Roots and Roots: A Superior Trail Run
By John Dodds
As an Air Force brat, I lived in a lot of places. My roots include Finland, MN where we lived in 1954-55. My dad worked at a radar site whose mission was to detect bombers coming from Russia. Fighter aircraft were stationed at Duluth, about 70 miles south to intercept any detected bombers. The airbase was closed in the early 1980s, and empty buildings now occupy the site. The first aid station for the Superior Trail 100 is in Finland. Although you canít see the base itself, you do run past Airbase Road just after leaving the aid station. It was sort of strange running a trail race through the area where I had once lived (even though I, being such a wee lad back then, have no memory of the place).
The ST100 is a difficult run. It is a great trail. What I remember most about it are the roots. I have never seen so many roots. How would I describe them? Gnarly, dude.
This report is going to be somewhat different from my earlier reports because (hopefully) this one will have useful information in it. I did not know anybody who ran this race before doing it. The web site for the race didnít have a lot of information on it, either. I am going to fill in a lot of the gaps in the hopes that more people will run this race.
Why ST100? I had run Catherineís and Catoctin this summer with no plans for anything else. I was supposed to be on Reserve duty the weekend of the race, but that duty got canceled around the time of Catoctin due to lack of funds. Since I had a free weekend, I checked the trail calendar and discovered the ST100. Since I had lived in Minnesota before and had run Grandmaís Marathon in Duluth in the summer of 1999, this race seemed to be a good one to do. So I signed up, paying the late fee as usual.
Training. As it turned out, Catoctin was my last big training run, which was 4 weeks out from the race. I went on vacation in August, managing a 20-mile run on the rolling roads in the Pennsylvania Dutch country and a 5-hour run on a flat canal towpath in New Jersey. Not the optimal training for a difficult, hilly 100. When I returned Labor Day weekend, I bolted out to Massanutten on Monday for a tune-up run. I ran from Elizabeth Furnace over Shawl Gap down to 613; then back up and down Shermanís trail to Elizabeth Furnace. I took it fairly easy (3.5 hours) as I didnít want to risk an injury. I wished I could have done more long runs, but that wasnít possible.
What to expect. The run is a point-to-point with 14,000í of climb. According to one race report, it has a lot of short, steep climbs. No monsters like Massanutten apparently. It had a 34-hour cutoff, thus indicating a tough run. The web site didnít have an elevation profile or even a complete course description. I knew it was basically single-track trail with one 7-mile road section along busy Highway 61, which runs next to Lake Superior. I was looking forward to returning from vacation to read the more detailed race information I was expecting in the mail from the RD. It came, but there wasnít a lot of information. Basically, it had the aid stations and the mileages. There were pages of some maps and sketches, but these seemed to be for the benefit of the crews. It was very confusing. I then got a separate mailing with the same list of aid stations but with a reference to a ďnew course sectionĒ (whatever that was). In addition, the cutoff was raised to 36 hours.
I wasnít sure of all the arrangements, so I finally broke down and called the RD to ask the following questions; her answers follow:
Is there a pre-race pasta dinner included in our fee? No. But a restaurant in Beaver Bay will serve spaghetti that night. [Beaver Bay is 3 miles south of Silver Bay, the location of the packet pickup. Both are on Highway 61, the highway on the North Shore.]
Since I paid $5 for the shuttle, is the shuttle from the start to the finish or vice versa and what is the schedule? If you park at the start, the shuttle will bring you from the finish to the start. There are 2 vans that will run when there are enough runners. Also, you can park at the finish (Grand Marais, also on Highway 61), and a van will pick you up in the morning and bring you to the start.
Can I turn in a bag with my drop bags that will be placed at the finish? Yes.
Since we finish at the Grand Marais High School, will we be able to take showers there? Yes.
Will there be food at the finish? Yes. There will be a barbecue.
What is this reference to the new course section? The old course was not allowed to pass over private property, so we had to use 7 miles along Highway 61. But the Superior Hiking Trail has now been built around the other side of that property, so weíve eliminated that road section. The first 33 miles of the course is all new. [Which explains why the list of aid stations I received did not match up with the aid stations in the prior yearsí race reports.]
After our phone conversation, I was less up in the air and sort of knew what to expect. Sort of.
