It’s been five days since I returned home from Lutsen, Minn., and I’m still unable to make up my mind if I loved the course or hated it — or maybe the reality of actually having finished this BEAST of a race hasn’t sunk in quite yet. As I continue to ponder, there are a few things I’d like to share before I get on with what and how this race broke down for me. I’d entered the lottery for Superior 100 well aware of how difficult the course is fabled to be; the race has a reputation of being amongst the toughest and wildest of its kind, so I wanted to find out for myself if I had it in me to finish.
I’d been so focused on training for Western States 100 in June that getting into the lottery for Superior 100 kind of fell on the back burner until it was July and I tried to refocus all my energy. I’d be lying if I hadn’t questioned my ability to finish Superior 100 based on everything I’d read and from talking to folks who had run it. The DNF rate is high, finish times are slower and the cutoff is 38 hours. Geeze, who’d want to be out on the trail for that long?
Race: The Superior Fall Trail Race 100Mi, 50Mi & 26.2Mi
Organizers: Ultrarunners For Ultrarunners and Rocksteady Running
Race Director: John Storkamp
Location/Course: The Superior Trail Race is a point-to-point (95% trail) ultramarathon that traverses the Sawtooth Mountains on the Superior Hiking Trail in the far reaches of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. The course parallels the north shore of Lake Superior, the greatest freshwater lake in the world, climbs to near 2,000-foot peaks with breathtaking vistas of the lake and inland forests, crosses countless whitewater rivers and serene streams, and meanders through mystic boreal forests.
Difficulty: Extremely hard
Time Limit: 38 hours (103.3 miles)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Crew & Support: Jerod Thornton and Amanda Smith. I’ve shared many hours of running trails with both Jerod and Amanda, so there was a comfort level and silent understanding that they would be able to push me through when things got tough. Even though we don’t run the same pace, the thing that mattered in this case was that both Jerod and Amanda are resilient. For Superior 100, I didn’t need fast, I needed consistent, no BS running and both my pacers delivered just that!
Goals & Training
Superior 100 would be my second 100-mile race and fourth ultra for the year, and given the difficulty of the course, I figured a 32-hour finish was realistic — baring no issues.
Training was a no-brainer coming off Western States 100. I tapered, then revamped my peak training weekly mileage to 70 miles leading into Superior. Three things I’ve learned from having run a few 100-mile races: less is more, terrain-specific training will take you a lot closer to the finish line than junk miles, and a three-week taper is your best friend.
I only train on trails, and on each run — no matter the length — I shoot for about a 100 feet of gain per mile. This has pretty much become my rule of thumb, and it’s worked so far! Finishing the race, of course, is the ultimate goal.
Gooseberry State Park Visitor Center to Silver Bay (25.0 miles)
It was a calm, relaxed and uncluttered start as 250 runners lined up to tackle what lay ahead. The clock struck 8 a.m., and everyone eased into the run. It was a pretty uneventful 25 miles to Silver Bay, with lots of up and down and each climb leading to a gorgeous view of Lake Superior.
A few things to mention here: There was some chatter among the runners on how that 20-percent chance of rain at the start of the race was now looking more like a 100-percent chance of rain overnight, and as the sun came out, it got hot and humid. I needed to adjust my pace. Also, the trail was extremely muddy in the “runnable” sections of the course. Nothing to freak out about, I told myself, it was still early in the race.
I saw Jerod and Amanda at Silver Bay. They had ice for me, which I put in my bandana. Then, I topped off my bottles, put on my headlamp for the night section and kept moving forward. I was two hours ahead of the cutoff and holding steady.
Silver Bay to Finland (51.2 miles)
This was the craziest stretch of the race, as the climbs continued to come at you and the views became more and more stunning. The drops were exhilarating; the terrain became more rugged and relentless, and some stretches of the trail were nothing but a web of roots, slick and unyielding. There was a sense of freedom and wildness as I traversed through this section of the course. This was also when I realized that there would be no rushing through this race. Extreme patience and caution would be needed to get through the night.
Silver Bay to Tettegouche Aid Station was a 9.9-mile stretch. This is when I got passed by Richard Plezia, a seasoned ultra-runner and a veteran at Superior 100. As I got tucked in behind him, we started to chat. Richard, come to find out, is in his 50s and had run Superior 11 times. He’d finished eight of those starts, and the immaculate pace and tenacity he was moving forward with was enough for me to hang with him until Finland, which is where I’d planned on picking up Amanda. I must add here: For anyone attempting Superior 100 for the first time, if you find a veteran runner running your pace, latch onto them, because it’s stabling and experience goes a long way on this course.
As Richard and I came upon a bluff after one of the numerous climbs, he pointed at the skyline as the sun was setting and said: “It’s coming.” I could see and hear the dark clouds, thunder and lightning brewing far out in the distance. All I remember saying to Richard was, “Don’t lose me. I’m pacing with you.” We ran steady as it got dark; headlamps were turned on and Richard and I shared stories as I gingerly walked across one of the many extremely slippery wood plank “bridges.” Whoosh! BOOM! I butt-planted…hard. Not my first for the day but probably one of the worst. My left leg was knee-deep in mud and water. As I tried to pull myself up and not lose my shoe, I felt a cramp in my left calf and I just sat there in the swamp watching Richard pull away from me in the dead of the night. “Ugh! Get up! Don’t lose him,” said the little voice in my head. “Shalini are you OK? We need to keep moving forward,” I heard Richard call out. “I’m coming!”
