Written By John Storkamp – Race Director
2016 was a milestone year for the Superior Fall Trail Race 100MI, 50MI and 26.2MI with the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race being contested for the 25th time since its inception in 1991 (there was no 100 mile race held in 2005). This years races were held on Friday September 9th and Saturday September 10th, 2016.
About the Superior Trail Race:
The Superior 100 Mile Trail Race is one of ten original 100 mile trail races in the United States – currently there are about 150 held each year in the US alone. The Superior Fall Trail Race is held annually the weekend after Labor Day with the event routinely hosting runners from 35 states and 5 countries or more on a typical year. Due to high demand and a limited field, race entry is held via lottery early in the year. The race is held on the Superior Hiking Trail also known as the SHT. The SHT is a world class 310-mile long distance single-track hiking trail in Northeastern Minnesota that follows the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior for most of its length. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, its power and magnitude undeniable. The Superior Hiking Trail is funded and supported by over 5000 individual members and countless volunteers along with corporate donors / sponsors and through various grants. The Superior Trail Race is proud to make a large annual donation to the trail association and works diligently to drive membership and volunteerism. The trail itself travels through forests of birch, aspen, pine, fir, and cedar. Runners enjoy views of boreal forests, the Sawtooth Mountains, babbling brooks, rushing waterfalls, and abundant wildlife. The lowest point on the trail is 602 feet above sea level and the highest point is 1,829 feet above sea level. Race weekend is comprised of three point-to-point races all ending in Lutsen, MN including the following race distances; 100 (103.3) miles with 42,000FT of elevation change starting at Gooseberry Falls State Park on Friday, 50 (52.1) miles with 25,000FT of elevation change starting near the town of Finland on Saturday and the traditional marathon distance race of 26.2 miles with 11,000FT of elevation change starting near the town of Schroder on Saturday. All three races boast nearly 100% single-track courses, a sawtooth profile of relentless ups and downs (usually sans switchbacks) resulting in those huge elevation gain and loss stats along with technical trails littered with roots and rocks. These factors all contribute to each race standing on its own as some of the toughest races of their respective distances in the entire country.
History and the Book – SUPERIOR:
While the events and courses are known for their difficulty and beauty and for being very well marked and supported (this year by 250 dedicated volunteers – most being multi-year volunteers), the Superior Trail Races may be best known for the sense of magic and community that permeate the event. Trying to explain this magic to someone that has never participated as a runner, crew member, pacer, spectator of volunteer is akin to trying to describe a sunset – better experienced than explained. The 25th running / quarter-century anniversary of the races inception coincided with the release of author Kevin Langton’s new book “Superior – 100 Mile Endurance Run, One of America’s Oldest, Toughest, and Gnarliest Ultramarathons”. Kevins book affords readers an intimate look into the events culture and history and through its 394 pages succeeds in capturing and conveying the magic of Superior to a wider audience – appealing to both runners and non-runners alike. While Superior is usually defined by the beauty and difficulty of the race course, the sense of community that the race is known for and the sense of accomplishment in finishing any one of the distances – this years race was enveloped in a palpable awareness of the races place in trail and ultrarunning history and its unique standing within the national ultrarunning scene – this again, brought clearly into the fore by Langton’s beautifully crafted book – WOO! You can check it out HERE.
