Friday, September 19, 2014

Becoming a 100 miler at the Superior Sawtooth 100

 From knee surgery to 100 miler with a little hard work, determination, and just plain old heart.

 The dream began even before I knew there was a race. I had read about this trail, the Superior Hiking Trail. It ran from Duluth, MN to the Border of Canada along the north shore of Lake Superior. At the time I wasn't even running yet. I wondered out loud to a coworker, "I wonder if anyone has ever run the whole trail?" He says to me, “why the hell would anyone want to?" Hahaha! To me that answer was easy, to see if it could be done.

Fast forward a couple years. I finally start running again after about a 23 year layoff. I ran, but only in spurts and not more than a few miles. This time it was different. My Cousin Amy challenged me to run 1000 miles in 2012. After a couple months it became a habit and I truly fell in love with running. I started signing up for races early in 2012. In 2012 I ran 2 marathons and one 1/2 marathon. Having something to train for and an online group of runners/support system was key for me sticking with it. Then, In 2013 I did 2 ultras(a 50k & a 75 miler) as well as 3 marathons. I had really caught the bug. Then in 2014 all my races on my schedule were there for one reason and one reason only, to help train/race my way to becoming a 100 mile ultra finisher. (Superior spring 50k, Grandmas marathon, Curnow trail marathon, and the Voyageur 50) Every race I did I used it as training for my ultimate goal, the Superior 100. I would carry my pack and supplies all spring and summer while training or racing whether I needed them or not. After Grandmas I trained almost exclusively on trails.

Having done the Superior Spring 50k the past 2 years, I knew the course was going to be difficult. I just didn't know how difficult. I had heard that to give yourself an idea how long it may take you take your Voyageur 50 mile time and triple it.(12:23x3) That gave me an estimated finish time of 37 hours. Knowing how bad I did at Voyageur I told myself my goal was 36 hours, but My Ultimate goal was just to finish. The race has a 38 hour cut off.

I headed up the shore Thursday the night before the race to attend the mandatory race briefing and pasta fundraiser. John Storkamp(the race director) who I had officially met once on the top of Carlton Peak, but had seen him many times, came up and talked to me. He asked if this was my first hundred miler.  I told him about being at Arrowhead with him this winter, my DNF, and just how unprepared I was for the extreme temps. We also talked about Tuscobia and why so many people dropped even though it wasn't cold. We talked about while they are both winter ultras they are completely different types of races. Not only is he an amazing runner, he directs some of the best ultras in our area. He really has his shit together. I thought it was cool that he took the time to come up to me and chat.

After the meeting my plan was to go park near Lutsen and sleep in the back of the van. I was hoping the Holiday gas station in Tofte would be open early enough that I could get my coffee and breakfast there in the morning. HUGE mistakes on both accounts!! I found out that holiday would not be open in the morning and the parking lot I chose, (Oberg aid station) didn't work out too well. Another van pulled in at 11pm and was making tons of noise. I got almost no sleep and my breakfast consisted of a Gatorade and a couple granola bars. My body needs coffee in the morning!

In the morning I headed to park at the finish area and catch a bus back to the starting area. On the bus I got to see Terry Eldeen. We went to school together and my only real memories of him were from us riding a school bus to track meets. That was well over 25 years ago. Kind of crazy how running has brought us back together after all these years. We chatted the whole ride. He ran this race last year and had to DNF at Tettegoche. He shared with me the mistakes he made and gave me some tips. He also ran the Tahoe trail 100 this summer and finished. So needless to say I was all ears while listening to his advice. Also on the Bus was JD Coolidge. We are in an online run club together called the Red Felt Running Club. I became friends with his Dad through the club. His Dad and I were both in the Marine Corps so we had a lot in common. JD also had 100 mile experience having finished the Zumbro 100 this spring and having just attempted Leadville less than a month ago. He was upset over having to DNF mainly because he forgot his headlamp after the half way point. He went back for it but because of that he would have never made the cut offs. I suggested he do Superior100 kind of as a way to get the monkey off his back. Luckily there were still slots open. Next year may be a different story. I quizzed him too about his races trying to learn what I could. I couldn’t believe when I heard he actually signed up. Now I worried that if he didn’t finish this he would really be take it hard.

