I sat down to our table at Starbucks just as Kai knocked his tiny hot cocoa all over his dad’s Hitchcock 100 sweatshirt. Ben juggled the cup with his right hand while catching Kai from sliding off the chair in his left. The two other kids giggled and tried to help. Ben and Mel finally got to bring home Malakai from Korea this summer after jumping through two continents of adoption hoops. Now their family – and faith – houses several kids, who are each loved greatly. Aside from adopting kids, he also juggles jobs, coaching, volunteering, playing sports, and ultrarunning.
Ben’s distance is 100 miles, and he’s got more than a couple finishes to buckle his belt with. The crazy part: he does it with the least amount of formal training I’ve ever seen.
The four of us, kids excluded, were gathered over a bold roast to plan the second Superior 100 Mile ultramarathon finish for Ben. Not that he needed us; Ben has never used crews or pacers to finish his 100 milers. In fact, we volunteered ourselves. The four of us are part of our local trail running community who keep in touch, run together, and do life together whenever we can.
One afternoon a couple years ago, running in rusty rural Cuyuna, we stumbled into another runner. He had a bloody knee. He wasn’t sure which way would get him back to the car. He tacked on as the caboose, and down the singletrack we’ve chugged ever since.
Running bonds you to others. Always. There’s some weird qualitative transfer that happens when you run with someone repeatedly. As atoms share electrons and form covalent bonds, we share conversation and form friendships. We swap weird dreams, fears, frustrations, goals, stuff. Dumb stuff, important stuff (hours and hours of stuff).
Ben is no ordinary dude. First of all, he loves Christ. As someone with a sticky religious background, Ben’s take on Christianity is wholesome and appreciated. Plus, he’s the epitome of generous. Once he drove nearly eight hours to be at my first 100, and he helped out enormously. Things during 100s are special and different than any other ultra distance. Maybe that’s why Ben loves them so much. It meant a lot to me. I wanted to return the generosity. That’s how bonds work.
The Superior 100 mile race is the race of the midwest.
It is a rugged course on a difficult trail through remote Superior National Forest. It will separate the seed from the chaff. It will measure you. It will weigh your worth. You will climb two thousand feet higher than the summit Kilimanjaro over the Sawtooth Mountains, and descend just as far. You will cross rivers and traverse the volcanic remnants of ancient glacial scouring. You will be running between through this wild, rocky landscape for up to 38 hours, and you will be mostly alone.
I have nothing but utmost respect for the Superior Hiking Trail. Having hiked/ran over half of its 310 miles in my lifetime so far, I feel a deep appreciation for the difficulty of its roots, formations, and mud. Superior mud is special: it’s like thick grease. The Fall Superior 100 covers 103 miles of light blue paint-blazed trail from Gooseberry Falls to Lutsen, MN. (If I sound a little lovestruck, it’s because I am. This is my dream race.)
It would be a mistake to underestimate the effort demanded by this point-to-point traverse. There’s more than one reason only 45% of runners finish the race on average, especially since those participants also ran a qualifying race and and won a lottery just to toe the starting line. Only the sincere and the strong will be able to dig deep enough for this one.
Ben had done it once, and he came in dead last. This year, he was going to do it again.
Ryan, Jill, and I were the crew.
In normal life, the four of us probably would not be close friends. Ben lives in another county, Jill is definitely cooler than all of us, and I probably would never have met Ryan since we don’t have day-to-day stuff in common. Running has bonded us over the years. None of us is very similar to another, so we bring a lot to the table all together. It’s fun. We never shut up.
Ben knew he had the first 50 miles under his belt, so we didn’t crew himthe first day. Instead, we volunteered at a couple of aid stations and cheered him on when he came through. I filled his bottles at Beaver Bay (about the first marathon mark); he was one of the last through.
“C’mon Bestland,” I remember thinking. “You can’t get cut this early.”
38 hours sounds like plenty of time to finish a race. It’s not, considering the elevation and technicality of the course. He was only a fourth of the way through, and he was in the back of the pack. I sent him off with encouraging words and didn’t mention anything about pace or place; I didn’t want him to be stressed for the next 24 hours chasing cutoffs.
The sun sank low and we wrapped up the Highway 6 Aid Station and continued up the North Shore to Finland. We waited excitedly, this is the halfway mark, and watched the runners come in and leave, come in and leave. We started glancing down at our watches. Finally, at 1:00am Ben came out from the darkness.
I was wrapped in my running clothes and a space blanket, ready to pace. He sat by the bonfire. Ben was exhausted and noncommittal. He slumped in a chair and struggled to take nutrition. In ultramarathoning, you don’t just hit physical highs and lows. You hit mental and emotional ones, too. Ben’s mind was in quicksand.
