Finland to Sonju [Miles 1-7.5]
My phone chimed at 3:15am. Finally. I sat up in my tent and listened. The rain had stopped. I unzipped the door and hopped out. My friend Ryan was already boiling coffee. I clicked on my headlamp and brought my stuff over to say goodmorninghowdidyousleep. An hour later, camp packed and laces tied, we were driving to the start line. Ryan switched on the windshield wipers.
Everything was blurry. 3, 2, 1 and I found myself shuffling down a gravel road in colorful wash of disbelief and anticipation. 14 seconds ago I was drinking coffee in a warm truck. Headlamps everywhere bounced off raindrops and puddles, shiny leaves, reflective stripes on clothing, into darkness. The cool rain fell steadily. We swarmed down the road together in a pack and percolated one by one onto the Superior Hiking Trail.
Sonju to Crosby Manitou [Miles 7.5-11.9]
The SHT is well known for its rugged terrain and mud holes, which are especially slimy after nearly two hundred 100-miler runners grease them up for you. Mud looked like rocks looked like roots looked like mud. Indistinguishably. I could feel many small corrections and slips in my feet. We walked for a long time at the beginning of the trail to Sonju, all 150ish of us. A small alarm went off somewhere in the back of my mind that I didn’t have time to waste (I wrote the four hard cut-off times on my forearm in sharpie at 4am), but since the entire conga line walked, I did not stress.
Two miles in, Ryan and I suddenly found ourselves alone in a deep woods. I’ve never seen a race spread so drastically (as soon as the trail became somewhat runnable), or maybe we were in a strange sweet spot between groups. Our headlamps and conversation lit the way through the woods. The rain continued, but the forest was thick and filtered it into a mist. Ryan monitored pace and pushed the hills; I picked good footing through the tricky parts and pulled hard over roots and rocks. Blue slowly crept into the sky. The rain stopped. We saw a giant frog (that also looked like mud).
Ryan’s chartreuse Pearl Izumis turned black. There’s no point to delicacy in trail running, but I did manage to avoid plunging my feet into the deep holes. At least not right away. The morning broke. We switched off our lights. There’s no feeling quite like the day’s first sunshine trickling through the leaves.
We turned over 11 minute miles (which is remarkable on the SHT), crossed the Manitou river and ran along Horseshoe Ridge as the sun came up. Above the tree line, gaps offered glimpses of a vast, sparkling Superior. Mixes of dark and light green blanketed ancient lava flows below us. The lake was calm.
Crosby Manitou to Sugarloaf [Miles 11.9-20.5]
The word sugarloaf originated in the 1600s. It refers to a conical hunk of refined sugar boiled down into a mold and traded throughout Europe and the Caribbean at great value. Ironically this section made me quite salty.
After crossing the Caribou River, you enter a bipolar cycle: three steps easy, five steps hard, and a stiff climb up blank rocks. I could not find a cadence. The first hard cut-off was approaching: 11:45am at Sugarloaf. If we did not leave this aid station in time, we would be asked to surrender our bibs. My watch said 9:29; we had barely gone three miles in an hour. As our pace stuck in the mud and slid off planks, we started to realize the impact the morning rain made in our schedule. We passed a few runners and grew increasingly preoccupied with time. We were running on softened butter.
True, the hard climbs rewarded us with vistas. Alfred’s Pond is a peaceful detente from the terrain’s absolute insanity. We ran in awe of the enormity of this wilderness, this wildness. You can look toward the horizon in any direction and see nothing but endless forest and lake.
We came into the aid station, running hard, at 11:26am. It had taken us three full hours of work and sweat. Sugarloaf lived up to its reputation.
Sugarloaf to Cramer Road [Miles 20.5-27.1]
I left the aid station alone, eager to get to my drop bag at the halfway point which contained clean socks, my handheld instead of hydration pack, food, and most importantly more salt tabs. Fueling during an ultramarathon takes as much fancy footwork as dancing over interlocking root systems. Ryan is a mountain goat on the ascents; I assumed I would see him again in a couple minutes, miles, or at most at the next station. In actuality, I would not see him again until the finish line.
I met a dozen runners on this stretch that I would leap frog, encourage, and meet many times until sunset. We were all settling into a wonderful thing I like to call all day pace. That perfect rhythm of stride that somehow doesn’t feel like work. Finally. My legs still felt fresh as we climbed toward the halfway mark. One marathon down, one more to go.
Cramer Road to Temperance [Miles 27.1-33.2]
This is a special place.
I had started to begrudge most descents and bridges because every stream you cross leads you to the bottom of a boulder staircase. Or six. You have to figure that there are quite a few ‘stairs’ in 12,000 feet of elevation gain.
Instead, this section of trail led me to the bubbling Cross River and then followed it upstream. I ran the bank in the shade and, though it was not flat, it felt refreshing. The miles started falling away easily again. I was out of water and hungry, but I soon found myself dropping into the Temperance River aid station with a few new trail friends.
Though it was a beautiful fall day, running means sweating. I hopped off the path to a stony inlet and dipped my hat in the moving water. It felt like the rain again. I smiled to myself as I left; the Temperance River’s ironic name comes from its lack of sand bar.