Once we got to the starting area the Coffee was already brewing. One of the race sponsors is Pete's coffee. They make and roast an outstanding cup of Java. So I finally got my much needed coffee. The race starts at Gooseberry Falls State Park and Visitors center. It's a great place for a race start. It's got clean restrooms and plenty of parking. If you have never been there it's a gorgeous place to visit. It's got trails, camping, and some of the most picturesque waterfalls on the north shore. Here I meet up with Steve Sorenson, his wife Wenday, and some of his crew. The Sorenson family has a running group/club based out of my home town called the Sorenson Stampede. I got to be a part of this group thru Steve's brother Stu. They are all becoming family to me. I have done training runs with a lot of them over the summer.  Stu and Bob were going to pace me from mile 85 or so to the finish. They were a great fit because I have trained with them both and they were lucky enough to have seen me at my worst on a 22 miler we did less than a week after my 50K. I actually had to make them leave me behind I was having such a hard time that day. Bob was also going to be part of Steve's small army of a crew he had with him. Stu had to work Friday so he wasn’t going to come up until Saturday

I didn't have a crew so I was carrying a lot of extra gear in my pack. At first I only filled my two handhelds thinking I wouldn't need the hydro bladder. My pack had to weigh 25 pounds. The race started and my plan was to start near the back to prevent going out too fast. It was an absolutely perfect day for a run. The weather couldn't have been any better. The first leg of the trail is very runnable and we soon settled into our spots on the single track trail. Some of the vistas overlooking Lake Superior on this section are just unbelievable. Not much happens in this section. I listen to the other runners talking about where they are from. One lady behind me was coughing. She was from Alaska and she explained that she had bronchitis the week prior to the race. I felt bad for her having had bronchitis myself some years earlier. It's the sickest I'd ever been in my life. If she finished the race she is one tough lady. It was about 10 miles to the first aid station. I had only drunk about 30 ounces. We got to a spur trail and Donald(a guy I met up at Arrowhead) was directing traffic down the hill to split rock aid station.
I refill quickly, grab a gel and start the climb back up the spur trail.
Photo credit Todd Rowe

There is some beautiful scenery leaving split rock and heading for beaver bay. Yet another 10+ mile section. I got behind a guy I had read about and seen, but never had the chance to meet, Ruberto Morran. He usually does Tuscobia and Arrowhead. Not only that, but he has finished the Tuscobia150 and then turned around and done entire 150 miles again just for the hell of it. There is even a book written about him doing so. I introduced myself to him and we talk about the winter races. Ruberto was running in sandals he apparently made himself. This is one tough dude. His feet must be like leather. I run with him and some others for quite some time. Then he took off in pursuit of someone else. I soon run out of water. The climbs get more and more difficult the more dehydrated I become. Soon I am unable to eat as well. My mouth is completely dry. This is when my race began to unravel. I thought to myself, this can't be happening!! Not even 20 miles in and I already am thinking I will never make it. This is when Terry caught me. Terry even offered me some of his water. I decline not wanting to hamper his race. I ran with him the last couple miles to the aid station. Thankfully I make it to beaver bay aid station. I ate a bunch of fruit and now I know I need my hydro pack filled. After filling everything I head toward Silver Bay. 

This is another gorgeous section that starts out along the river and then you have a bunch of climbing. I'm trying my damnedest to catch back up with water and food. Every climb is a struggle. This section lasted forever to me. Finally I get to the silver bay aid station. I feel absolutely like shit! I lay down in the grass off to the side. Aid workers start swarming me. It's as if they were a Nascar pit crew. 1st one takes my handhelds and fill them with ice water. I am in dire straits. I give myself 15 minutes there to try and rehydrate. The next volunteer brings me a cold cloth to puts it on my head. She then comes back with ice water to soak it even more. I know I'm in serious trouble but I have lots of time before the cutoffs. They keep coming back trying to get me to eat. By this time my gut was waterlogged and I just couldn’t eat.  I wish I knew those girls names so I could thank them personally. They may have just saved my race. After about 15 minutes I get up to leave. The girl that gave me the towel asks, "are you sure you want to continue?" I say, "You better believe it." At that point I was using Terry's DNF point at Tettegoche as fuel to keep going at least that far. I didn't want him to think I was a wuss and couldn't make it at least as far as he did last year. So I pushed on figuring I could reevaluate once I got there.