100 Miile Pre-Race Meeting:
At Thursdays pre-race meeting at the 4H building on the Lake County Fairgrounds in Two Harbors the event worked (as always) as part briefing, festival, show, gala and reunion all in one – the energy and buzz as palpable as ever. In attendance were all 100 mile runners, their friends, family, crews and spectators – past race champions, race founder and original Race Director Harry Sloan, former Race Director Larry Pederson and many many more who have contributed to the race in a myriad of ways. Subtly and effectively yet unintentionally raising the enormity of the event and the runners chosen undertaking, internationally acclaimed (ultra) photo-journalist Ian Corless formally captured each and every runner in a stark and intimate monochromatic portrait after coming through the line and picking up their race packets. As the weeks and days tick down to a race of this magnitude there are always those milestones that indicate to runners that “this is getting real” including but not limited to the final long run, the packing of drop bags, the immediacy of the 10 day forecast and so on. This year, maybe no other single element hit home the “getting of this realness” as the simple yet revealing portrait that Ian snapped. This picture served as a reminder of who these runners were prior to beginning their journey – both their dreams and their nervous anticipation etched in their expressions as they readied themselves to tackle the rugged, relentless and remote Superior 100. After a briefing including race day specifics and a few anecdotes all of the requisite information was out of the way and it was time for the highlight of the evening including the newest induction into the Superior Trail Race Hall of Fame – Bonnie Riley. Bonnie is a long-time runner, supporter and volunteer at the Superior Trail Races and the induction personified, yet again what the race is all about for so many. From there, the anticipated run through and recognition of each and every runner participating in the race. Runners are asked to stand or raise a hand to indicate attempts made and finishes achieved at the Superior 100 – this another deliberate display of what the race values and rewards; effort (regardless of result), consistency and longevity all wrapped in, of course, community. “First time starting the Superior 100“… “Have started but never finished“… “One finish“… “Two finishes“… and so on. Applause for all and then we got to the pack leaders, the alpha wolves – Daryl Saari of Rochester Minnesota and Jerry Frost of St. Louis Missouri both going for their 10th, Susan Donnelly of Oak Ridge Tennessee going for her 16th and Stuart Johnson of Shawnee Kansas going for his 19th finish. Of note this year, the only other man with 10 or more finishes, Chris Hanson along with his wife and crew person extraordinaire Laura (Mrs. Hanson) were to spend the weekend volunteering – as Chris put it to me, “a year to give back”. Eugene Curnow is the only other 10 time finisher in the history of the event but is no longer with us but still lives vividly in our memories, R.I.P. Geno. Then it was a wrap, runners filing out through the overhead doors of the 4H building off to fitful sleep in anticipation of what would greet them in the morning – a long bus ride, great coffee, another reunion at the start line and the jumping off point, Gooseberry Falls State Park – the beginning of the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race
Superior 100MI Trail Race:
Stiflinglyhot and jungle-like humidity with a crazy high dew-point, yet mild, sunny and cloudy with wind and dry still air burning lungs, bone chilling rain and lightening with booming thunder all while traversing dry fast trails in impeccable shape but with deep shoe-sucking mud and standing water. Some of this perspective and astonishingly, this year, much of this reality – we would see it all but in the context of the history of the race, chalk it up to an average weather year.
Talking incessantly about the weather is a human trait, double it if you are American, triple it if you are from (or happen to be in) Minnesota and quadruple it if you are about to run a 100 – oh, and don’t forget to speculate on trail conditions extrapolating overall course conditions from a very small sampling or word of mouth. I joked at the pre-race meeting that rather than me tell the runners the weather report (because they think I know) that we should all go around the room and provide our own / favorite version of the weather report we got from their favorite app or source. Saturday morning in fact greeted runners mild, placid and looking to be ideal for 100+ miles of trail running. Two hours later, with even moderate exertion in the sun you would find yourself dripping with sweat and if you were running the steep little kickers and the technical shale strewn terrain of the Split Rock River Loop – then you may have already found yourself melting down, just a little,yes even this early in the race – welcome to Superior. Then there is perhaps the scientific fact but likely more so an observation of anyone who spends more than a few days a year on the North Shore, over the 100 mile race course it rains (or snows) every day, at least once, somewhere. Don’t like the weather on the North Shore… wait an hour.