My arrangements. I flew from Dulles to Minneapolis on a Thursday evening. I arrived around 9:30 p.m., rented a car and drove to Duluth, arriving about 1:15 a.m. I stayed in the barracks at the air national guard base. I could have flown to Duluth, but it was cheaper to rent a car. I slept late, ate breakfast, worked some more on my drop bags, and made the little over an hour drive to Silver Bay, stopping at Gooseberry Falls State Park on the way to eat my sandwich. I arrived in Silver Bay at 1 p.m. for the briefing. This is an odd time for a trail briefing, but it allows the race personnel time to do their stuff and get a good nightís sleep. You could leave Dulles on Friday morning, but then you canít drive to Duluth in time for the briefing. In this case, you have to fly to Duluth. And then you risk delayed flights, etc. Which is what happened to several people (coming from other than Washington) who then missed picking up their numbers and the briefing.
We were done in Silver Bay in about an hour and a half (checking in, picking up our numbers, placing our drop bags, and the briefing). After the briefing, several of us were talking to one of the race people, and we asked about wolves and bears. He said we should be more concerned about encountering a moose on a trail. Although moose, like ultrarunners, are apparently pretty stupid, they will charge you. He said it would be best to just wait them out until they leave the trail.
I then drove to the start so I would be familiar with the route in the morning. The race used to start in Silver Bay. It now starts about 11 miles north of Silver Bay. You take Highway 61 north and make a left on County Road 6 for a little over 2 miles. You park in a big gravel pit on the right. Route 6 is one of the roads to Finland, so I continued on that road and visited the old, deserted air base. I then drove south back through Silver Bay to the Beaver Bay Inn for the pasta dinner (which I paid for separately).
There are several places you can stay the night before the race. You could stay in Beaver Bay or Silver Bay. Or you could stay farther south (maybe 45 minutes away) in Two Harbors (this is the place where Grandmaís Marathon starts). I stayed in Illgen City right on Highway 61. It is about 5 miles north of Silver Bay. From here, itís only about 6 miles up Highway 61 to County Road 6 where the start of the race is. I stayed in the Whispering Pines Motel. All these places are options if you want to stay near the start. If you want to stay near the finish, then youíd go to Grand Marais.
I know this sounds confusing, but going south to north on Highway 61, you have: Beaver Bay, Silver Bay, Illgen City (Route 1 which goes to Finland), and County Road 6 (which goes to the start and then continues to Finland). Highway 61 is the highway of Bob Dylan fame. Itís also the same highway that used to go from Thunder Bay, Canada all the way to New Orleans, I believe. I donít think itís all still there. This is the road on which many blues artists came out of the delta to Memphis (in case you were wondering).
What to prepare for. Daytime temps were forecasted to be about 62 degrees with overnight lows of 43 degrees. There was an 80 percent chance of rain for Saturday evening and Sunday morning. There were 17 aid stations; one was an unmanned water stop, thus leaving 16 places for drop bags. I had 7 drop bags, and I took all kinds of stuff to put in them. I was prepared to be wet and cold. I had numerous ponchos, rain suit, tights, trail pants, gloves, hats, etc. This was only my 3rd 100-miler, and the most difficult to prepare for since I was flying this time (I had driven to the 2 others-Vermont and Massanutten). It was also more difficult because I was now without a crew, unlike Massanutten. It took me three evenings to prepare my drop bags. Everything I take I put in plastic baggies and then place in the drop bags. And in every plastic baggie, I put a paper that lists all the contents of that plastic bag. On one of those papers, I also put the name and distance of that aid station, the name and distance of the next aid station, and the name and distance of my next drop bag. During the race when I come to my drop bag, I pull out all the plastic baggies, line them up, and read down the contents of the papers. These act like checklists for me during the race and hopefully will keep me from forgetting anything. Hopefully.
In addition to being concerned about staying warm and dry, I knew I had to deal with blisters, especially since we were expecting rain. Finally, there was nausea, a big problem for me at MMT100. I made sure I had enough SUCCEED on me and in several drop bags; I had KAME seaweed rice crackers in all my drop bags (that Jeanne Christie first gave me at Powellís Fort at MMT100); I carried crystallized ginger and also had it in several drop bags; and I also had beef jerky. All these were to keep up my salt content.