The next section I am familiar with most of it. It's 9.9 miles of some pretty serious climbing and descending. I slow down here a bit and start really working on getting hydrated and catching up on my calories. Here I take my last 2 photos before my phone dies.
Finally I start to catch up on my hydration and am able to start moving a bit better. It's also in this section I learn that every time my energy level drops I need calories. I start taking a hammer gel about every 30 minutes. It's amazing just how well this worked for me. It was like a shot of pure adrenalin. Somewhere after Mt. Trudee the trail has a descent called the drain pipe. It's a straight drop down huge rocks that makes Jarrow's beach seem tame. At the bottom there is a lady taking photos of us all struggling down.
Photo credits to Kelly Doyle

As I make it to Tettegouche I hear my name with the cheering. It was Lindsey, Bob, and Holly.(the Stampeders) They decided to start crewing for me as well as Steve. Steve still had his wife, 2 pacers, and Ahnna, but these guys were going back and forth between both Steve and I. I did see Ahnna too at some point, but all my aid stations were kind of blurred together. These guys were unbelievable! They had a chair for me, they would bring me real food, and fill all my hydro stuff. They would take my garbage and even resupply my gels. This really helped me mentally. I started feeling completely optimistic about continuing.

The next section was 8.6 miles and had some more gorgeous trails along the baptism river. I wish I would have had my camera here. Some of the overlooks in the park are just unbelievable. Then it started getting dark so I stopped to break out my headlamp. It always takes a while for the eyes to adjust but once they did I was moving pretty good. I remember going by sawbill dome and picnic rock. Thru here I remember running along some huge cliffs with absolutely gorgeous overlooks. The final section ran high above and kind of paralleled Co. Rd. 6 along a ridge with another huge cliff. Then it's a long descent down to the road. Upon reaching the road you run about a quarter mile up to the aid station. Bob meets me just before I get there and catches me off guard. The whole crew was there again plus Ahnna. I took a chair and they brought me a plate of food. They already had my drop bag waiting for me. I changed into a dry shirt and put on dry socks and shoes. My shoes were muddy and a little wet. The dry shirt was so that I could stay warm as the temps started to drop a bit. As I put my dry shoes on Bob mentioned how new they looked. He asked if I was sure they were even broke in. His concern was soon a problem for my feet. It was getting late so I told those guys they should go catch some sleep.

After leaving it took a little while to warm up. After a minute or so I'm running again. Then I could feel my feet start to slip inside my shoes. At that point I couldn't do much so I just tried to forget about it. In this section I start tailing an older guy named Allen Holtz that I had seen at many other races. At one of the other races I heard him tell someone he had well over 100 marathons and ultras. He's got a big gray beard so he I easy to spot. Soon we come to trains of other racers that seem to be just walking. He powers on past. Because there were 5 or 6 to the train I wait not wanting to get passed back if we come to a climb. Then we get to a mud hole and the lead dude stops completely right in the middle of the trail.  I was already getting impatience as they were walking way slower than I wanted to be going. So quickly say on your left and push right through the middle of the mud hole. I quickly start chasing after the Mr. Holtz. After a while I come upon 2 guys stopped. One was puking. These guys were on the same bus as us riding to the start. I'm guessing they were brothers. I offered them water or anything else that I had, but they declined. The sick one was trying to get the other one to continue on without him. The younger one said that he would at least stay with him until they got to the aid station. It would be interesting to know if he ever made it. I've never had stomach issues in a race but I can imagine it would be tough to continue if you can't keep anything down. At the next aid station they had Christmas lights leading up a spur trail to the Finland Rec center. Once I come out of the woods it's still a 1/4 miles across open field to the aid station. I had a couple cups of chicken noodle soup here. They also had hot dogs but that just wasn’t appealing to me at the time.

We are now half way and I'm feeling really pretty good. Thru the night I'm not sure if I was passed hardly at all. I did pass quite a few people though. On the way to the next section I reel in the guy with the beard. I know if I keep him in sight I can probably learn a thing or two. By this time I'm getting pretty good at estimating my arrival time for the next aid station. Once I figure it out I just kind of shut my mind off and go. I keep an eye on my watch and am taking my gels every 1/2 hour. For some reason I don't really remember the next aid station but me and the old timer yoyo all the way to Crosby Manitou aid station. As I catch him heading into the aid station he's starting to limp. He seemed to be fading. We talk a bit as I go by. I remember this aid station well. They had music going, ladies dancing, and the most amazing cheese quesadillas EVER. They also had a fire going. I grabbed a plate of food and sat by the fire. The breaded guy was also at the fire. He covered up in a big old blanket. I thought damn, that would feel good, but it would be hard to get going again if I was that comfy.