Obviously focused on racing and not the weather (and due to his home base likely unaffected by the heat) the talented and strong Timbo Jenkins of Lexinton Kentucky in defiance of his own better judgment (and later at Beaver Bay to his crews chagrin) came into view completely and utterly alone as the first runner into the first aid station – Split Rock. Running his first ever 100 miler and with only a small sampling of ultra racing under his belt Timbo found himself undeniably in the lead but just 5 minutes or so behind came the cavalry – was he the rabbit, a target, chum? (Chum; A bait consisting of fish parts, bone and blood, which attract fish, particularly sharks owing to their keen sense of smell) or was he the real deal, the field behind was not sure, nobody was. Looking at the names of that chasing pack was this years Superior equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse including most if not all of the pre-race favorites including Pipp, Uhan, Schwartz-Lowe, Peltonen and more following in single-track legions – if one was to fall another would surely step over your carcass and would continue the chase (does not sound too relaxing to be the frontrunner now does it.) About 20 and 25 minutes behind respectively came the international contingent of our first women Carla Goulart of Brazil who earlier in the year took the win at Northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135 and past Superior 100 Mile winner (along with other notable ultras) and pre-race favorite Mallory Richard of Canada. By mile 25 / Silver Bay, first time Superior 100 participant Uhan and four time finisher and previous race champion Schwartz-Lowe would pull even with Jenkins – (both) former professional road cyclists Pipp and Peltonen were not far behind – Pipp running his first 100 and Garrett a veteran of many ultras, running Superior for his third time. In the next 10 miles which includes a lot of that aforementioned challenging “sawtooth” terrain along with the Bean and Bear Lake overlooks, Mt Trudee and the Drainpipe, Frank Pipp had made his move and arrived at Tettegouch (mile 34.9) with a 6 minute lead over the field with the look of a guy who was just getting warmed up – come to think of it, he looked like a pro-bike racer. Timbo Jenkins lost nearly 28 minutes on this section and looked to be playing right into the tried and true role of the early Superior antagonist who got it all wrong going for broke – Uhan and Schwartz-Lowe unapologetic took up 2nd and 3rd place. Mallory Richard went from being second female through Beaver Bay, to the lead and 14th place overall at Silver Bay to 10th at Tettegouche, now likely not worrying about the female competition but coolly calculating how many overall spots she could move up – it is worth noting that she did the same to great effect in the 2015 Black Hills 100 for the overall win against men and women alike. Late afternoon the weather changes came and early evening saw some isolated and likely refreshing rain showers. Now consider this for the next nearly 70 miles, Pipp would not relinquish 1st and Uhan would remain 2nd – as a pro cyclist Pipp no stranger to going on the attack and ridding (in this case running) a solid time trial. Many men in their first 100 with the start he had would have seen the wheels come completely off, instead Jenkins after a tough stretch or two (or was this an intentional adjustment / slowing or coming to his senses) would recover (or adjust) very well and go on to catch the old hand Schwartz-Lowe by Crosby-Manitou (mile 62.9). When I personally saw Adam at Sugarlof he said “I feel like I am running well but these guys are really fast”, he had little emotion tied up in this statement and he quickly did his business and got on down the trail and back to work. Jenkins would hang on all the way for 3rd even with notoriously strong-late-running Schwartz-Lowe pushing to overtake him once more – this impressive running resulting in less than a minute separating the two and 3rd and 4th place overall and really was “the race” as Uhan and Pipp had already proved themselves in a class of their own on the day. As evening turned to night there were several rounds of rain (I suspect no longer refreshing) ranging from light to heavy with thunder and lightning and for runners who spent Friday overheated and with resulting gastrointestinal issues this night got dark and it got cold – the dream for many likely transformed into a nightmare, many stumps used as impromptu chairs many gels unceremoniously vomited back up. Mallory, as if scripted and irregardless of conditions found her self slowly picking off the early favorite men throughout the race – here is a snapshot of how her race unfolded (position overall); Split Rock 34th, Beaver Bay 25th, Silver Bay 14th, Tettegouche 10th, County Rd 6 7th, Finland 6th, Sonju 5th, Crosby 5th, Sugarloaf 5th, Cramer 5th, Temperance 5th, Sawbill 5th, Oberg 5th, Finish 5th… in other words Mallory did not so much run Superior as she put on a clinic.
