Thursday, September 15, 2011

Superior 100 Sawtooth Race Report 2011

Epic everything indeed.

Me, Ben, and Jordan before the start
Sawtooth isn’t a race, it’s a survival contest.  From what I can gather, 102 brave souls toed the line for the 102.6 mile journey from Gooseberry Falls to Lutsen along the Superior Hiking Trail, and from what I know, 61 made it to the finish.  I was one of the fortunate 61.  I spent 34 hours and 35 minutes on that course stride for stride with my fellow runner, first-time 100 finisher, and new good friend Ben Bruce.  We fought to finish this thing from 8am on Friday morning to 6:30pm on Saturday evening and were sweetly rewarded with a finisher buckle and jacket, which are now two of my most valuable physical possessions.  Sawtooth was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the most pain I’ve ever been in.  I can’t wait to do it again next year.     

So many runners I know made it through to the end and I’m so happy for each of them (Jordan Hanlon, Ben Bruce, Jason LaPlant, Adam Schwartz-Lowe, Brian Woods, Zach Pierce, and Jason Husveth, to name a few).  Others I know fought and missed this time, but I know they’ll be back, and I can’t wait to try this again with them next year.  Even though I finished, this course still got the best of me.  It chewed me up and spit me out over and over again.  I don’t feel like I underestimated it as much as I think it’s impossible to fully appreciate this race until you’ve done it.  All the warnings and race reports and stories you hear won’t fully prepare you for what you’re going to come across.  I wouldn’t have made it without Ben and my pacers (Dad from mile 42.6 to 62.2, Andy from 62.2 to 90, and Alicia from 90 to 102.6) and the rest of my crew (Sarah and Ashley).  Thank you.  I can’t say enough how much it meant to have you there during this struggle.  I don’t know if I could have done it alone, but I never want to find out. 

Elevation Profile
People talk about how hard this course is, but in the back of my mind I always thought, “C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”  I was wrong.  The warning signs are all there.   Superior is a qualifier for Hardrock, for crying out loud!  (I’m registering, by the way.)  That alone should have scared me.  The course gets its name from the elevation profile: It’s as jagged as a Sawtooth.  There’s over 20k feet of elevation gain and another 21k feet of elevation loss, which is nothing to shake your head at, especially in Minnesota, but it’s not the climbing or the descent that makes this course tough, it’s the trail.  This is not a running trail.  This is not single track.  This is a sadistic obstacle course of rocks, boulders, 3+-foot steps and drops, and roots worse than the ropes that NFL running backs train through.  I’m convinced that the best shoes for Sawtooth might be steel-toed hiking boots, and I’m not even slightly kidding. 

Nice, "runnable" trail there, right?
My feet have never hurt as badly than they did during the last 20 miles of this race, and that’s mostly my fault.  I didn’t take care of them like I should have, and then when I finally changed shoes to try and make it better, I ignored them still getting worse.  It got so bad during the last section that I had to try and convince myself that I didn’t have feet, and that the pain I felt wasn’t real.  I wish I could say that strategy worked better than it did, but I can’t.   For the last several hours, each step that wasn’t on flat, even, soft ground (so roughly 95% of my steps) carried with it a pain so severe it made my vision go blurry.  I was just so close to the finish that I couldn’t stop.  Towards the end, I was only concerned with staying conscious, because I could feel myself drifting off.  I had invested too much to not keep moving forward.  They’re just feet, right?  And holy hell the hallucinations were getting bad during those last few sections.  After a while, Ben would say, “Do you see that bridge over there?”  And I’d reply, “Yep!”  But there was no bridge.  You know your mind is slipping when you’re sharing somebody else's hallucinations.  But seriously, I saw imaginary playgrounds, dogs sitting along the trail, bridges, houses that weren’t really there, you name it. 

I started the race in Montrail Mountain Masochists because hell, if it’s good enough for Geoff Roes, it’s good enough for me.  I think I bailed on these guys too soon, and am really wishing I hadn’t.   Somewhere early in the AM on the second day I put on my Salomon XR Crossmax Neutral shoes, which now even sounds silly.  I ditched a beefy, proven mountain shoe for a hybrid trail/road shoe.  I’m shaking my head at myself as I write that.  I thought I’d spent enough time in them to form a decent opinion, and really thought they’d be perfect for what was basically a power-hike by the time they went on, but the last several days carving calluses off my feet to try and empty the blisters stuck way, way below the surface says otherwise.  I wish Salomon made their top-of-the-line shoes (the S-Lab 4 or even the Fellcross) in a size 14, but they don’t, and I reached and it didn’t work out.  So much for Salomon’s on my feet.  There are so many fantastic shoes out there that I can’t try because they don’t make a size 14.  Hoka, Salomon (the S-Lab 4 or Fellcross), and La Sportiva (CrossLite 2.0) are all guilty with at least some of their models.  Maybe INOV8 is the way to go?  I’ll have to look into that.  My best bet might be back in the MT101s as long as my feet can hold up before lacing up the Mountain Masochists. 