The race. We started at 5:00 a.m., according to the RDís watch. The temp was about 63 degrees. I wore a long sleeve shirt and promptly got overheated. I stopped and changed into a short-sleeve shirt and, as a result, ended up in last place. The rain started at 6:30 and ended at 10:00. People who had run the race before were surprised how difficult the new section was compared to the old section. I thought the course was great all throughout. As I mentioned before, the course is difficult. The surface has a lot of roots and at times a lot of rocks. It has a lot of short steep ups and downs; no repeated big climbs like Massanutten. There are some, though, that seemed close. The scenery is fantastic, especially the white water rivers you cross. There are not a whole lot of panoramic views, but the ones you do get are great. Several times, you can see Lake Superior, which is just gigantic. There are marshy areas of the trail where cut-up logs were embedded. These were tough to run on since they were wet. At many places, there were half-logs used as small bridges. Sometimes, they were doubled (side by side). These were not constructed well, and you had to be careful since they were wet and rickety. In addition, there were numerous places that had side-by-side planks to carry you across wet areas. Since these were wet from the rain and not well constructed, these were very difficult to navigate. My rule was to always walk the planks.
It got light just before 6:30 as I recall, and it got dark at 8:00 p.m. We had a waning gibbous moon with 71 percent disk illumination. It was cloudy most of the night, but I did see the moon on at least one occasion. The course is runnable at night (if you are capable of running). It is not like the two MMT100 sections that begin with Short Mt., which make running dangerous due to the rocks. Fortunately, it was not as cold as forecasted. Someone said the temp was 49 degrees. I continued to wear shorts through the night, but I did wear a long-sleeve shirt (no need for a jacket).
For those I met who had run ST100 and MMT100, they said MMT100 was harder. I think I would agree. What I couldnít figure out then as I was going along was why it was taking me longer to run this course than MMT100. As it turned out, it took me half an hour longer than MMT100 (after I subtract my hour and a half at the Edinburgh Gap aid station). If you plan to do ST100, train for it as you would MMT100 and then be pleasantly surprised that it is not quite as difficult. I know there are some of you mountaineers out there; you will not be disappointed in this course.
I thought I could do this race under 30 hours - not so. I finished in 31:52. I seemed to get a little tired in the race between miles 32 and 42. At 50, I stopped for a major overhaul of my feet. I couldnít get the blisterblock to stick to my feet even though I had dried them off well. So, I used duct tape instead. I spent 30 minutes at the mile 50 aid station. Later on when I developed more blisters, I kept on running so as not to lose more time. I was looking forward to running at night since I had just received a new flashlight in the mail 2 days before I left. It has a 7-bulb LED that uses 3 C batteries. It worked great. However, I came to a point where I just didnít feel like running and it continued that way throughout the night. When the sun came up, I got my energy back and actually finished the race fairly well. In the morning, I got a bad case of blisters on my feet. I thought about stopping to try the blister block again or use duct tape, but I didnít want to take that much time. At the time, I had 17 miles to go, which would mean over 6 hours. It was pretty painful running at times. In retrospect, I should have stopped and fixed the problem.
There were only 55 runners in the race, so after the first part of the race, you are pretty much by yourself unless you run the same pace as someone else. I ran by myself for most of the time, occasionally seeing another runner briefly at an aid station. I did run with another person on Sunday morning from mile 83 to 95. If you want solitude, there is nothing like being in a northern Minnesota forest running/walking in the dark by yourself for over 10 hours.
Improvements. There are a couple areas that I think need improvement. Since I have run 3 100s now, I am emboldened to make suggestions. (1) Course markings. I think youíll find most people saying the course was well marked. I didnít make a wrong turn, so I guess I would have to agree. However, I think my anxiety level would have been lower had there been more ribbons (the course is marked with pink ribbons) and glow sticks. Since there are not a lot of cross trails, I guess the thinking is that you donít need a lot of ribbons--if youíre on the trail, then youíre going the right way. Be that as it may, itís nice to have ribbons every once in a while, especially at night, to let you know that you are still on course. They do have such ribbons, but I think they need more. Turns are not indicated by two ribbons as is the custom around here. Itís just one ribbon at a junction and then another ribbon right after the turn to indicate the new direction. I like the 2-ribbon method since it makes the turn more visible. (2) Aid tables. I read one race report that said the aid tables were sparse. I think that may be true. For example, there were no potatoes as I recall through mile 50. I only recall potatoes a couple times-and they were right out of the can (I heard one runner later tell the RD that the race should have cooked potatoes). Also, I donít remember any aid station with chicken or turkey sandwiches; they all had PB&J. What got me through the night and the next morning was chicken noodle soup, which they all seemed to have. But here again, there was a minor glitch. One place had Healthy Choice soup, assuming we were a bunch of healthy runners. There was no salt in the soup at all. They did have a salt shaker that I used, and I explained that we crave salt during a run.