Finland to Cramer Rd (77.9 miles)
Ah, Finland! This was the first time I saw Jerod and Amanda since having left Silver Bay. There was a sigh of relief in seeing familiar faces and knowing I’d have Amanda running with me for the next stretch of race. It had started to drizzle, but the temperature held steady in the mid-50s. I ate some food, refilled my bottles, restocked my gels and bars, and Amanda and I were on the trail.
Richard was somewhere ahead of us at this point, as I told him not to wait on me. I was feeling pretty good, so I ran hard, passing a few runners in and out of aid stations. I even ran past Richard all the way till we hit Crosby Manitou at 62.9 miles. This is when the downpour began. I pulled my jacket from my pack and, with Amanda behind me, continued to slowly plug away at it. BOOM! Another butt-plant. I was in the mud again, and with the rain pouring down, I was drenched. My hair was dripping, and I was feeling a bit sluggish, dizzy and irritated with myself. No matter how hard I tried to run, I just couldn’t pull it, the trail was sloppy in the dark and my hands were freezing. Not a good sign, said the little voice in my head. Don’t stop. One step in front of the other is all it takes.
But soon, I was shivering. I’ve never experienced hypothermia before, so this was a bit of a shock. I turned to Amanda. “I’m freezing. Can I take your jacket?” “Sure,” she said. I threw Amanda’s jacket on top of mine, pulled out my gloves and asked Amanda to run ahead of me. This was the only way to pull myself. If I sat, I’d completely shut down. So, with Amanda patiently pulling me along, we made our way to Sugarloaf Aid Station. Coffee! I need hot coffee! I stood there throwing down coffee so hot it burned my mouth. Richard came up from behind us and asked how I was doing. I think I grunted, to which he replied that I’d feel better when the sun came up. And with that, he was gone.
We recommenced with a slow death march to Cramer Road Aid Station. I was way off my projected goal finish time. It was 9:40 a.m. when I picked up Jerod, who had been waiting since 6 a.m. and was amped up, ready to roll.
Cramer Road to Caribou Highland Lodge (103.3 miles)
This was the most interesting stretch of the course! Pretty much all of the 100-mile runners were on a death march, some moving forward faster than others, but a death march none the less. Morale was low, fatigue had set in, the overnight rain had taken its toll, and the terrain just kept getting harder and harder. The climbs did not lighten up one bit; it was a mud fest.
From the minute, I picked up Jerod, I was whining. I could hear myself do it, but there was no snapping out of it. Everything hurt. I was still cold and had my jacket on, and I was walking a 25-minute/mile. No amount of pushing or pulling me from Jerod’s end was helping. I hadn’t sat down once the entire race, but now I was looking for rocks to sit on. Oh! This rock looks good, and damn straight I sat on it. Jerod came up behind me and said, “REALLY?!” “I just need a few minutes,” I protested.
We made our way to Temperance Aid Station (85 miles). I made a B-line for a chair, and I could see the horror in Jerod’s eyes. I just need to sit and eat. Jerod shook his head and got me food. I ate and slowly pulled myself up to start the death march again. As we made the climb past Temperance River Road, Jerod asked if I’d kept my headlamp, as he didn’t think we would make it to the finish in daylight — at least not at the pace I was moving. We came up the bluff, and my butt was on the bench once again. Jerod tried to text Amanda to meet us at Oberg Mountain Aid Station with headlamps. I felt defeated, bogged down, and I didn’t want to run anymore. I’d officially hit a major mental FUD.
Everything around me was perfect. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze…the trail was begging to be run, yet here I was sitting and whining. “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. I will never be fast enough to finish. I hate this. I just don’t get it.” Jerod shook his head and continued to type on his phone as we sat on the bench. Right at that moment, I realized I was (over)indulging in self-pity. I’d signed up for this race knowing well enough what I would be up against. One is never a product of circumstances but of the choices that we make, and I made a choice to do this. Just like that, I was done taking a beating from the trail. I was done with the death march. And I was sure as hell not going to finish in the dark.
I got up and said to Jerod, “I’m going to run.” He pointed to the trail and said, “Go for it!” I did just that: I ran. I ran hard. I ran past 20 or so 100-mile runners, one of whom was Richard. I ran past 50-mile runners, and I ran past marathon runners.
I should add here that about a mile to the finish, Richard shot right past me and said I should stick with him and not Jerod. I never saw Richard at the finish line and never got to thank him for pacing me. Richard finished ahead of me at 33:39:50.
As for me, I didn’t stop running until the finish line. I finished at 34:00:51. I placed 66 of 138 runners overall, 10 of 22 female runners, and 3 of 8 in my age group (40-49). And it was still daylight well after I had finished!
Difficulty is a state of mind. When you push yourself to the edge, sometimes that edge will push back. It will push back hard. And that’s when you choose to accept defeat or push even harder. I’d rather be defeated taking on a challenge than to play it safe and never explore what’s beyond that edge.
To my pacers: Jerod and Amanda, thank you for gutting it out with me in the moments of distress and self-doubt. Pacing is the single most selfless thing you can do for a fellow runner, and I hope to repay the favor someday.
The Mind: a beautiful servant, a dangerous master - Osho