The Superior Trail 50K is a difficult 31 mile out-and-back race held each May on the rugged and beautiful single-track Superior Hiking Trail between Lutsen, Minnesota and scenic Carlton Peak. With 8,400 feet of total elevation gain and loss, the race is known for its long steep climbs on root and rock-filled, rough-hewn trails. I'd decided in January, 2012 to make this race my first 50K challenge.
I'd taken up running in 1998 when I was turning 30, running Grandma's Marathon as my first race, and since then had run a total of seven marathons, including the 27-mile 2001 Half Voyaguer trail marathon. I'd never been a very fast runner, but I had run a 1:29 half marathon and once finished third overall in a 5K. In 2006 over-training and a series of injuries led me to back off on my running, and although I kept on running, my 2000+ mile years were done, at least for a while. In 2009 I began trying to get back in shape and return to my old form, and its been a long road so far.
I'd been running simply to get healthy and have fun out on the trails since 2009. In 2011 I had gotten in four or five 20+ mile trail runs, and in 2012 in the lead-up to the Superior Trail 50K I'd run four 20+ mile trail runs, including a 27.2 mile run on the Duluth portions of the Superior Hiking Trail.
I'd been running injury-free and having a great time training, and when race day came around, I was looking forward to a good long trail run, although I was still some 30 pounds heavier than where I'd hoped to have been.
I started off with some 170 other 50K runners at an easy pace at 7:00 a.m. that Saturday morning in late May, and ran up the paved road and then onto a gravel surface for several minutes before entering the woods on a Superior Hiking Trail spur route.
It was a joyous climb to the first overlook and then I simply tucked in behind each group of runners I came across until I felt strong enough to pass anyone who detached from the pack, a technique I used most of the way to the first aid station at Oberg Mountain. The climbs weren't as steep as I recalled from a snowy late October run from Lutsen to Oberg Mountain and back I'd run for fun in 2009, but I was in groups who walked the steep uphills of both Mystery and Moose mountains, which probably made it easier than my memories from three years ago, when I ran the entire distance.
I was surprised at how quickly Oberg Mountain came into view and soon I was at the first of four aid stations -- two on the way out, and then the same two on the way back toward the finish. There I drank water and the race sponsors' energy beverage, ate a few small boiled salted potatoes, and had my water bottle filled by nice, eager race volunteers.
I'd checked the weather forecast 15 minutes before the race began, and the Weather Channel's weather.com website was still predicting a high of 72°F for the day. By the Oberg Mountain aid station I was struck by how warm and humid it had been for roughly six of the first 7.75 miles, but kept the forecast of 72°F in mind.
Throughout the winter and spring in Duluth about 95 percent of my trail running, including my four long trail runs of between 20 and 27.2 miles, had been at at 55°F or cooler. Even at 72°F the day would have been my warmest long run of the year, but it turned out to be a rare freakishly hot and humid day in Minnesota, with 100°F degree temperatures in the Minneapolis area and over 90°F in the Duluth region, and Lutsen wasn't excluded either, with temperatures in the 80°Fs, I learned after the race. As the race wore on runners began commenting about the heat, which worried me, as it confirmed what my own body thermometer was telling me despite telling myself that it was only going to get up to 72°F during the race.
The stretch of trail from Oberg Mountain to the Sawbill Mountain aid station may only be less than six miles in length, and much easier than the first segment from Lutsen to Oberg, but for some reason it seemed to be just about the longest 5.55 miles I'd run.
From the Oberg Mountain aid station on I ran the majority of the race by myself, and this stretch was particularly quiet and seemed to go on forever. In part this may have been due to the ever-rising temperature, but in the final minutes of that section I wondered if I'd taken a wrong turn, a fear I was able to thankfully set aside with each tasseled red plastic racecourse marker.
I was quite hot and uncomfortable when I finally reached the Sawbill aid station at the 13.3 mile mark, which was mostly out in the direct sun, so after getting food and drink I found some nearby shade and lay down for a few minutes and ate a packet of energy gel. I then stood nearly ten minutes in the sun waiting to use the one restroom, which turned out to be occupied by a mother and her young son. I had to laugh at how long they were in there, and just as I was about to skip it and continue on, the door opened -- but only for a second -- and then it was another few minutes before it was finally free. I used the time as an opportunity to rest, but probably should have just run on as soon as I'd found the restroom occupied.
I left the Sawbill aid station and started out on the trail climbing to the very top of Carlton Peak, sporting one of the best and most expansive views in all of northern Minnesota. This section featured a surprising amount of running on boards and raised mounds over wetlands, before entering a steep climb to the summit. I felt the sun as it blazed down at the exposed rocky areas leading to and at the summit.
A runner coming down had told me that a beer was waiting for me on top of the peak, and that hadn't sounded too bad at that moment, although I knew I wouldn't partake even if offered, with only 15.55 miles down at the halfway turnaround point of the race. I bounded up to the summit, spoke briefly with the race volunteer stationed at the race's official turnaround spot, took in the view for an all-too-brief five seconds or so, and then took off running down the trail I'd just ascended, to try to conquer the next 15.55 miles before I could reach the finish line.
I pulled back into the Sawbill aid station and took in more food and beverages, and sat on a rock in the shade for a few minutes. At this point I knew my finishing time would be at the slow end of my prediction range of between five and a half and seven and a half hours, and I just wanted to be able to finish my first 50K trail race, hopefully under the cutoff time of eight hours.
If the 5.55 mile trail section from Sawbill to Oberg Mountain seemed long on the way out, during the return trip it was most definitely the longest 5.55 miles of my life, and a trail running Bermuda Triangle of sorts.