In the end Frank Pipp the former pro-cyclist living in Longmount, CO racing his first 100 was victorious running the 2nd fastest time ever for the modern day course, Joe Uhan a Minnesota / Wisconsin native living in Eugene, OR with a top 10 finish at Western and many W’s to his name placed 2nd, Timbo Jenkins in his first 100 after a bold start, a relative crash (or as speculated an intelligent readjustment from a fast start) a 1/3 of the way through the race had a strong comeback placed 3rd and race veteran, former race winner and oft Minnesota ultra volunteer Adam Schwartz-Lowe placed 4th – nearly catching Jenkins again and ending up within a minute of him. Mallory Richard, 3 time finisher, 3 time winner ran one of the most impressive, patient and tactical races we have witnessed placing 5th with a new women’s course record shaving nearly an hour off of the previous course record. To top her day and night (and day) off, Mallory hung out at the finish line on Saturday – casually chatting with other runners, friends and family. I arrived shortly after her finish with a load of drop bags from the shorter distance race starts, hollered to our volunteers to come help haul the heavy bags down the stairs – bounding up the stairs is Mallory, before I can stop her, a drop bag on her shoulder down the stairs she goes, then another – do you suppose Serena Williams helps clean things up at Wimbledon after dominating the final? Finishing second in the women’s 100 was now 5 time finisher and beloved Superior racer and volunteer Tina Johnson of Milwaukee, WI – third was Stephanie Hoff of Somerset, WI (was at my house on Monday for cleanup of course) for her third finish and fourth was Susan Donnelly of Oak Ridge, TN completing her 16th Superior 100. Those looking for their 10th finish, Daryl Saari and Jerry Frost finished close to Stuart for his 19th – now in the history of the event we have 6 runners with 10 or more Superior 100 finishes. The conditions, while not harsh enough to keep these battle tested veterans or top competitors from great performances near record (men) and record times (women) did take its toll on the field and after a record setting finish rate in 2015 (75%) we were back down to a very average / typical 64% finish rate in the 100 – remember that pre-race gala… well at 64% look at the runner next to you, only one of you is going to make it (the cold hard truth). Such is the reputation, the challenge and the allure of the Superior 100 Mile Endurance Run – if it was easy, we wouldn’t even want to do it. *The Stats – Registered: 257, Starters: 217, DNS: 15%, Finishers: 138, DNFs: 79 Finish Rate: 64%
The nature of any race held on the Superior Hiking Trail is that it is tough, whether that be the Spring or Fall versions of the Superior Trail Race, Wild Duluth 100K, 50K or 13.1 on the Southern section of the trail or any of the few smaller local races that take place on the trail between Duluth and the Canadian border each year. But of all the race distances none may be as tough as the Superior 50, on paper and as witnessed by the finishers rate. When evaluating the race the obvious thing staring you in the face is that this race is “just” half the the distance of the 100 so it cannot be as tough – easier by half, right? Well, that is not even half of the story and is not the metric by which this race should be measured… the mechanics of the race, the sections and terrain encountered and when you hit them along with the natural tendency for people to somehow justify in their minds that this is the easier more doable race as it is only half the distance of the 100 can lull competitors into a false sense of security. So can the 16.5 hour overall cutoff, it is generous by any 50 mile standards both in Minnesota and beyond – any thoughtful crunching of the numbers reveals that the Superior 50 is one of the more difficult 50’s in the country and while it may not be San Juan Solstice tough it is likely in the realm of Zane or some of the other grueling 50’s on the ultra calendar. As the race director I would personally stay at the finish line until Sunday night, waiting for each and every runner to come home but we have to consider all of the volunteers who give freely of their time, there has to be cutoffs, the race must have structure and in the case of Superior the cutoffs have to jive with the cutoffs of the 100. Take a look around, there are few point to point 100’s and even fewer with two additional / subordinate point to point races starting the day after. While the average paces to cover the first 20+ miles of the 50 mile race are relatively modest one must consider that the race starts in the dark, travels up hill for many miles from that hairpin turn off of the gravel road and the trail fluctuates from technical to sick technical for quite some time. While the 50 is very tough, it is by no means impossible and we see people from all walks of life attain a finish including young men and women in their early 20’s, and men and women in their late 50’s and and beyond and everyone in between – that said, it is one to be proud of if you can finish, not everyone can. Onto the race – really, there is no way to hype this one, no antagonist to set up, no late charging hero… this years men’s elite race was nearly no contest with Michale Borst of LaCrosse Wisconsin flying off the start line (almost comically fast as compared to rest of the field) and creating a huge gap in the first 1/4 mile – with ability to back up reputation and the chops to start that fast, not do any damage and hold on, Borst would hold up through the dark early hours in the rain, through the muddy sections and through traffic from the 100 and the marathon to go on and set a new course record of 8:38:01 – shaving about 15 minutes off the previous CR set in 2012 by James Sorenson of Minneapolis, MN – when James is on, he is scary fast too. The lack of drama is not a statement on the level of competition at this years race, the race had