The Resurrection | A Superior Sawtooth 100-Mile Trail Race Report

I did it. I got my first 100-mile trail race belt buckle; however, I share this buckle with the Superior Sawtooth aid station volunteers, my new friends Molly and Brian, and every other runner out there on that beautiful, but brutally technical, race course.

As I lie here in bed at the Caribou Lodge in Lutsen, MN, I am in complete pain and suffering intense exhaustion. I spent a straight 38 hours on that trail. I went to Hell and came back again. As if the trail itself wasn’t enough to shatter a runner, the trail Gods were relentlessly throwing every possible additional challenge my way. I suppose they wanted me to truly earn that buckle.

Physically, I feel like I’ve been run over by a pack of moose; but emotionally, I am a different person today. I am humbled. I am amazed. I have increased my faith in people, …in the human spirit, and experienced some of nicest, most helpful individuals on this Earth. I simply can’t say that enough and you’ll read why.

Lastly, I now, more than ever, truly understand the concept of “relentless forward motion”.

This is how it all went down:

“There aren’t any Mountains in Minnesota”

Yeah? Well, someone forgot to tell that to Minnesota.

Here’s how most conversations about my upcoming race developed:

me: “I’ll be running my first 100-mile race in September”

them: “wow, really? I don’t even like to drive 100 miles. Where is it?”

me: “Northern Minnesota”

them: “Well, at least it ought to be kinda flat…”

They couldn’t be more wrong. The Superior Sawtooth 100-Mile Trail Race has 20,000 feet of elevation gain and 21,000 feet of descent; and actually offers up 102.6 miles of brutal trail terrain. This is no exaggeration regarding this terrain and I am shocked that I haven’t heard more about this on the Ultralist, in the Ultrarunning magazine, or anywhere else.

I like to think that our Meat Grinder training grounds are gnarly rugged trails, but this Superior Trail up here in Minnesota made my training spots, and even the tough South Carolina Foothills, seem a whole lot less daunting.

Not many southerners get up to this race, but I’m officially shouting out to all the Laurel Valley runners right now. This race is right up your alley. The nature might be different, the tree species foreign, and a lack of sweltering humidity, but the the terrain is SC Foothills-nasty all the way.

There are millions of tree roots. Not little trip-ya-up tree roots, but big fat daddies that go on for ever and ever. Mini hurdles. And the rocks? …dude, the rocks. Bowling ball-sized is about the smallest, with most of the rock sections being large, mossy, slippery and dangerous – oh, and they like to appear during steep descents which makes it twice as hard to negotiate …especially when the legs and hips are sore and fatigued.

The hills, like Laurel Valley, are relentless. At least, at Laurel Valley, you have some flat sections and runnable, rolling uphill and downhill in which to stretch out the legs. No much luck at Superior. It is constant up and down. Again, no exaggeration. Sure, the mountains may never get more than 2000 feet, but you are presented with tons of mini-climbs constantly. I can’t stress it enough. CONSTANTLY. When you go up, you immediately go down. Almost zero ridge running. And once you descend to the bottom, you again immediately go right back up.

These trails are hard and the Minnesota runners, whom I’ve learned are quite a humble bunch, deserve props for being so tough and training/racing on some incredibly difficult terrain.

phew, ok, sorry to go so long into that, but it’s important to the story to really stress the terrain of this race. I love technical trail – it’s my absolute favorite – and this trail taught me a lesson. It chewed me up and spit me out and left me for worse more than once throughout the race experience.

It all starts at Gooseberry Falls, Minnesota

Northern Minnesota is what I imagine Alaska to look like. I have never been anywhere near this kind of area before and it was really stunning. Lots of tall pines of various type, big cliffs overlooking Lake Superior, and lots of untouched, undisturbed forests and nature. They have moose here. I think that’s cool. Moose.

I was amazed at how many runners had crews and pacers. This being my first 100-mile race, I wouldn’t have known how to put together such a group, but you could really see how much it meant to the runners to get hugs and support before the race.