My body is used to running a stretch of this distance on trails in a certain amount of time, and it was telling my mind that the aid station should have been coming up for what seemed like the better part of an hour. I was a bit frustrated with my pace, and was still going under the assumption that the temperature was roughly 72°F, although my body was adjusting my pace seemingly on its own, I believe, to conserve energy and allow me to finish this very difficult hilly 31 mile race.
By the time I arrived at the final aid station of the race at Oberg Mountain, having run 23.25 miles, I had done some rough calculations and suspected that I could still finish before the cutoff time. However I figured that it might be close enough that I decided not to stop at the Oberg support area and utilize my drop bag -- filled with my own food and drink and a change of socks or, if needed, shoes -- and instead just fuel up for a few minutes and be on my way, which I did.
I had just one segment of trail left, the 7.75 mile portion from Oberg to Lutsen, with the two biggest climbs of the day ahead. In 2009 when I'd run from Lutsen to Oberg and back just as a fun morning run, I'd taken under three hours for the round trip. On my way out earlier in the day I'd half-noted reaching the Oberg Mountain aid station in roughly an hour and 39 minutes, which with an even-paced return trip would put my total time for the segment at three hours and 18 minutes. I didn't recall my time when I ran out of the hot sunny Oberg Mountain aid station, but over the next 20 minutes I somehow convinced myself that I would end up without nearly enough time to finish the race under the cutoff time, and thought that I would need to magically gain an entire extra hour to even have a remote shot at doing so.
The next few miles were the low point of the race for me, as I resigned myself to being at peace with simply finishing this grueling, punishing 50K trail race on a hot and humid day, and not getting an official time. I tried to focus on enjoying the solitude in the forest run and being fit enough to at least know that I could finish. I slowed to walking the uphills then, and worried that my wife Julie would worry about me coming in so late.
After a while I began to recalculate the earlier finishing time predictions I'd made after leaving the Oberg Mountain aid station. After 24 or 25 miles of hilly trails my on-the-fly math wasn't at its best, but as if from thin air I somehow found that magic extra hour I'd dreamt of previously, and after double and triple-checking I came to the conclusion that I had a chance to perhaps just barely finish the race under the cutoff time.
My dejection moved to cautious optimism, as I realized that an official time could still be possible. I picked up my pace, which had been very slow, and soon started the first of the course's two longest steep climbs. I kept telling myself that I'd see where I was in a half hour or in 15 minutes, and try to gauge whether I could make the cutoff time. I passed a few racers on the first climb, and felt my first slight left calf and quadricep cramp of the race, which caused me to slow my pace. I successfully walked and slowly ran off the cramps, and luckily they only came back mildly a few times.
When I reached a sign showing 3.5 miles to the "Ski Hill Road," I could see I had my work cut out for me if I was going to beat the eight hour cutoff, and worked to gain as much ground as possible as I began battling the clock.
The final climb seemed never-ending, and eons slower than when I'd run it in 2009, but eventually I reached the summit and ran down the trail hoping to soon see the exit to the road. I caught my first glimpse of the ski slopes through the trees, but I was farther away than I thought.
A half hour of time left turned into 15 minutes, and I felt my chance at an official time slipping away -- the last portion of the trail seemed longer than I'd remembered it, and I feared that I'd miscalculated.
Finally I saw the last portion of trail and the first bit of gravel road ahead, and in a dream-like state that mixed heat, humidity and the cumulative effects of having run over 30 miles, I saw that I only had some six or seven minutes left to reach the finish line.
The road portion of the race seemed excruciatingly longer than when I ran up it nearly eight hours ago, and I thought of how unfortunate it would be to come in just seconds over the official cutoff time in a 50K race.
I pushed myself as much as I could and realized that I would literally be fighting to reach the finish line before the official cutoff time, a position I never thought I'd find myself in. A well-meaning woman yelled out to me as I ran past, "Just one mile to go!" I hoped that she couldn't be right, however, and kept pushing, soon taking a final right-hand turn off of the pavement and onto a dirt path, where my wife Julie came into view just a few hundred yards ahead. She and a group of people on the other side of the path cheered me on as I sprinted onward, knowing I had mere seconds to make the time cutoff and not knowing exactly how far away the finish line was.
I entered the home-stretch and the race's finish line announcer saw me coming and told everyone at the finish area that one final runner -- me -- was trying to make it in under the cutoff time, and with that the assembled runners, volunteers and their friends and families started clapping and cheering me on.
I turned on the last of my speed and as I crossed the finish line I saw 7:59:01 on the clock -- 59 second under the cutoff time.
I was elated as the energetic race director handed me my official wooden finishers medallion, and I went to recover with Julie after running my first 50K trail race.
Drinking cold water and eating an energy bar and resting for a few minutes felt luxuriously great, and after cheering on other runners as they came in we returned to our cozy room on the shores of Lake Superior at Lutsen Resort just down the hillside. I soaked in the lodge's large bubbly whirlpool, eat an enjoyable post-race meal at the resort's pub, and we returned to Duluth the next day, with my legs feeling surprisingly good. I was astounded at my luck in that I didn't take one stumble or even so much as trip during the entire race.
130 runners out of the 170 entered finished the 50K (the majority of the races' 500 participants ran the 25K course), so perhaps the heat took a toll on many people that day. I feel quite lucky to have finished, and I happened to come in ahead of 15 runners, including two tough runners who were out on the course for over 10 hours.
I'll look back on the Superior 50K trail race as a positive experience on a very tough, wild trail, filled with eight hours of adventure, hundreds of friendly runners, and dozens of helpful, encouraging volunteers. I look forward to doing it again. Hopefully on a cooler day.