Superior 50

Last weekend I traveled to Minnesota's North Shore to run the Superior 50: 52 miles through the North Shore Highlands and Sawtooth Mountains on the Superior Hiking Trail. On the Thursday before the race I flew into Duluth and drove a rental car 90 miles up Highway 61 to a lodge at the Lutsen Mountains Resort, the finish line for the event. Friday I met David Bitner and his partner Marin at Tettegouche State Park for lunch and some easy hiking on the cliffs next to Lake Superior. Marin would be running the Moose Marathon (the last 26.2 miles of the 50 and 100 mile course) on Saturday and Bitner, a 100 mile finisher in 2019, would be pacing a 100 mile runner overnight. After a few hours with them, I drove north again to Grand Marais to wander around and find a pre-race dinner, and then back to the lodge to sleep before Saturday's early start.

Finland, MN, 5:00 a.m.

The 50 mile race began at 5:15 a.m. in Finland, Minnesota. A school bus took me from the finish to the start, leaving the resort at 4:15. Friday's clouds and rain were gone and the 50 mile race kicked off in calm and cool conditions under a full moon.

Somewhere on the Superior Hiking Trail.

The Superior Hiking Trail, or SHT, is wild, rugged, and challenging. I estimate that a quarter of the 50 mile course was fairly runnable. The rest was steep, or overgrown, or root-bound, or all of the above. You have to watch your feet, closely. On the other hand, I didn't need sunscreen, because we were traveling under the canopy of the boreal forest, with only small breaks at river and road crossings and rocky summits.

My plan was to take it easy in the first third of the course and, if I felt good, pick up the pace in the second third and try to sustain it through the final 17 miles. I settled into the tail end of the pack and stayed there until just before the Crosby-Manitou aid station (mile 12). During this part of the race I was briefly in a small train with Courtney Dauwalter (two time UTMB winner and winner of this year's Hardrock 100) and her mom, which was fun. They say never meet your heroes, but the Dauwalters were friendly and gracious. At the aid station I got a small cup of coffee, a big pancake and a sausage patty, and really began to enjoy the race.

Feeling good at the Cramer Road aid station, 27 miles in. Photo by David Bitner.

I felt great at 17 miles. My heart was behaving properly. My legs felt good. The trail conditions, considering Friday's rain, and weather were much better than I'd expected. I found some good company and longer stretches of runnable trail at this point did my fastest running of the day all the way into the Sugarloaf aid station at mile 21. I kept going steadily, passing two packs of runners on the way to the Cramer Road aid station.

My favorite place on the trail was the Temperance River Gorge. The river's name is, according to Bitner, a pun: there is no sand bar where it reaches Lake Superior. I took a bunch of photos of swimming holes just past the race's Temperance aid station. Not much further downstream the gorge narrows and deepens dramatically. I didn't take any photos there, but you can easily find them online. It's a real wonder of nature.

Temperance River Gorge, looking downstream. 34 miles.

Temperance River Gorge, looking upstream.

In hindsight, I might have neglected to eat enough after Cramer Road. I was feeling sluggish on the 1,200 foot climb up from the Temperance River to Carlton Peak. My ambitions of finishing before the sun went down were starting to look unrealistic. The trail near the summit was steep and rocky, not unlike the approaches to Arthur's Rock or Horsetooth. I saw Columbines and raspberries (flowers and fruit long gone), which also reminded me of home.

Carlton Peak, 38 miles.

Near the Sawbill-Britton aid station I began to catch up to slower 100 mile runners. Some of them were suffering. Some were perfectly executing their plans to beat all the aid station cut-off times and finish in just under 38 hours.

Around mile 40, my feet began to literally fall apart. I'm not sure whether my shoes (Speedgoat 4s with ~25 miles of wear) were inadequately broken in or I hadn't toughened up my feet enough in training. I only ran 20 miles once this year before Superior, whereas I ran 20, 25, and 30 miles before Quad Rock last year. My heels and toes blistered, and in trying to spare them on downhills, I absorbed more force in my quads than I otherwise would. The last 7 miles were a slow, painful slog, much of it well after dark. All the people I passed between miles 21 and 40 caught up to me and left me behind. Going uphill felt better than going downhill. But I finished! Good company helped. I ran the last 3 miles with a woman from Littleton, Colorado. We'd run some of the first few pre-dawn miles together and had some laughs about the rest of the day.

My official time: 15:36:21. This was an extremely well-run event and I can see why people keep coming back for more. Thank you, Superior volunteers and friendly runners. Thank you, Bitner and Marin, for lunch and crewing at the 27 mile mark. My biggest thanks are to my family, for putting up with my obsession and letting me off the hook for chores so I can sleep in during blocks of high training volume. I couldn't have finished without your support.

I just now found a link to the race director's recap in my inbox. It is here.