Saturday, September 19, 2015

Superior 100: My First 100 mile race

In November of 2012, a few weeks out from our first half marathon, I was sitting at World of Beer in Orlando, FL with my wife, Crystal and two good friends, Josh and Victor. We were discussing how I'd just heard this running podcast called "UltraRunnerPodcast". They had just interviewed a guy named Mike Foote who lives in a yurt in Montana. The mountains are his backyard and he runs 100 mile races. Oh yeah and that is a thing by the way. These people are crazy! I want to do it!

 This was the scene playing through my head as my 100+ fellow runners and I made the long bus ride from the finish line (Caribou Highlands Lodge) to the start (Gooseberry Falls). I was no longer worried if I had trained or prepared enough. I stopped worrying if I'd informed my crew enough. Everything else was out of my control. The bus ride was a roller coaster of emotions as I looked back over the years of dreaming, researching, planning, preparing, sacrificing, and training for this moment. It was a great place for me to be before the race. I had my carrot that I needed to dangle for the day. Luckily, a repeat runner, Harold Curioz, brought me out of my daze and I spent the last 20 minutes of the ride engrossed in great conversation about the trail and his running life.

The bus dropped us off at Gooseberry Falls at 7AM. After the hour long bus ride, I was already starting to get hungry. I ate a banana, grabbed a coffee, and started making my way through the crowd. The sea of nerves was endless. Everyone was busy with last minute details or busy reuniting with people from years past. I started pacing back and forth along the visitor center. I was ready to get  going, but with 45 minutes remaining, I could lose my mind first. Out of nowhere, Guy Comer, comes and strikes up a conversation with me. We spent a few minutes on introductions and then went straight to trail talk. I could not have asked for better timing. I needed someone to help me keep my mind of the day and there he was. I am continually amazed by this community of runners! When we heard the 10 minute warning, we wished each other the best of luck and scurried in our own directions.

The last 10 minutes went by in a blink and before I knew it, we were lined up taking last minute instructions on the course. John Storkamp, the RD, counted down from 2 and we were off! This year, due to a closed section of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), the first 4 miles of the race were on the bike path along Hwy 61. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people that had come out to support their runners. There were people all over the place for the first mile or so taking pictures and videos while cheering you on. A perfect start to the day! That first section seemed to go by in an instant. By the time I reached the tunnel that took us under Hwy 61 and into the mountains, my legs were starting to feel good. It was nice to get a few steady miles in before they got much tougher and slowed way down. I quickly thanked the volunteers that directed me to the trail and ran into the woods.

Once we hit the trail head, there was only 5 miles to the next aid station. I had already started eating and it was time to get my day into a rhythm. My nutrition plan was to eat half a sleeve (100 calories) of Clif Shot Bloks every 30 min. I planned on also eating at least a few things every time I went through an aid station. I started taking 2 salt tabs on each hour. Even though I wasn't sweating like I do at home in the summer, I didn't want to have any issues with water retention. I planned to never run an uphill, power hike only, and then run as many flat and downhills as my body would allow. The rest of the day, these would be my only jobs. Shouldn't be too hard to stay on top of. By the time we reached Split Rock Aid Station (mile 9.7) I felt like I had everything working right. I filled up my water bottles quickly, ate a few oranges, and was quickly back on my way.

Leaving Split Rock, I was looking forward to the next aid station. It was 10.3 miles to Beaver Bay and it would be the first time I'd see my crew. I had made a spread sheet for them with times I would reach different aid stations for paces from 24-30 hours. I was currently way under that and hoped it wouldn't affect things too much. During this section I set pace with Dan Rogers from Maryland. He was a strong runner that seemed to have done this a time or two. He had paced his friend at Hard Rock a month back and it was mesmerizing to hear his stories. We ran into the Beaver Bay Aid Station(20.1) together around 11:30AM. It was a full hour before the fastest time I'd given my crew. I quickly scanned the packed aid station. It seems that almost every fan of the race was here waiting for their runner. Even if they were here, I wouldn't be able to find them. I quickly decided to fill up my pack with Hammer Gel that they had at the aid station. I'd have to start eating them until I met up with my crew later down the trail. After quickly refilling waters, eating a few bananas and oranges, I headed down the trail. It was only 5 miles to the next aid station. I hoped I'd see my crew there.