Despite being on my shit list for making awesome shoes that don’t come in my size, I can’t be too mad at Salomon, because they make some really fantastic gear.  I was sporting their shorts and their fancy Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 hydration pack, and that pack is amazing.  I think I singlehandedly sold 4 or 5 of them just by having it on for the race.  People kept asking me what and how it was, and let me tell you, it was great.  It is bar none the best piece of equipment I’ve ever owned.  I first looked at this pack before Ice Age in May but decided it was too expensive.  I was wrong.  It’s worth every dime.  Now the hard part is actually finding one in stock (hint, check out the store at  Bryon Powell even graciously agreed to overnight the pack to me when he got stateside from UTMB, and he got it to me by noon the day before the race, mere hours before I had to drive north.  That saved my ass.  Without it, I probably would have tried to run with two handhelds, and I’m not sure I would have made it to the second aid station with any less water than I had.  It got way too hot way too fast on Friday, and that hurt a lot of people. 

I also ran with poles for the first time, and they really saved my ass.  I didn’t grab them until it got dark, and I might grab them sooner next year.  I barely stumbled the last 60 miles, and that’s largely because I had, at minimum, 3 points of contact on the ground nearly the entire time.  And climbing, which is the weakest part of my running, was so much easier with the poles.  Maybe most importantly, they really saved my back.  During this race, you are literally looking at your feet or no more than 3 feet ahead of you the entire time.  Poles let me take some of that stress off my back and shoulders.  After a while, my right elbow got sore, but still, the poles helped so much more than they hurt, and I imagine the hurt is only because this was the first time I’d used them for more than an hour, and I had them in my hands at Sawtooth for over 20!  There’s really no practical way to train for that.  In short, Black Diamond Z-poles are amazing (and also available at

Tough race? A bit.

As for the race, it was pretty damn neat.  I’m working on a more detailed section-by-section report, but there’s too much work to do at the moment.  Next week!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

I leave for Sawtooth tomorrow.  You have no idea how excited I am to say that.

So I haven't posted on this thing they call a blog since May, the week before Ice Age to be exact.  I'm sorry about that, but not for you.  For me.  I started this at the beginning of the year to journal this epic adventure towards 100 miles, and somewhere along the line, I lost steam, which is sad.  You see, the thing I wanted more than anything was to not lose the details of this journey, this adventure.  But life got busy, and this part of the adventure was put aside.  The saddest part is that I have lost details, lost memories, and I won't get them back.

I'm going to try and do better.

In brief, Ice Age went very, very well.  I finished my first 50 mile race in 10:07, meeting the qualifying time to register for Western States in 2012.  The weekend after Ice Age was the Fargo Marathon, which was my dad's first!  I like to think I helped push him to a 4:27 finish, a whole 11 minutes better than my first marathon and 1 minute better than my brother's first.  After Fargo, I got to do a little running in Telluride, Ouray, and Leadville during a trip out west for my sister's wedding in June, and then snuck back down to sea level to run a 3:43 at Grandma's Marathon.  I had a scheduling conflict for Afton this year, but ran Voyageur on a very, very hot day in July, finishing in 11:23 on a day where over a third of the field dropped.  Then, a few weeks ago, Andrew (brother), Jordan Hanlon (friend), Greg Smock (coworker), and I stunk up my suburban for 196 miles in 28 hours at Ragnar, where I got to haul in 52 or so miles at an 8:40 pace.  

Now Sawtooth.  

I'm giddy.  I'm excited.  I can't wait to scream off into the night and fight and claw my way to the finish.  I really can't.  

I went into my first 100 attempt at Zumbro in April undertrained and with the mindset that I really didn't think I was going to finish.  I learned the hard way that there is no better way to not finish a race than to let your mind be ok with something less than the whole.  I had 6 weeks coming off injury to train for Zumbro.  Originally, I hadn't planned on running, instead merely pacing 60 miles for my brother.  But Andy got a job a few months before the start and his running took a backseat to the rest of his life, and when he pulled out, I thought, "Why not?  I can always stop at 100k."  And that's what happened.  I pulled out at 100k.  

But not this time.  This time, I'm ready.  This time, 100k is not enough.  This time I'm going to finish this beast.  Unless they pull me off the course, kicking and screaming, these two legs are traveling the Superior Hiking Trail north from Gooseberry Falls to Lutsen, and it's going to be epic.     

I ran across a Charles Bukowski poem the other day called The Laughing Heart that sums up life as I want to live it better than anything else I've ever seen.

Your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
Be on the watch.
There are ways out.
There is a light somewhere.
It may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
Be on the watch.
The gods will offer you chances.
Know them.
Take them.
You can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
And the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
Your life is your life.
Know it while you have it.
You are marvelous.
The gods wait to delight
in you.

This is one of those chances, and I'm taking it.  I'm going to beat death in life this time.  I am marvelous.

I'll make sure and get a race report for this one.