Wow, what can one say after such an epic course as that? The Superior Sawtooth course truly exemplifies "Beauty and the Beast" with its glorious panoramic mountaintop views and relentless climbs. It truly redefined what I consider a challenging course and every trail from now on will seem like a cakewalk. And I must say, I absolutely loved this race. To me, it defines what trail racing is all about - challenge.
So, here's how the race went down for me.
Gooseberry Falls to Split Rock River
Surprisingly, I felt great right off the bat. Usually it takes me a good hour or so until I get into a rhythm and settled in. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn't the best thing though, as I'm thinking perhaps I should have held back a lot more early on in the race than I did. I'll definitely be curious to see the splits and who was behind me up to Tettegouche that finished the race. Anyway, I digress. The first leg went along without a hitch. I was really enjoying the trails and taking time to stop and catch some views.
Split Rock River to Beaver Bay
Now the climbing started in earnest and the humidity was getting noticeable. Fortunately, I have my hydration down pat, and didn't have any problems with it, other than feeling a bit hot and noticing my heart rate climb a bit. Again, things went rather smoothly and again, I took time to "stop and smell the roses". What surprised me the most at this point was how technical almost the entire trail had been to this point. If you weren't climbing up over or running on rocks, you were tiptoeing through tricky root-filled trails. By the time I reached Beaver Bay, I was definitely feeling the climbs a bit, but still feeling strong.
Beaver Bay to Silver Bay
I teamed up with 3 other runners at this point and we started to work our way through a series of climbs. Every time we crested a climb we were getting baked by the rocky plateaus. At this time, I noticed by brother's running buddy, Brad Birkholz noticeably suffering and cramping up big time. He'd eventually DNF at Tettegouche later. Still feeling pretty strong and well-hydrated, I was optimistic about finishing the race.
Silver Bay to Tettegouche
Mmmm...what can I say, but more and more climbing, along with cooking in the sun on the rock faces. At this point I was starting to realize that you really have to make the most of the runnable sections due to the extremely technical nature of the course. I lost contact with my other 3 runners, and did some soloing. Still feeling pretty strong through this section, but the relentless climbs are starting to take their toll.
Tettegouche to County Road 6
Now this section was tough. I recall a few climbs that really stopped me in my tracks at the top. Still running solo, I plugged on as darkness started to set in. Still under 30-hour pace, I knew I had plenty of time to play with, so no need to kill myself......yet. On the final big descent before winding through the woods to County Road 6, I took a few minutes to sit down on a soft, pin-needle covered ledge and change out my sweat-soaked shirt and put on my headlamps. As tricky as some of those descents were, I wanted to be able to see every rock and root.
County Road 6 to Finland
Darkness sets in, literally and figuratively speaking. After about an hour of picking my way through this extremely techinical section (hell, what section wasn't extremely technical?) I hit the first wall. My ankles, knees, and back were just trashed and I was having difficulty maintaining my balance getting over the rocks and roots. In addition, my legs were gassed and I was reduced to a slow grind. In an effort to recover, I cranked up the calorie intake.....no dice. Next I took an extra S-cap.....still not better. On came the negative thoughts. I thought my race was over at 50 miles. Only half way? Jesus, this is lame. How can my run be over already? Blah, blah, blah.... Anyway, I snapped out of it, told myself to get myself together and get to Finland. You're too far ahead of the cutoffs to be thinking of DNFing now. Just get there and sit down for a while. At this point, I really hadn't given myself a break the whole race. Who knows, maybe I just need a little rest?
Finland to Sonju Lake Road
Whew, I made it! Almost staggering into the Finland aid station, a volunteer asked what I needed. "A chair and a blanket!" I immediately replied. They sat me down in front of the campfire with a nice wool blanket where I warmed up and ate some chicken noodle soup. I looked at my timetable - right at 30-hour pace. I've got tons of time. All I have to do is just keep walking and trying to recover. I can do that! I dried off my shirts and doubled them up before heading out. It was cool and very damp that evening and I wasn't generating a lot of heat just walking. I took about 15 minutes or so to gather myself and fuel up. Once I stood up, I noticed my knees, ankles, and back felt like they were all good again. Woot! Off I slowly started, and then got back into a gentle pace again. Race on!