Temperance to Sawbill [Miles 33.2-38.9]
Time disappeared many times during the day. People tell me how bored they would be running for so long. Those people have never put themselves out there and tried it. They haven’t found the freedom in the run, the freedom of the natural world. Trails make all contrived things seem small and silly. Though I probably spent hours completely alone, I never once felt lonely.
The next hard cut off was at 5:30, nearly six miles away. On a map it looks like there is a severe and dramatic escalation from river bottom to Carlton Peak, the largest in 100 miles. I left the Temperance aid station munching ice and entering back into the race mentally, steeling my mind for the ascent. Two hours seems like plenty of miles to go six miles. It seems like a reasonably fit person could walk there in two hours. Take that attitude to the SHT and let me know how it goes. In my experience, it’s better to approach with humility and determination.
It was somewhere around 35 miles when I first noticed that my legs changed. There is a certain transformation that occurs in the ultramarathon. It’s probably something scientific, like glycogen or a-den-o-seen triphosphate. As I ran, wincing at every corner expecting a basalt wall to climb over, it was merely a gradual incline.
“Uh-huh! I’d a walked her if my dogs wasn’t pooped out.”
-the hitchhiker in The Grapes of Wrath
I prefer to think of it as my dogs tiring out. Your legs feel less springy and denser. They seem to have cracked wise to what you are putting them through, and they have a thing or two to complain about. Tolerating the discomfort is not easy for me.
Just as I felt sure that it must just be a steady uphill smashed onto a chart that makes it seem disproportionately tall, bam! It’s a hell of an elevation gain. I dropped it into second gear and ground up it.
In running, I seem to have a handle on discomfort; it means that I’m pushing past a familiar plateau. Metaphorically, tolerating the discomfort is painful, confusing, and seemingly unbearable. When your dogs’s tired, you patiently press on. Practice, even exercise, tolerating the discomfort. I climbed out of the river bottom.
At 5:10 pm I stumbled upon the aid station. I needed to summit Oberg by 7:00 pm. I was slowing to 18, 19, even 20 minute miles with all of the climbs. I needed to go. Now.
Sawbill to Oberg Mountain [Miles 38.9-45]
I came back to the race. It’s barely six miles to the next cutoff, but at this point the body is acting differently (at least for me, still being relatively new to the ultra territory). I flew through the aid station, grabbing only water and the tailwind from my drop bag. I had thoughtlessly gotten water first and stared, dumbfounded and holding both my bottle and my powder. I took a drink, poured tailwind everywhere (it piled on my bottle like a sugarloaf) and screwed on the cap.
I admit, I felt stressed. The shadows were growing long. It was 5:25 pm. I ran for as long as I could and looked down again: 5:36 pm. Calm down, I told myself. You need to keep your head. From Oberg I had only one small fraction of the pie chart unfilled. I believe that I ran up and down more sawteeth and across at least one more river. Things got blurry again.
The beautiful escapade was setting with the sunlight and the purpose burned inside me. I had work to finish.
Oberg Mountain to Lutsen [Miles 45-52.1]
At 6:50 pm crew member met us half a mile from Oberg and warned us that we were 6 minutes “easy jogging” from the aid station. Course rules: you need to be in eyeshot of an aid station to avoid disqualification. I put it into high-gear, passed four or five 100-milers in front of me and ran fast.
I came in at 6:55, filled my bottle with water, grabbed half of a quesadilla, thanked the volunteers, and took off. Back into the woods. Into a familiar place. I took two bites of food and felt my stomach turn inside out. Reluctantly, I tossed my tortilla and continued on. I could taste the finish (and it didn’t taste like velveeta).
I’m going to finish.
10 pm is the final official cut off. Three hours to run seven miles. “Cake,” a limping 100-miler told me with a cockeyed smile. Moose Mountain was a formidable enemy, much taller at dusk at mile whatever when I couldn’t see anything beyond each corner. Every minute the trail grew more and steeper and rockier.
The sun dipped into the great lake and I switched on my headlamp. The night felt hot on my skin. The woods closed around me. Total darkness. I got goofy in the woods. Happy. A little nervous for the backside of the Moose.
Finish – 9:15 pm
I was slowed by the technical descent and I felt tenderness in my knees. I accepted that, too. I started to think of my friends, of food, of lights waiting for me. I felt excitement. Fatigue would fade in and out.
There is a litany of switchbacks to get out of the woods into Lutsen. One at a time, I worked my way up them. The only company was the brief hello, great job champion, and goodbye to the 100-milers finishing their final handful of miles. I heard the Poplar river. It’s time to leave the woods.
So I did. I hit the final slope up to the gravel, turned gravel to road, turned road to buildings, buildings to a grassy right turn, grass to colorful twinkly lights on a fence.
I came in running my heart out. Flying. Blurry. Completely present in the moment after thinking about that moment day every day for how many consecutive weeks. Finally.
Epilogue (exerpt from The Grapes of Wrath)
A land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: his hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground.
His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him.
For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch.
For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in… one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg. For a long moment the turtle lay still, and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs… until at last the center of balance was reached. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.
A light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.