After Crosby Manitou it was starting to get light out and I'm still following the old timer, but not for long as his limp started slowing him down. We make a decent down to the Manitou River and there was a guy sleeping on a rock right next to a big cliff. We try to be quiet as we go by so we don’t wake him. Once we get down to the river we have a climb from hell. It seems to be straight up and it goes on forever. After the monster climb the trail seems to go away from the lake and Southbound. This made me a little nervous since the race is supposed to always head north and along the lake, but it all worked out. I'm still feeling ok and seem to be reeling people in all the way to the next aid station.
Once I got to the Sugerloaf aid station I took a seat to tend to my feet that were really starting to hurt from what felt like monster blisters. Even though I didn’t have any clean socks or shoes to put on I could no longer go on ignoring the pain.  I pull out my folding knife to do a little operating. The skin was so thick it was hard to puncture with the knife even though it was pretty sharp. I was able to drain most of them however the knife did a number on my feet and left some pretty good sized open wounds. Then to make matters worse I rinsed them off and had to put my dirty ass shoes and socks back on. I quickly filled up my water and was back on the trail. After stopping it took a little while to get rolling again. The feet were killing me but after a few minutes they seem to numb up. As I get rolling I hear my name. It’s Bob! He decided to jump in and start pacing two stops earlier than was planned. That was cool. Apparently I missed them at the aid station because my pace was speeding up thru the night. I got there before they had anticipated. That didn’t stop Bob though. He just headed out on his own knowing that he could catch me after checking that I was already through that aid station. Once Bob was with me the miles started to fly by. We passed one guy that stepped aside for us and because his legs were wobbly he almost fell backward off a cliff. It totally scared the crap out of that dude. I don’t even remember the next aid station at Cramer Road. The aid stations started getting a bit closer together as we got toward the end of the race.
We ran with a kid from Duluth for a long time and between the 3 of us we talked the whole time. He was a teacher at one of the Duluth middle schools.
Once we got to Temperence aid station I can pretty much remember the rest of the race. At Temperence Stu was there with his whole family. Lindsey and Holly were there too. Stu was now crewing and would join us at the next aid station. I took my shirt off and poured two water bottles over my head here. I wanted to go for a swim something fierce, but I settled for just rinsing most of the sweat and salt off and quickly changed into a fresh shirt. My drop bag was here with a change of shoes as well, but now I was afraid to take my shoes off because of how bad of shape my feet were in. Bob and I were soon back on the trail. It goes down one side of the Temperence River toward the lake then crosses a bridge.
Photo credit to Kelly Doyle again