I was sitting alone, trying to collect myself, my nerves, and trying to stay warm under a little patch of sunshine. Just minutes before the start, a girl comes up to me and says,

“You’re the guy from Atlanta, right?”

She apparently used to live in Atlanta, but transplanted to Minnesota and was crewing for her boyfriend. I’m not sure if I looked lonely and pitiful sitting alone in that little patch of sunshine, but she offered her genuine sincere support and said that she’d be at most aid stations and would be glad to help me with anything I needed.

Like so many others, she ended up being a big part of my race.

There were 57 brave souls geared up at the starting line, and at 8:00 a.m. Larry Pederson sent us off into the forest.

Don’t judge a race by the first 20 miles

Oh boy, was I ever cocky.

I trained hard. I was ready. I felt fantastically fit and strong. After all, I am CrossFit-man, and I was convinced that I could handle this 100-miler without falling apart. {wink, wink}

Ha ha ha — what a joke I am. I have so much to learn …all the time – and I seem to live a life of constant lessons and a big, fat foot in my mouth. Lesson one at Superior: pace yourself.

I ran the beginning of the race with Susan Donelley, one of my longtime running idols, and someone who has racked up a handful of wins at the Superior Sawtooth.

The weather was nice at the time. The views of Lake Superior and various elements of nature were captivating and plentiful, and it was hard not to feel especially at ease and comfortable. A few climbs here and there, but the beauty of trails at this point trumped the early challenges.

I was running pretty damn strong. Once I got to the Beaver Bay aid station, twenty miles into the race, I found myself in the front half pack of runners pushing a 25 hour finish pace; but I was beginning to pay the price of going out too fast.

I was already fatiguing significantly.

The trail changes face

What was once a manageable and visual masterpiece, became an intense, brutal beast. That’s one thing to note about this race – the toughest sections are also the longest sections with roughly ten miles between aid stations for most of ’em. Naturally, this is where the mental and emotional parts of your fitness come into play. It’s in these sections where you learn what your made of.

Miles 20-34 kicked my butt all over the place. This is where the relentless climbing began. Constant up and downs on inclines made up entirely of rocks. Many times, the trail, simply wasn’t discernible because it was rocks. (sorta like Blue Hell at Mt. Cheaha 50K) – You’d step on one rock, initiate a one-legged squat to get to the next rock, and then “swoosh”, the rock below you would fall and you’d end up over-stretched in a sort of front split, fearing a cramp and scrambling to find some stable footing before really injuring yourself.

This was a common scenario for me in this race. I had gotten to the loopy mental point where I would have discussions with the rock climbs before I started up ’em.

“Please Mr. rock climb. Please let me find the stable, secure rocks to negotiate, and NOT go tumbling down…”

or speaking directly to a particular rock:

“ooooo, I see you tricky-man, I’m not stepping there you bastard!”

I can only imagine what it must have looked and sounded like if anyone would have been around.

The rock hill after rock hill was always followed by just as nasty a’rock descent after rock descent. My legs were starting to get trashed and my inexperience was rearing it’s ugly head. “Smart” 100-mile veterans, who had paced slower earlier in the race, were starting to pass.

It felt like FOREVER getting through the ten miles from the Silver Bay aid station to Tettegouche, and I was soooo happy to finally get there, get some food, and collect myself a bit.

John Taylor becomes my dark buddy

John Taylor was an interesting guy. We had a similar approach to the trails, running well through the flats and downs, and aggressively power-hiking the ups, and even though I don’t think we really intended on staying together, off-and-on, like we did, it was a great help to me.

John was an experienced 100-miler. He has done over fifteen hundos, and over 75 marathons. He had tree-trunk legs and massive power on the hills. And massive power in the lungs!

Dude had a story for everything and was telling me all kinds of wild stuff. I appreciated this because it kept my mind off the growing pain in my legs, hips, and feet and generally kept me entertained.

The power of other people

I rolled into the Couny Road 6 aid station with John just before dark. He was stoked because he was an hour ahead of his time last year, so I was happy that I was a positive addition to his run and not slowing him down in any way. I was stoked because here they had grilled cheese sandwiches. I ate 3 of ’em. This was the 43 mile mark and I was still running pretty well. I was now in uncharted territory for myself since my previous longest run was only 40 miles.