These are probably pretty minor points and should in no way detract anybody from signing up for this race. I should also point out that itís my observation that itís kind of difficult for the RD to get volunteers who would help in these areas. Iím not sure why this is. Perhaps itís the location of the race. But then again, itís not far from Duluth where there should be a good source of runners/volunteers.
Musing. What I canít figure out is why there are not more runners in this race because it is such a great course. I think this is the best trail run Iíve ever been on, even better than Laurel Highlands. Maybe it was the 7-mile road section that turned people off before. That section is gone now. However, the new section does have some gravel road to it (I would guess about 3 miles). This is far better than running on the shoulder of Highway 61.
Maybe itís the location. But itís easy to get to. Only an hour from Duluth. Which brings me to Grandmaís Marathon. Who has ever heard of Duluth anyway? Apparently, quite a few people, because the limit at Grandmaís Marathon is 9,000 runners. Can you believe that? 9,000? The limit was just over 8,000 when I did it in the summer of 1999. Explain to me why 9,000 runners would want to run 26.2 miles on a highway when only 55 runners sign up to run a beautiful, virtually 100% trail. Surely, there are more ultrarunners in this country.
The other day I stopped by the Arlington County Library to read the October issues of the running magazines (I canít afford to subscribe to them because I have to save my money to pay the VHTRC membership dues). Running Times says Grandmaís has thrived for 25 years ďbuilding a reputation as one of the finest races in the country, indeed, the world.Ē The article also quotes a state tourist t-shirt: ďIf a man says something in the forest, and no woman is there to hear, is he still wrong?Ē And Runners World has a 5-page article on Grandmaís. Of course, we all know why Grandmaís is such a draw-the fast course and the chance for a better PR. Now, you may not get a PR at ST100, but you are going to get one incredible trail run. So whatís the point? If northern Minnesota can be a mecca for road runners, then why canít it be so for trailrunners? There is no reason why the ST100 race should not be near its 200 limit.
People. I want to mention two people to show you the determination of an ultrarunner. As I approached the unmanned aid station at mile 78, I saw a woman runner standing there. Weíll call her Heather (because thatís her name). I had seen her only briefly a couple times before; she was leaving the aid stations as I was arriving. She said her knees hurt. Since I was prepared for every eventuality, I gave her my last three motrin. She also said she was queasy. I gave her a piece of crystallized ginger and told her to eat it slowly and then to take it easy after that. I told her it would make her feel better fairly quickly. This was her first 100. She said she did the Superior Trail 50 the year before and now she decided to do the 100. Wasnít that stupid she asked. I said yes. I ran on ahead, telling her not to give up because she had come so far. Shortly after that, the sun came up, and I ran to the next aid station (mile 83). I wondered how sheíd do. I was surprised when she arrived at the aid station while I was still there. She left before me, but I soon passed her after leaving the aid station. She said she felt pretty good. Apparently, later on she had another spell and then got sidetracked following pink and black ribbons. Anyway, she persevered and finished. I saw her later in the parking lot sitting in the back of a vehicle, shivering. She had earned her buckle.