Then it goes up the other side of the river and we start what on paper is the largest and steepest climb of the race.  As we climb we finally think we are near the top and all of a sudden we see the actual mountain thru the trees. We hadn’t even begun to climb the rocks leading up to Carlton Peak. At this point we hook up with a guy named Shane. As we get to talking on the brutal climb he says that I look familiar. He asked if I did Tuscobia last year. I told him I had and then I got to thinking maybe he knew me from Arrowhead as well. I asked if he was there as well. He said that he was. Then I asked if he finished. As soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew the answer. I had read his race report from Arrowhead and I started laughing. I said you are the one that ate about 40 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during the race. He did finish. Bob said that our race completely changed at this point. Shane took the lead on the descent down from Carlton Peak. I swear we were doing under 8 minute pace in this section. It’s mostly a slow down hill and a lot of the trail was an elevated boardwalk so it was very smooth sailing down to the Sawbill aid station. At Sawbill I decided to stay standing. We beat Stu and everyone to the aid station because we had picked the pace up so much. Once Stu got there we quickly headed back out to probably the muddiest section of the entire trail. Shane was still seated and tending to some major foot issues of his own. I was hoping he’d stay with us.
Again we would come to people pussy footing around the giant mud holes. I had told Bob earlier that when Stu joined us we were going to start just barreling thru the mud holes.
So I took the lead and we started flying by even 50 milers. As we would pass them they would cheer us on after seeing my ribbon and that I was a 100 miler. A few of them would say, “Shit if a 100 miler can run straight through these mud holes what the hell am I doing.” One lady even asked Stu and Bob if they were hundred milers. They said no we are his pacers as they were chasing after me. She yelled back to them that they sucked at their job because I was flying out in front of them. We all got a good laugh at that. It kind of fueled my fire and we were able to keep up the pace all the way to the last aid station. At Oberg aid station I decide to stay standing again. One of the aid workers came up to me and told me my dad has been at the finish line since 10am. Apparently when I told him to come watch me finish. I estimated my finish time between 2pm and 10pm. He read my text wrong and thought I said between 10am and 2pm. I laughed and just hoped he would still be there went I did get there. Lindsey and Holly told us that Steve had finished but he was in rough shape. They said the last section took him about 2hrs and 45 minutes. This spring if I remember right I did this section in around 2 hours. However I hadn’t already run 90 miles. That didn’t matter I had two goals now, run it in 2 hours and try to beat Steve’s time for that section.
As we head out, it is now my 5th time doing this section. I’ve become pretty familiar with it. We are moving really good, far better than I had ever imagined. I figured it was going to be a struggle at the end, but we were running as fast or faster than almost the entire race. I knew we had two big climbs left. In the spring 50k I had dubbed the first one the stairway to heaven. It was always a struggle for me and seemed to go straight up and last forever. As we get to the top I think damn, that wasn’t nearly as hard as I remember. Stu tells me to stop at the top for a picture overlooking Lake Superior. It takes him a while to get his phone out and after trying twice we give up and start running. Soon I hear a voice yell Stu!!!! I turn around and it’s Cheri Dostal Ryba. I yell damn it!!! I wasn’t mad to see her, but I knew she was running the 50 and was hoping to beat her to the finish so we could see her finish her first 50 miler. She was doing awesome. We even hugged and she decided to run with us for a while since we were still moving good. It was cool to see a familiar face that late in the race. We visited for a while and I was even running up some hills. Then it was time for her to pass and she left us in the dark as the sun was starting to set. After she left I had to make my first bathroom break. I wandered quite a ways off the trail so nobody would have to see me. It took way longer than I wanted it to. It ain’t easy to squat after running 100 fricken miles. Once that was over we had some people to catch that had passed as we were stopped. One guy I was yo-yoing with all day. I was not going to let him beat me. He was puking on and off all day and his pacer was not being very nice to him. At this point he had parted ways with his pacer. As we passed him he we could hear him puking again. Now I was trying my damnedest to reel Cheri back in too as I knew the end was getting near. We passed a lot of people in this section. One guy with poles was stopped and in some serious pain. I told him he only had 2 miles to go and well over 2 hours to get there. You could tell just that those few words made him realize he was going to make it. It was like he hadn’t done the math. We were flying. I told Bob to listen for that river. Once we hear the river it’s just about over. I told them once we hit that road I want to be doing at least 10 min pace. Then we hear that wonderful sound of the Poplar River. We cross the bridge and pop out of the woods. I try to kick it down. I feel my glute about to cramp and have to dial it back a bit in the home stretch. I keep asking if anyone was out of the woods or closing on us. As someone else popped out we pick it up again. I tell them I don’t want anyone to catch us. Not even a 50 miler. As we come off the road to circle around the pool to the finish I can hear cheering. The PA announcer says here comes a 100 miler. The cheers get even louder. They announce my name and home town as I round the last turn. As I am about to cross the timing matt I do a little jump and I raise my hands to my head. I’m in shock a little.  I high five Stu and Bob.  I did it!! 103.3 miles. We did it!!! We joked that it’s more like 104 or 105 from having to go around all the downed trees. A finish volunteer puts the wood medal around my neck and instructs me where to go to get my buckle and sweatshirt.
I see my Dad. He’s still there. He says, “Ya made it eh Pal?”  I felt a little redemption now after he had to come pick me up from Arrowhead after the DNF. We all go find the cooler Lindsey and Holly so graciously filled with ice so we could all have an ice cold beer. We all sit around and tell our war stories about the race. Lindsey has Pizza waiting and shares with us all. It is the best pizza I may have ever eaten.
I can’t tell you just how thankful I am to the Stampeders. They made my race so enjoyable. They were just plain awesome!
After a hot shower and putting on dry clothes I was beat. Thankfully Stu had volunteered to drive me home. After running for 36 hours straight I was in no shape to drive and I sure didn’t feel like sleeping in my van again. I slept most of the way home. As we passed my house I saw that Christina and the girls had made a huge congratulations sign for me. I was in tears as I read it. We drop Stu off and I have to drive the 2 blocks home.
As I pull into the drive the tears are rolling. I just sit there for a minute to gather myself. Then I head into the house. Christina is waiting at the door for me. As I walk in I see the girls had more signs and streamers inside the house. I couldn’t have been more proud.


  1. You are all heart, Rock. That is an incredibly exciting race report, even though I knew it would turn out okay! I can't believe you had so much trouble in the middle then got up and kept going. "Dirty ass shoes."