Now, this is where I’d like to reintroduce the girl that approached me before the start the race. Almost every significant aid station had lots of runner crews, pacers and supporters all waiting for their runner so they could cheer him or her on and help them with anything they might need. Not having that for myself, this awesome girl would always cheer for me and offer to help me with my bottles or get me food. Sometimes it was her and some other girlfriends of hers cheering. It made me feel really, really good. I would have been lonely without it, and I began looking forward to seeing them throughout the race.

Never underestimate the power of support. I never will again. Ultras have a way of peeling away our insecurities about things.

Running in the dark is whole new ballgame

I was sorta’ looking forward to the dark since I planned to just walk all night, and regain running once it became light again – but nope.

When I shared that game plan with John, he had an unintentional way of making me feel my nighttime approach was sissy-fied. I know he didn’t really set out to do that, but there was no way I was gonna’ take that approach now. Not if he wasn’t. If he was running, I was running.

Running in the dark was a crazy trip for me. It gets so dark in the trails that you literally live inside a 15 foot circumference of light. Everything else around is pitch black.

To add difficulty to the situation, it began to rain, but it was a light rain which actually felt good, but made all the rocks on the course very slippery. {right John? hehe}

There were some rocky areas but for the most part, this particular section after county road 6 was very runnable and we cruised along this portion of trail and pretty much ran 90% of this stretch – crossing the awesome Beaver Dam thing – to the 50 mile point – Finland aid station.

You run the first 50 miles with your legs and last 50 with your heart

From here on out during the Superior Sawtooth 100, this mantra would continually be thrown at me from other runners, aid station folks, and complete strangers who wanted me to succeed.

This might sound dramatic, but my life changed after 1:30 a.m., as I left the Crosby Manitou aid station, headed through the most treacherous, the most intense, and easily one of the scariest experiences of my entire life.

The section begins with an immediate and ridiculously steep decline. A very, very long descent with huge, loose boulders, vanishing trail, extremely loud rushing rapids (that you can’t see, I might add), and all surrounded by total and complete darkness. This descent killed me and at the bottom, I sat down and began to second guess my decision to run this course.

They say it takes the first snowflake to make an avalanche and this was the beginning of my avalanche of self-doubt.

After finding, and crossing. the rushing rapids, the trail started climbing …and climbing …and climbing. Turn a corner, climb again. This climb was the nastiest climb for me of the entire race. I started to really hurt and tears were welling up in my eyes.

I was lonely and began thinking of my wife in our nice comfy king-sized bed, with posturepedic pillows, soft blankets, and a snoring beagle. Recently, before bed one night, she shared her concern for some of these nutty things I do and right about now, I was feeling a little guilty for making my sweet lady worry.

As you can see, I was sorta’ falling emotionally, and it was coming fast.

Extreme fatigue hit me during this climb and I found myself taking rest breaks along the trail. Just’a ploppin’ on down in the dirt, exhausted, and lying there thinking one or two minutes of sleep might help.

No luck. I’d begin to shiver and have to get up and start moving.

The most frustrating thing about long technical sections is the fact that without the ability to run as much, coupled with the painfully slow, difficult climbs, it feels like for-absolute-ever to get through it.

It took me about six hours to run this gnarly stretch and I ran it completely alone. I was cold, and shivering so badly, that with about 1.5 miles left in the section I ran. Hard. And never stopped running until I got to the 72-mile aid station – Sugarloaf.

Hypothermia in full effect

This is where I wish the aid station volunteers at Sugarloaf could jump into my report and share from their perspectives – but I was a complete mess. Babbling, stumbling, mumbling, shivering, nodding in and out of coherent-ness. I couldn’t really eat, didn’t want to drink, and all I wanted to do was close my eyes. Give me a chair, the ground, a bed of rocks, I did not care.

I wanted to drop.

The idea of trying to negotiate 30 more miles when I was already in a state of delirium seemed more than crazy – it seemed 100% impossible. In fact, I was so out of it, I didn’t even care.