I knelt down and took his shoes off. He hadn’t checked out his feet because it was a beautiful, dry September day. A taconite bridge was out this year, and the course had been altered to include a deep river crossing (a few dozen miles earlier). His feet had been soaking wet all day. I was shocked to discover that he was suffering severe trench foot. I felt terrible pulling his sock back and watching his skin tear with it. He told me to keep going, “Duct tape the front. And the heel. And here.” I did. I tried to clean and dry his feet – it was hard to do in the cold darkness. Each of his feet was one, deep brainy blister.
At 1:30am, we set off together. Ben led, and I followed. For the next five hours we hiked together and chatted. I kept one eye on my watch and the other on Ben’s condition. We made steady progress through the night and started to pass people who were feeling the reality of their task bear down on their shoulders. Interestingly, Ben greeted every person we passed by name.
I knew we were still in the back of the pack. I hoped we were still going fast enough. Dawn came, and it brought new energy. I had been up for more than a day and I was happy to hand Ben over to Jill for the next leg of his journey to Sugarloaf. I tried to imagine how exhausted he must be. I finally changed into clean clothes and cuddled up with a pillow. Ryan was in the van with me. He giggled. He made me giggle. We were sleep-deprived. I was half-crabby and half-euphoric. Finally I put a sweatshirt over my head and slept. For ten minutes.
Jill and Ben were out there.
Ryan and I drove to the next station to rest, refuel, and get him ready to pace next. There’s probably no better pacer on earth than Ryan. At 4am, during my own 100 miler, I was missing Ryan’s jokes. It was Ryan’s turn to play in the woods and keep Ben moving. He hadn’t lost time, but he wasn’t gaining it, either. They would have six miles to the next aid station, Cramer Road, but it was mostly climbing.
Jill and Ben came to the gravel parking lot and sat by the fire. I pulled Ben’s shoes off again. My heart sank. There was zero improvement. They smelled more like death incarnate than the first time. Again, I taped up the tender spots (70% of his feet) and put him in dry socks, but I realized that I couldn’t fix it. He still had nearly 30 miles to go.
Secretly, I couldn’t believe he was still going. In his place, I’m not sure I would have. His feet were tender and painful. Ben did not have time to rest or time to slow down. It was looking more likely that he would have to surrender his bib to the HAM radio volunteer.
Ryan filled up on goodies and snacks and they set off. The next few aid stations are all stiff on cutoffs; they’re reasonable but not generous. I started to feel more stressed. We all did. The people Ben passed were dropping and being pulled from the race.
I had Ben for the next seven miles. The daylight offered vistas. We stopped and gazed out over the Sawtooth Mountains for a few seconds. I was in awe. In any direction you look, the only soul in sight is the guy next to your own shoes. We had an easier stretch, but we still didn’t gain time. I started doing math. Ben assured me that we would make it. I knew his feet were hurting him, but I also knew we had no more time to sit by fires or mess with shoes. It was coming down to the wire. I kept it positive and praised him every time we picked up the pace a little. I wanted him to keep having a good day, not trudge through anxiously.
85 miles in, Ben was still in the back. But, he had not missed a single cutoff. They were tight, though, and getting tighter. I would deliver him to Jill and they would summit Carlton Peak (no small climb) and meet Ryan at Sawbill.
There is one ruthless cutoff: Oberg Mountain at mile 96.2 (yes, you can get cut 96.2 miles into a 103 mile race). Ryan would have to get Ben to Oberg by 7:10pm. Jill handed him off and we nervously looked at the maps and calculated times. It was too close. We rushed to Oberg and waited around impatiently.
If he could make it to Oberg, we knew he would cross the finish line. Not because it’s all down hill from there; even if you’re lucky enough to make the Oberg cutoff, you still have to push hard up Mystery Mountain and Moose Mountain, the two biggest climbs of the course. There is nothing easy about this race. It holds you accountable to the end.
At 7:05 Jill and I were dancing around like we had to pee. Where is Ben! The volunteers were packing up. The sun was getting low. For a moment, it felt like the end.
At 7:06, I saw his orange shirt coming out of the pines.
They were the last to come through. He was going to finish! For the final leg, the 100 milers are allowed two pacers. Jill was ready.
I waited at the end.
My friends were out there in the deep woods, climbing their way out, slow and steady. At 38:05, I saw their headlights bobbing around the corner. I jumped and yelled and clapped, as did the final runners socializing at Caribou Highlands. Ben stumbled across the line and they awarded him his buckle. He swayed backward and we held him up.
Ben was the last to finish.