Photo Credit Cole Peyton
An interview with Shelly Groenke (SG) about her 2018 Superior 100 finish, which at 60, makes her the oldest ever female finisher of the race. Interview conducted by Kevin Langton (KL)
Disclaimer: Shelly Groenke is a running partner of mine and this interview was done via audio recording, after a run at Seven Mile Creek between Mankato and Saint Peter, Minnesota. She’s been quietly collecting hardware at races for a long time. Race Director John Storkamp once told me, “It seems every time I see Shelly, I’m putting a trophy in her hand.” Shelly may be the toughest runner I know, and she’s now the oldest female to finish the Superior 100.
KL: Shelly, congrats on your finish at Superior 100 (36:03:11). While we should celebrate your finish this year, it’s important to note that last year you dropped at Sugarloaf, and dropping is something many runners experience at Superior. What did you do differently this year to prepare? What gave you that edge to finish?
SG: I trained for the 100 specifically this year. I did lots of hill work. I did longer timed runs, longer intervals—some on the track but I did a lot of them on the gravel road. The hill repeats were great—they were tough; they were hard. Having a coach (Jake Hegge) made it different. He keeps me honest, keeps me on schedule. I have to report everything I do to him. I have to report in, say what I did, how it went. He’s really good. I’m really happy with that. I’m glad I made that decision.
KL: You worked a lot in the winter, didn’t you?
SG: Yes. A lot.
KL: Did you have a burn from not finishing last year?
SG: That was not a good running year. I couldn’t focus. I wasn’t feeling great. I had some lung issues and that was probably a lot of it. This year I went out with a new focus. I started from ground zero. I started over. Everything. Jake told me to take time off through the middle of November, so I took almost two months off. In the winter then I did longer runs on the weekends, strength and mobility at home during the week, and hill work and timed runs (intervals) during the week too.
KL: We better not give away all Jake’s secrets. One of my favorite things I’ve ever seen was you finishing this year. Did you know you might be the oldest finisher of this race?
SG: I did not. Somebody mentioned it at the finish. Did you mention it or Scott [Scott Rassbach, Shelly’s pacer]?
KL: Scott said something about that at the finish line. He had done the research beforehand. Did he bring it up while you two were running?
SG: He did, yes. But I kept trying to focus on the trail, on myself. I was just zoning in and out.
KL: Is there anything you want to say about being so old?
SG: Although I love to play the age card and joke about it with people I’m running with, I don’t think of myself as old. Being challenged and accomplishing the challenges are more rewarding with age. Run happy and smile! I remember running with you last winter. We were running up a hill and you said, if we smile the hill won’t be so hard. I smile when things get tough. It helps.
KL: You’re not old. Let’s talk about the race.
SG: The start was tough. I was really nervous. I wanted to stay with you and TJ but I couldn’t. I had to run my race.
KL: Well you finished and we didn’t so I’m guessing you’re the smart one.
SG: You went out too fast. Even at the line I was so nervous. But that was a good thing. The previous year I didn’t care less if I was at the line or not but I was ready to go this time. I dressed right, ate right—I could probably eat a little better though.
KL: Let’s talk more about the race itself. You said you went out slow at the start. How’d that feel?
SG: It was hard because a lot of people passed me, but that was all right because I kept track on my watch. I was told to run my race and that’s what I wanted to do, good or bad.
KL: Do you have an idea what that meant, what “running my race” looked like to you going into it?
SG: Yeah, because I didn’t run with anybody early. I knew a couple people along the way but they would take off or I would take off. Doing a lot of the training on my own helped me to mentally prepare for running alone.
KL: You did a lot of solo runs out here.
SG: Yeah, I did a lot of runs of four to five hours here, back to backs.
KL: You’re always good at not being stupid at the start.
SG: I was pacing myself behind runners who I knew were good runners.
KL: You mean smart runners?
SG: Yeah. I kind of kept them in focus. But they’re better than I am. They’re stronger.
KL: I don’t know about that. I can’t imagine anyone.
SG: I had to do my own race, not try to keep up with somebody. Because I can’t do that.
KL: So let’s move ahead to Beaver Bay or Silver Bay, where you really start to feel this course.
SG: I was trying to remember from last year where Bean and Bear Lakes are, other landmarks. I was looking forward to that area. I was alone a lot in that area, which surprised me. But then again, I just kept my mind on other things. I first fell in that area, so that fall was for Tom [Weigt]. I just tripped on something and fell. I knew my game was on when I fell, because I haven’t fallen in a long time. Speaking of Tom, it occurs to me all the wonderful friendships I’ve made through running. My “running guys” gave me confidence in myself and all the support I could ever ask for. Coming into the aid stations was so cool. When I came in this year it was nice to know I had someone there waiting for me [Shelly rarely races with crew, but this year her husband Doug crewed her for the first time]. I told Doug the only thing he couldn’t do was let me quit. I have to give him credit, he did a great job for a first timer.