Photo Credit: Zach Pierce
There was a lot of climbing on the way to Silver Bay and my hamstrings, which had been on the tighter side all day, really started to get tight. At one point, while running downhill, my hamstrings cramped up so bad that they didn't allow my legs to move forward for the next foot plant. My body took the next fall instead. I don't know what I was missing, but I needed to get this under control. I reached Silver Bay Aid Station (25) at 12:45PM. I was still an hour ahead of any pace my crew would have and I didn't see them anywhere. I couldn't let this alter my day. I refueled and watered at the aid station and headed off. The next aid station, Tettegouche, was 10 miles away and hopefully I'd see them there!

Overlooking Bear Lake
The section from Silver Bay to Tettegouche is beautiful. A few miles in, the trail rides along a ridge overlooking the Bean and Bear Lake. It is worth a stop! That was the last stop for me in this section. I was anxious to get to Tettegouche. It's always nice when you see people on the trail without packs. It tends to mean that you are getting close to an aid station! Just before I got to Tettegouche(35), there was a boy with his mom passing out homemade good luck bracelets. I gratefully put  mine on and sped up knowing aid was close.

Once I ran into the aid station, I immediately gave my water bottles to the volunteers to help me refill. I grabbed an orange slice and saw Crystal, my wife, running up to help with food! I was so relieved! Hammer Gels had not been working as fuel for me and it was nice to be able to get back on track. I reapplied foot balm, changed my socks and shirt, refilled my fuel, kissed my family and was out as quickly as I had entered. Seeing Crystal,Bea, and Wyatt, my son, was a big boost for me. I had still entered the aid station an hour ahead of any dream pace, so it was comforting to see that they were on the same page as I was.

It was 8.6 miles from Tettegouche to the next aid station of County Road 6. This section, though tough, seemed to go by quickly and with ease. I was mentally in a great place having just seen my crew. It was late afternoon and each view of Lake Superior gave it a different shade of blue. I started noticing that, one by one, I was starting to pass people that had been running nearby or in front of me most of the morning. My legs were finally loosening up and I was looking forward to the evening ahead.
Photo Credit: Bea McKee

We had originally planned that I would get my light and evening wear at County Road 6 (43.5). After arriving at 5:10PM, we decided that it would be unnecessary for another couple hours and we would postpone the swap until the next aid station. I quickly left County Road 6 for Finland anxious to meet the night! Other than a quick two mile ridge, this section was fairly run-able and I felt good. I continued passing people and feeling good as dusk was getting closer.

I  arrived at Finland Aid Station (51.2) around 6:45PM. My crew doubled in size as my brother, soon to be sister-in-law, and friend, Ben, were finally able to catch up with me after enjoying the local mountain biking trails all morning. Halfway done and I have all six of my crew there to support me for the start of the second half! I sat down and ate some food while Crystal helped me from my damp day clothes and into my dry, warm evening wear. My brother saved the day with a last minute extra "Mike's Bikes of St. Louis" jacket as mine was too wet! I wasn't there more than 5 minutes before it was time to go out and face the night. I said goodbye to my crew, which I wouldn't see for 12 miles, and was on my way.
Leaving Finland Aid Station  Photo Credit: Ben Jockers

It was 7.5 miles to Sonju Lake Road aid station. This aid station was not accessible by crew so I was hoping to get to and through it as quickly as possible. As the sun was going down, it became difficult at times to make out the terrain and there ended up being a lot of falls in this section. One could argue I was in a rush but it is a race. I remember feeling like I had missed the aid station after passing Sonju Lake and not seeing the aid station for a mile or two. Relieved, I reached the aid station and quickly refueled and left. Only 4 miles to Crosby Manitou (62) aid station. My family had camped here most of the week so I was fairly familiar with the area. I was looking forward to being comfortable with my location.

At 9:15PM, I was running up the gravel road into the campground parking lot. There were lights everywhere and a party atmosphere in the air. The aid station had a Hawaiian theme. Crystal quickly met me and helped me refuel. I was feeling good and wanted to just keep going. I wasn't there more than a few minutes, before I was headed 9.4 miles towards Sugarloaf aid station.