Thank God that the volunteers cared. Every volunteer jumped to action with the intent of getting me well again and getting me back out on trail – even when I had given up all hope.

They wrapped me from head to toe in blankets (I hear there are pictures) in a sort of cocoon. They filled water bottles with hot water and put those under the blankets with me. I just shivered and shivered, under the covers, babbling a bunch of nonsense and proclaiming I was dropping this race and that trying to help me recover was futile.

I mean, come on – look at me {below}

I think his name was Patrick

I laid there for about an hour, shivering, and listening to runners come in the aid station, and leaving, all just adding to my frustration as my race placement fell deeper and deeper.

The guy that finally got through to me was a veteran runner volunteer named, I believe, Patrick. He had a sort of matter-of-fact, military-esque direct mannerism that somehow got me off that cot, out from under the blankets, and willing to try it his way.

He even gave me a dry, long-sleeved, shirt from his personal stash.

The volunteers filled up my bottles, gave me some food to carry, and Patrick lead me back to the trail telling me, “just get to the next aid station …don’t think about the total miles, just get to the next aid station and walk the whole way to recover.”

With that he wished me well, waited for me down a cup of soup, and I was, somehow, back in the game.

I honestly have tears in my eyes while I type this. It was an example of humanity during a period when every layer was peeled away from me. This guy, this entire aid station, saved my race and I will always think about them when I wear my buckle loud and proud.

A series of highs and lows

After about five miles, I started to come back to life. I wasn’t running again yet, but I was moving forward and starting to feel really good about NOT dropping. I ate a Snickers bar, took some more caffeine, and now that it was light again, the start to day 2, I actually started to feel, dare I say, “happy”

But that wouldn’t last long.

When I got to the 77 mile aid station, I had a drop bag there with Boost drinks, a warmer shirt and Ibuprofen – which by the way, did nothing for my pain.

Yet another lesson in 100-mile ultrarunning – expect severe high and low swings – and take each in stride.

…which I did not do.

As soon as my short spurt of elation evaporated, I began to collapse yet again. I got passed in this section by just about all the remaining hundred milers. I was so tired, I was wobbling on the trail and craving sleep. I don’t think I have stayed up all night like that since college, and the sleep deprivation was eating me up.

I would stop about every half mile during the 77 and 84 mile stretch and lie down to sleep. The marathon had just started, and runners were flying by, jumping over my legs and wishing me well.

“Keep it up”, they’d say.

“You’re looking great”…

Yea. I’m lying in the fetile position on the trail like a little sap. I’m mumbling. My hands are swollen the size of grapefruits and I can’t even make a fist to grab rocks on steep descents. My legs and hips hurt so bad that I’m stumbling like the town drunk.

Yep, I’m looking great.

Molly saves the day

When I finally got the 84 mile aid station, I had endured enough. I just didn’t care anymore. All I wanted to do was sleep. I had already rehearsed how I would rationalize dropping to all my friends, family, the ultralist, …I had accepted that I would catch a little grief for my steadfast confidence. All I wanted was to speak to my wife and be told, “it’s ok.”

I announced that I was dropping – which I have now learned is the stupidest thing to do if you really want to drop. There is no faster way to spark good aid station volunteers into action than to announce a drop.

People were feeding me food and every running cliche under the sun to change my mind.

Then, out nowhere, a girl named Molly said, “come on, get up, I’ll pace you to the next aid station”

Molly had started the 100-mile race with everyone else but got stung by a bee at around mile 24 and had a terrible allergic reaction. The ironic thing is that when it happened, she was right behind me with some other guy and when they caught up to me they asked if I got stung – and when we got the aid station after her sting, she looked all puffy and was scratching all over and peeling off her shoes and socks…

That was the last I saw her back at 25 miles, and now here she was, willing to help me to the finish. It’s crazy how things work out.

Her husband prepped her, we grabbed some food to go, and hero #2 and I headed back to the trail.

More rain? You’ve got to be kidding

I was NOT looking forward to going into my second night. I was hoping to finish this race before dark, however, a second night on the trail is more common than not during this brutal 100-mile race.