a solid field. In consideration of Mike’s performance it is amazing that second place finisher Kurt Keiser was nearly an hour behind, this being significant since Kurt is a former professional road runner and had been running some of the fastest times ever seen on local ultra courses including Zumbro 50 and Afton 50K earlier in 2016 – in short, he is no slouch and Mike’s time was just astonishingly fast. Jacob Lawernce, after an up and down season nailed this one for third showing himself and everyone else the runner that he is, placing only 5 minutes behind the talented Keiser and ahead of many other talented runners. On the women’s side Katrina Greiner of Dillon CO came into the race with little reputation (that we could see) and as she told me with modest expectations – having never consider running for the win. By all appearances she ran a controlled race for 1st place with race veteran, former winner and outstanding Grand Masters performer Rochelle Wirth placing second about 4 minutes back likely lighting a fire in under Greiner in those late miles and this was no longer a casual run in the woods. Third place was earned by Kelly Johnson-Runions of Long Lake MN. *The Stats – Registered: 175, Starters: 125, DNS 29%, Finishers: 75, DNFs: 50, Finish Rate: 60%
If the 100 is the race of legends and the 50 for the fleet of foot then the Moose Mountain Marathon is a breath of fresh air in the Superior Fall Trail Race family. When your “easiest” race of the weekend boasts 11,000 feet of elevation change, a never ending sea of roots and rocks, that climb (like hand and feet climbing with steps placed specially for boreal giants) up the backside of Carlton Peak and only three aid stations you know you have a tough trifecta and it is always comical to hear Marathons apologetically say that they are “only” running the marathon – down, down, down the rabbit hole they go! What the marathon does offer that the other two races do not is the opportunity for runners of all abilities (more specifically, paces) to test themselves on one of the toughest courses there is and experience the beauty of the SHT including some of my personal favorite sections of trail including the run down / chasing the rapids of the Cross River, the run down and back up the kettles and falls of the Temperance River, the long sustained climb up Carlton Peak, the stairs of Moose Mountain and the lovely Maple Forest climbing up Mystery Mountain before that final descent to the iconic and breath taking Poplar River. Owing it’s good fortune to the mechanics of the 100 mile cutoffs that structure the overall event timeline the marathon allows participants 14 hours for completion with ultra generous intermediate cutoffs – putting that into perspective, you only get two more hours to do the double length 52.1 mile race. What this allows for is for runners lacking speed (and justifiably so!) on this uber-technical terrain to get a finish as long as they are patient and determined (again, back to echoing the values of this event) and this year resulted in another very impressively high finishers rate of 98% – we love to see it. In a mirror image of the 50 mile race it was only appropriate that Jake Hegge of Onalaska, WI (friend, kindred-spirit and training partner of the 50’s Borst) would come flying out of the start, at one point (with some goading that was caught on film) likely running mid 4 minute mile pace just for fun. Jake would go on to hammer and hammer and with a little less mud may have captured a CR but on the day settled for the win and the 3rd fastest time ever run on the course chalking that up next to his still standing Superior 100 mile course record which from 2015. Placing second and still owning the second fastest finish in the history of MMM Ben Kampf of Minneapolis, MN ran 3:42:12 for his fourth Moose Mountain Marathon Finish now owning two wins and two second place finishes on the course – rounding out for third was Aaron Paul of Denver, CO. On the women’s side Stephanie Sathre of Chaska, MN took the win in 4:33:42, Gretchen Metsa of Buhl, MN took second and Heather Weckwerth of Montevideo, MN took 3rd. Helen Lavin’s 4:11:03 course record from 2009 remains in tact and is tied for the longest standing course record of all of the events race distances with Wynn Davis who holds the men’s marathon CR from his 3:31:26 also set in 2009. *The Stats – Registered: 331, Starters: 263, DNS 21%, Finishers: 258, DNFs: 5, Finish Rate: 98%
The Next Chapter:
After a whirlwind couple of days comprising every weather and trail condition imaginable – coinciding with every race scenario and emotion possible… Saturday afternoon into the evening was just right in so many ways and as if to bring it all to perfect conclusion a beautiful rainbow was witnessed over Moose Mountain just as the sun was beginning to set. As the modest yet sacred finish line spills into the adjacent patio filled with friends and family the excitement and anticipation of those final lionhearted runners coming in under the final cutoff grows (wolf-hearted – is that a thing?) Widely recognized as the best part of race weekend and maybe the best few hours of the year – intoxicated from the race (or is it the sleep deprivation) the music played, the campfire burned, stories were told (like fish stories told in this part of the state – “yes, yes, the mud was up to my thighs!”) and finishers, finishers were cheered one at at time in that sacred place. As is tradition the awards ceremony meant to recognize the fastest runners started just after sundown and was frequently (and intentionally) interrupted to cheer the slower yet no less important or determined runners across the line in those closing hours of the race. With sore legs, exhausted bodies, voices growing horse from incessant cheering and hearts truly, fully full – another chapter was written in the book Superior. I invite you to join us next year as a runner, crew person, pacer, spectator or volunteer as we write another.