The first mile of this section,before Caribou River, had been traveled often by my family while camping and it went well. Once I got down to the river, I made a wrong turn and traveled ~.25 miles off course. Once I realized the markings had stopped, I backtracked and found the bridge to cross the river. The next few miles were some of the toughest hills on the course. On more than one occasion, I found myself sitting down on a rock mid hill climb because I found my heart rate too high. It was 12:45AM when I reached Sugarloaf (72.3) and my body had taken a beating.
Photo Credit: Ben Jockers

Photo Credit: Ben Jockers

It took me a bit longer to get through the aid station this time. My body seemed to need more fuel and rest at the aid stations than before. Crystal kept telling me that I was in 10th place and I was doing amazing! I couldn't believe it, but I just wanted to keep going! It was only 5.6 miles from Sugarloaf to Cramer Road (77.9) aid station. By this point in the race my body isn't moving very quickly, but I only need to move it consistently. Throughout the night there had been wolves howling in the distance, but during this section they got very close. At one point I remember just hoping and praying that the trail didn't climb up the ridge to the left, because they were up on or just over it! That will put an extra hop in your skip in the dark!

From what I remember, I dragged myself into Cramer Road aid station. I went directly to the fire as Crystal brought me a few food options along with some soda and broth. I told myself I wouldn't sit down, but soon found myself in the most comfortable chair ever designed. My body was shaking  uncontrollably. I was cold, it was in the mid to low 40s, but not freezing. I felt like a nap would do wonders for me. My body was trying to shut me down. There were a few volunteers, friends of other runners, and my wife all there giving me encouragement through some dark times.A few runners passed me but I was in survival mode and didn't pay attention. I spent almost an hour by that fire. Once I felt good enough to stand, it was time to keep moving.

I quickly made up my mind to continue and started hiking down the trail. I was freezing! I knew that once I got going my body would warm up. I tried to jog a few times when there was a clear trail or a downhill but my body wouldn't let me. I moved slowly but steadily and was at Temperance (85) aid station just before dawn. I was really starting to get excited. I didn't have much left in me, but I knew I had enough to make it 15-20 miles. Even if I had to walk the rest. It took a little bit of time to get through the aid station but I was determined to get it done.

I crossed the Temperance River and started climbing up to Carlton Peak just as the sun started to rise. The night had been long and my mental health needed some sunlight. By the time I reached the front side, I was showered in rays. The cold night was over and I slowly started warming up.  I reached  Sawbill (90.7) aid station at 7AM. My whole crew was there and I was pumped. I wasn't moving fast but I was alert and excited. I refueled a little bit and set off the 5.5 miles for Oberg Mountain(96.2) aid station.

Most of this part of the race is a blur. I don't know if I try to block it out or by then the repetition had become too much. I remember arriving at Oberg Mountain aid station and refilling my water only but stopping for nothing more. I just wanted it to be over. My brother offered to join me for the final 7 miles and I told him I would love the company. He was wearing jeans and a flannel. Within a mile he was looking for a knife to turn his jeans into shorts and had his flannel off. He was ready to rock! Unfortunately I had given almost everything already. He was patient and understanding when I crept down hills and kept my mind off of the road ahead. We passed a few hikers that lead us to believe we were close and reality started to sink in. The trail turned to a gravel road and my brother patted me on the back a few times and looked at me said "This is it....go get it!".

At 10:40AM , I started jogging down the gravel road which quickly lead to a paved road. My brother was jogging beside me giving updates on how much further I had left and which way the trail curved from here. We came up on some condos and the trail turned right and I could see the finish. It took everything in me not to break down. The emotions running through me in that moment were indescribable. I had never worked so hard for something in my life and the sense of accomplishment was more than I could comprehend or explain.  I can see how spending some time running the mountains of Montana while living in a yurt could help with that.
Photo Credit: Ben Jockers

Photo Credit: Dianna Hemann

Photo Credit: Dianna Hemann

Finished in 26 hours 43 minutes and was 15th out of 217 starters.

Shout out to my amazing crew!


  1. Congrats! Just re-listened to your interview on URP today to help settle my 1st 50 jitters this coming Saturday. Decided to check out your blog and see you're still continuing to inspire. Awesome job man.

    1. Thanks! More importantly, how did your race go? Which race did you run?

  2. My race went well. Had to run about half of it in a rain storm which slowed my time by 20 minutes per last 3 ten mile loops. pretty serious red clay slicks with 3-4" of rushing water on some of the downhills, but I still broke 10 hours on my watch. Officially I arrived 8 minutes late (due to driving in the rain and missing an important road sign) but they let me race after getting my number ect, ect. So on the race clock it was 10 hrs 11 min something. The important thing was I found i loved the distance and could have kept going. Next year I'll spend the night near by and not be as conservative with my pace. I absolutely loved the course (rain and all) beautiful place. Next is a 50k in December. Again thanks for the inspiration. It's good to see others who started late in the game but can still make substantial progress. Too many people let age hold them back from going for it.

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  4. Here is the race. I can't wait to do it again next year.