Molly and I made it through one additional aid station, and she continued to stay with me, chatting away and keeping my mind off of the pain. I couldn’t believe it. What an angel. A true angel.

Then, at about mile 92, it started to rain again.

“I can’t F’in believe this”, I yelled.

I was scared to death of getting cold again, like the previous night, and I had come this far only to possibly risk a finish. Molly and I got drenched. It rained really hard, and within minutes, I was cold again.

“This trail is doing everything it can to prevent me a finish”, I hollered. I was very upset and frustrated.

Molly stayed positive, we kept moving, and finally made it to the last aid station where Brian, her husband, had the truck. We scrambled into the truck, cranked up the heat, and thawed out for about 15 minutes.

I couldn’t find my drop bag at the last aid station, so Brian, who doesn’t even know me except as the guy his wife is pacing to the finish, gave me a dry shirt and a wind-breaker. The support from those around me made this race for me.

“I can’t believe it, I’m going to finish”

And with that, we checked out of the last aid station at 6:30 p.m., complete with lights for night #2, rain jackets, and garbage bags to keep us dry.

All I had to do was make it 7.1 miles to the finish. I was excited, but in so much pain that the upcoming 7 miles weighed heavy on my psyche.

The last stretch felt really long. There are some very tough climbs, including Moose Mountain (a ski mountain) and a bunch of steep, rocky descents. Seeing a theme here?

Again, I forced Molly to stop every now and again while I’d take brief, 1-3 minute breaks, lying on the ground in the dirt, against a rock or tree stump, and collect myself. The pain was tremendous and I was close to my complete breaking point.

The finish line

There was one guy in front of me whom we caught up to within 100 yards before the finish. I couldn’t see the finish line, but I heard everyone cheer for the dude so I started running. I was so happy, so elated, so satisfied, so emotional… and the greatest thing was seeing all those who supported me, helped me, and pulled for me to finish, all standing there congratulating me.

It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Yep, I got my finisher buckle, but I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of a cast of people here in the great state of Minnesota.

Thank you to everyone associated. I am indebted to each of you – and not just because you helped me get that buckle. It means so much more than that. You helped change my perception of the “fellow man”. You taught me that it’s ok to rely on other people, and hell, that other people get something out of it too.

You taught me to be more humble. Something I need to work on more and more.

I’m in a lot of pain today. My ass cheeks are so inflamed that a shower just hasn’t been tolerable yet – my chaff is so serious there’s puss involved. My hips cannot hold up my torso without 30 seconds of leg balance and acclimation, and my feet feel as though they are in a constant cramp.

I have heel blisters, between the toe blisters, and bug bites on my shaved head.

And I love every moment of this agony. I heard 29 out the 57 starters dropped the race, and while I can surely empathize, I am so glad I hung in there to get that damn buckle. So, so very glad.

I’m a hundred-miler now.

{pictures to follow when I arrive back in Georgia}

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Read all the great comments

Three Days to 102.6 Miles

I feel like I should be sweatin’ it – but I’m not.

I feel like I should be a little scared – but I’m not.

I feel like I should be preparing days in advance – but I’m not

I feel like I should finally start resting – ok, I am.

The Ceremonious Final Training Run

photo:One of the cool bridges along the trails where I train.

Even though I really not supposed to be running, I went out for a really cool two-a-day. The first run was early in the morning on the short Simpsonwood nature trail. I took a camera to force myself to stop often, run slowly and simply enjoy just being outside. The second run, later in the evening, was more of an exploratory run. I found some new trails, close to my house, and they were KILLER!

I can’t wait to continue exploring those trails upon my return from Minnesota.

photo: Tearin’ through Simpsonwood Trails on the final training day

Next stop – 102.6 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail

So that’s it.

I’ll see ya (virtually) later.

Next time you see me, I’ll be sporting the much coveted 100-mile finisher silver belt buckle.

Shout-out to CrossFit Endurance – Thank you for your support and prop’ing me on the front page of the site. You guys rock!