up at the last aid station at mile 96. This is probably because I knew I was just that much closer to getting to sleep! I picked up the pace to 17 minute miles, which actually isn’t that bad considering there are a few solid climbs on this seven mile stretch. It was certainly a huge improvement over my nighttime slow down.

When I suddenly realized that the course markings had led me to a spur trail of the SHT, I knew I must be getting close to the finish. OhDearLordThankGod! Looking at my watch, I realized I might actually make it in under 28 hours. I was stoked! We had to run through the Lutsen ski resort, and I had no idea exactly how much farther the finish line might be. I felt like I was flying – probably 15 minute miles.

When I crossed the line, the guy I had been leapfrogging with was right there, and even though I had never gotten his name, I ran straight over to give him a big sweaty hug.  We did it!

Finished! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

The finish is at Caribou Highlands Lodge, and one of the great things about this is that there were real showers there for us to use. The other great thing is that we could buy beer.

Laura and I sat at a table with the second place woman and her crew and basked in the glory of being done and having such amazing weather. Lows in the 30s at night, highs in the low 60s during the day, and a sparkling blue sky.

“You mean it’s not like this every day?” I joked. Apparently earlier that week it had been 90F and humid. Ugh!

I got my finishers sweatshirt, and Laura got me chili and a beer. Heaven.

And there was the goatee guy from Finland again, who I think I had also seen at some aid station in the middle of the night. Maybe that had been a hallucination though? His real name was John.

“I saw this girl eat a hot dog at Finland!” he declared to the crowd. They were duly impressed. Only at a 100-miler is the act of eating a hot dog a reason to brag.

Laura took this photo of my trophy before I had even finished!

We needed to start heading south again, but before we left, I knew I had an award to pick up. I’ll be honest; I’m not much for trophies or finisher swag that’s not useful. I have been known to throw trophies in the trash. I didn’t even buy the finisher’s buckle at Hardrock, because you know what? I have plenty of buckles, and it’s just stuff. But when we were at the pre-race briefing for Superior, I saw the trophies, and I loved them. It did not escape my notice that Masters Champions would get one. I may have finished 3rd female overall, but I was the first of the old gals. (Also, 23rd overall, out of 248 starters.) The beautiful howling wolf was cut from a flat piece of steel and welded onto a metal base. This is my favorite trophy ever!

I interrupted RD John Storkamp just long enough to thank him for an incredible event before jumping in the car and heading back south for the trip home. Superior is one of the country’s oldest 100-milers, and they have clearly learned how to put on a top notch event. (And incidentally, if you missed Alex Kurt’s July article in Trail Runner about RD John Storkamp, you can read it online here. It’s a great read that you shouldn’t miss.)

When I first signed up for this race, I’ll admit, I really wanted to go out there and nail it. By the time August rolled around though, I knew I would be lucky even to finish. I realize I have a reputation of being The World’s Biggest Sandbagger, and it is not wholly undeserved. But my training was truly so poor that, in the end, I felt audacious even for attempting Superior. 

Maybe muscle memory deserves more credit that I gave it because I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled with how my race turned out. The climbing, in truth, wasn’t that bad in my opinion. The only real climb I even remember was Carlton Peak. It was the 21K feet of descent, much of it technical, which was so hard. That part was brutal.

The mud, I am told, could have been much worse. And of course, the 4 miles of pavement at the beginning definitely contributed to faster times this year. Still, I was not expecting to be much faster than 30 hours.

In discussing my surprise at my performance with Jamie the week after the race, we had the following exchange:

Me: I really don’t know how I could have run so fast with such crappy training!

Jamie: Did you read that article about Rory a few months back?

Me: You mean the one in Outside where she basically said, “I don’t train”? 

Jamie: Yeah. I have to think that there’s something to that. Doing other things can count as training, and we don’t even realize it.

Me: So, sitting on the beach for a week during what should have been my most important training block, running only 12 miles, and drinking wine every day probably helped?

As happy as I am with this experience at Superior, I would still really like to come back and nail it. I think this is a course that suits me fairly well. Obviously I have some advantage living at 6,000 feet. I think if I managed something closer to my standard 100-miler training and worked on my descending, I could probably run something in the 25-hour range. And remember, you’re hearing this from The World’s Biggest Sandbagger.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I will get back to Superior any time soon. It is just a tough time of year for a teacher who lives so far away.  For the time being, I can accept that. 

I really couldn’t ask for anything more than the opportunity to be there this year, to spend time with my sister, and to run through the starry night with the wild wolves.


  1. Awesome Job.
    And Awesome writeup.
    Gives me more incentive to run the extra lap on the beach here in Thailand everyday.
    Pleasure to know you Gretchen.

    1. Thanks, Fiddlehead! Glad you are still running out there in Thailand. One of these days, I would like to take a few laps on the beach with you.

    2. Randomly stumbled upon your blog through a Google search and this post captured my attention. This was a truly impressive feat. I think when you so often surround yourself with amazing people doing amazing things it is easy think of your own accomplishments as normal. This was not normal. You are a super woman! Very inspiring, I hope to do something in 2016 to push myself like you did.

      Thanks from Virginia!