KL: And you had Scott Rassbach with you as a pacer. You paced him to a Superior finish in the past? What did having a pacer do for you?
SG: He started at County Road 6 [mile 43]. It was dark when I got there. I can’t remember the time then but I know it was 11:30 when we left Finland. It was so nice having a companion there. We don’t talk a lot. Well we do and we don’t. We’re both pretty quiet. Maybe I would have made it without him, but I wouldn’t have had as good of a time. He helped me get in and out of aid stations faster, within ten minutes. Before we would get there he would say, “Let’s have a plan. Let’s do this, this and this.” So that helped a lot because we’d make a list of what to do and he’d remind me. And it helped having a crew at those aid stations too, to grab whatever I wanted or needed. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the aid stations, which is good, because then I start to lollygag.
KL: How was your night?
SG: I remember getting cold a couple times. Having someone there, Scott, helped a lot. And then from Finland on I know the trail better from running the 50 a few times, and that made a difference. Coming into Crosby was tough—that gravel road, I don’t know why I always struggle with that. And that next section’s a long haul. It’s tough. When I got into Sugarloaf, I sat down and thought, “Yep, if Scott wants to quit, I’ll quit.” I was thinking it and I was doing the devil/angel thing on each shoulder, listening to each of them. Scott said, “Okay, it’s time to go.” That was the first time he had to boot me out. And Doug said, “You can’t quit. You only have 30 miles left.” Sure Doug [shaking her head and laughing]. But as soon as I left that aid station that’s the first and the only time I cried. I got so emotional leaving it. That’s when I felt I was going to finish. I got on the trail and I was crying.
KL: Sugarloaf is where you dropped last year, so that was something big to get beyond.
SG: They cheer you on when you leave the aid station. They see your name on your bib. That’s what got me.
KL: I cried there last year. I wept. I think it’s because I knew you were done. And because I needed a cheeseburger really bad, some calories. But I think it was really because we couldn’t run together any more that day and I knew you wanted it so bad.
SG: Me too. I cried too. So I got past that big mental spot and I knew I was going to make it. It was tough though. I can usually handle Carlton pretty good but it kicked my butt this year. Coming down was hard, I think just because I was getting tired. And then everything just seemed to keep rolling. I felt great. Nothing really hurt. I was getting tired of course. And then I’m getting closer and getting closer and finally I laugh, and I think, I’m going to do this. Just laughing a lot. By the time we were coming into Oberg, I told Scott, “I have water. I have snacks. Let’s just go in and say hi and bye and then get it done.” As soon as I heard the Poplar River, that was my goal. I was so focused. We were going across that bridge at the end and Scott stopped. And I said, “What? This is the right way, right?” And he said, “This is what you’ve been wanting to hear.” He made me stop there crossing the river and soak it in, listen to that river, just for a couple seconds and then we took off but I’m glad we stopped to recognize that moment. I had been hoping for it the whole race. After that I think I laughed all the way in.
KL: You looked to be in such great spirits coming in.
SG: I was totally awed that I made it. At that time I didn’t even realize the feat that I had just done.
KL: Has it sunk in yet?
SG: I don’t think it has yet. I look back and I’m so happy I did it. I worked hard. I worked hard to do it.
KL: You said earlier that after crewing you, Doug said, “When I do this again…” Are you going to do it next year?
SG: No. No. Nope. I want to leave that one on a happy note. I’ll run other races, but I want to keep this as my happy run.
KL: What else should we mention?
SG: My mom and dad. My dad was a true athlete. So’s my mom. My dad was a great runner when he was in high school in Windom. They did mile runs and my dad was always first but his brother, who was younger, ran it as well and my dad would stop at the finish line and wait for my brother so they could cross the line together. And my mom, she’s just so strong. She’s a great athlete. She played early women’s softball, like a Field of Dreams thing. My mom is tough—I thought of her a few times and all the stuff she’s gone through and I thought, if she could do that, I can do this. I ran parts of the trail for my dad, parts of the trail for my mom. It felt like they gave me strength out there. I know my mom was worried about me out there too—she always does.
KL: Final thoughts?
You find your inner self out there. You find out who you are. Without anybody around. It gives you time to think. Maybe too much thinking sometimes. I think a lot of times we’re stronger than we give ourselves credit for. I put so much work into it this year—I had to go into it knowing who I was. I challenged myself along the way. The hills rocked. I’m so happy with the hills, and that’s huge for me. I ran a lot of hills, over the winter even. Your inner strength comes out in this thing. You have to have physical strength as well of course.
KL: You looked great finishing.
SG: I was happy.