Sonju Lake Road to Crosby Manitou
This section was a bit root-filled in sections, but otherwise pretty runnable and fast. I made good time and was still feeling pretty strong. Mentally, I was getting myself prepared for Crosby Manitou, as I had heard it was pretty tough and also very long at 9.4 miles. I arrived in good shape, took in some food and quickly headed out to face the brutal climbs of the next section.
Crosby Manitou to Sugarloaf
Off I took, motivated to tackle this section and see what all the hoo-hah was about it. Early on, it was pretty easy and the trail wound down to a bridge crossing the Manitou River. Once you cross that, it's nothing but climbing switchback after switchback after switchback up the face of a small mountain. Up to this point, I could hear Pierre Ostor and another runner a little ways back. I began my ascent with determination. Up I scampered each switchback, thinking it would be the last one. After what seemed about an hour of constant climbing, I finally crested the peak. Ouch! That one hurt. I was tired, but still had some legs. I took some time to walk briskly and recover, while taking in some views as the sun had now risen. I descended down to the river again and crossed a small bridge, only to be welcomed by....another huge climb! Duh-oh! This is gonna hurt. And hurt it did. After finally getting up the other side, my legs finally blew up for good. Pierre and the other guy had now caught up. We stuck together for a while and caught a gal who was working with her pacer. Pierre had commented that he had nothing left for the climbs, but was doing okay on the flats. All three of them pushed on, as I quickly faded. The last half of the leg was actually flat and fast, which helped minimize my losses. However, I was kicking myself for being so foolish and wasting so much energy on the climbs. I'll know better next year.
Sugarloaf to Cramer Road
Otherwise known to me as "deathmarch". Dragging my sorry ass into Sugarloaf, I sat down in a chair and ate some food. I was still in under the cutoff, but making the next one was going to be close, considering my legs were completely gone. The 50-mile leaders came through as I was resting. Duke Rembleski was in third and his wife, Eve was waiting for him. "Bring my iPod to the next aid station", Duke instructed Eve. "I plan on being alone. The race is on!" Duke made good on that, too, eventually winning the 50-miler. Me, I stood up with hopes my 15-minute break would work just like it did at Finland. Not this time. Ugh. Off I marched and marched towards Cramer Road. A lot of 50-milers ran by and offered encouragement as I plodded along. A brief rain shower came along a couple of miles from the aid station, making a rocky descent rather dicey with my destroyed legs. After getting rather damp and cold, I pulled out my 99-cent yellow parka and put it on. It warmed me up and I actually felt a little better and managed a little bit of a shuffle for a few hundred yards, but that was about it. After the rain had ceased, I wadded it up and carried it into the Cramer Road aid station, 15 minutes behind the cutoff time. Damn, game over. 77.2 miles and 29 hours after starting at Gooseberry Falls, my first Superior Sawtooth had come to an end.
Despite DNFing at 77 miles........again, I was really pleased with my effort. I had gone 4 aid stations and 27 miles further than I thought I could. Given the humid conditions, I had done an excellent job with my hydration and never struggled with nausea or cramping. In addition, my left foot and leg that had crippled me and ended my Kettle race at 77 miles didn't bother me at all. In fact, I was injury-free! When it came down to it, I feel my demise was three-fold.
First and foremost, I was not properly trained for this race. Sure I had 7 weeks of decent training, but the mileage and intensity just wasn't what it should have been. Second, I didn't know the course and how technical it was. When I had heard about the amount of climbing on this course, I had assumed it was up trails that were runnable/walkable, not literally climbing over rocks and up steps, etc. Oops, big mistake. Same goes for how extensive the technical sections were. It's not a course you can easily make up for lost time on. Third, I feel I went out too fast. My clue was wondering for hours and hours "Where is Zach?" Zach Pierce is one of the smartest runners I know and has a great head for pacing himself. Not seeing him until I was dead in the woods en route to Finland, I knew I had made a mistake.
I learned a lot about myself on the SHT and how far I can really push beyond what I think I can do. The Superior Sawtooth has definitely redefined for me what is truly "tough". Running any other trail now will seem like "a walk in the park". Having experienced this race had made me a better runner and has motivated me to return next year and claim that coveted red finisher's jacket. Oh yes, I WILL have that jacket next year. I WILL.
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