And then thereís Vinnie. I first saw him at the aid station at mile 83. He left before me, but I caught up to him, and we started talking. It seemed so familiar. Then I asked him had he run Massanutten that year. He said yes. Then it all came back to me. We had run together a bit right after Powellís Fort up Menaka Peak. Now, here we were again. We ran together for quite a while, Vinnie leading the way for the most part. He kept us on a good pace. We were talking about a 32-hour finish (1:00 p.m.), but it was beginning to look doubtful. I took the lead for a while and we made it to the last aid station. It had taken us 40 minutes to go 3.1 miles. We had 80 minutes to go the remaining 5.7 miles. If we kept the same pace, we just might make a 32-hour finish. Vinnie said his quads had about had it and for me to go ahead. I took off hoping there were no big hills remaining. Just out of the aid station, there is a grassy trail (or road) that went uphill forever. It must have been over 3 miles. I ran the whole thing. I thought then that it would be all downhill after that. Not so. The trail went down, looped back up, crossed a couple roads, down, up, back, etc. It was frustrating. And painful as my blisters hurt pretty badly. I couldnít believe that somewhere in my mind I had decided that this much pain was worth a 32-hour finish. I mean itís not like Iím going to win a gold medal or anything. At 12:51, I was in the middle of the woods with no sign of a high school (or a town in sight). But I knew I was running pretty well and remember saying to myself that there better be a school in 9 minutes. Finally, I came to some type of building and was diverted around it and then popped out onto a grass field. Here was the school. A gate was open and you run the length of a football field to the finish. I sprinted across the field (mainly because people are watching you). It was 12:58. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was a limping, shivering wreck. [Little did I know at the time that the official time was several minutes behind my watch, so I actually had several minutes to spare.]
I know youíre wondering about Vinnie. After all, this is supposed to be about him. I waited at the finish to thank him for getting us going from mile 83 and keeping a good pace. But he didnít come. Susan Donnelly came in and said she had passed him and he was moving pretty slow. So, I sat down in a lawn chair in the end zone waiting for him. Rich Laceyís wife, Margaret, asked me if I wanted anything to drink. (She crewed for Rich-his luggage had been shipped to Amsterdam so on Friday he went out buying stuff for the race. I had given him some plastic bags for drop bags.) I told her ginger ale. She checked but there wasnít any. She said she would drive to a local store to get some. I told her not to do that but she insisted. And she did so, bringing back several bottles for me and then would not let me pay for it. And I know what youíre thinking: what about Vinnie.
Vinnie finally showed up. He was barely moving. Susan had told me that this was his third hundred-miler in as many weeks. So when he came across the field, we all stood up and applauded as we had done for the other runners. And then I went over to him and said: ďIíve been sitting in that chair for over an hour and a half shivering in this weather. I could have taken a long, hot shower in that time. But, no, I wait for you. Now I find out that this is your third 100 in a row. No wonder you have no quads left. I have no sympathy for you, Vinnie.Ē And I walked away.
Did I tell you this story to show that I was a jerk? No ( I was just joking anyway). It took Vinnie over 3 hours to go that last 5.7 miles. Never say die. Determination. Perseverance. Call it what you want, it was remarkable.
Damage assessment. I can truly say that in this race I hurt from my head to my toes. My feet and toes were the worst. I had numerous blisters and some places that went straight to raw skin without the benefit of a blister. Next time (if there is a next time), I will take better care of my feet. Only one gouge in my leg from a log. I wore a Camelbak, and as usual, had a big rash on my back where the base of the pack hits my back. Iím not sure why this happens as I keep it cinched tight and have no chafing on my shoulders. I wear RaceReady shorts and had a rash on either leg where my gel flask and SUCCEED bottle rub against me. After the race I took a long shower and when I stood under the shower, the spray hurt my head. I then remembered that I had bonked my head pretty good during the night ducking under a fallen tree. Since I have a bad back, itís hard to get under some trees. I apparently didnít do so well on that one. I still have a tender spot on the top of my head from that incident.
Public service reminder. After the post-race cookout (hamburgers, brats, potato salad, beans, etc.) and the shuttle back to the start, I then headed back to Duluth. Should take about an hour. It soon became clear that I was too tired to drive safely. Once again, I stopped at Gooseberry Falls State Park and took an hour nap from 8-9 p.m. I then headed out again and went to Grandmaís restaurant in Duluth for its famous chicken wild rice soup. The kitchen was closed by the time I got there. Bummer. This was the main reason I had signed up for this race. I stayed again in the barracks in Duluth and drove to Minneapolis the next morning (Monday) to catch my early afternoon flight back to Dulles. I was home at 6 p.m. Oh yeah, forgot to mention the point: donít run a 100-miler and drive (too far).
Final thought. From what I could tell, a large part of the effort of putting this race on was borne by the RD, Darlene Poeppel, and her husband Brian. Darlene even drove one of the shuttle vans back to the start. I hope that with their continued efforts this race gets the stature it deserves. And I hope this report gives you some useful information and that you all will consider this race when youíre planning your next 100.