Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Superior Sawtooth 100-Mile

It's hard to know where to start with this race report and experience - I guess I should start with the beginning.  Kadra and I flew out to Duluth, MN last Tuesday and were greeted by driving rain and enough cold air that all the clothing I had packed couldn't remove the chill.  I'm ready for fall, but it coming that abruptly was quite a shock to both of us.

Our friend Corey LeBrasseur picked us up at the airport and took us to Cloquet where he and his wife Chrissy live.  They split time between their house in town and Corey's grandmother's farm on the outskirts of town.  We were lucky enough to stay out at the farm and hang out for a few days before the race.  We had a great time learning how to sauna, enjoying the outhouse, and made a trip to downtown Duluth (very cool town).
The Sauna House
Inside the sauna
We spent most of our time just lounging around and playing with their two dogs.  Kadra did some watercolor painting; which she claims to not be good at (see below and I'm sure you won't agree either).  I was consistently blown-away by how beautiful Northern MN is, but in the waning days before the race I kept thinking, "How are they going to get 20,000+ feet of gain/loss in this course!" - as it was pretty flat where we were.  Our drive up the North Shore would soon enlighten me.
The Woodshed

Kadra's Woodshed Painting
We loaded up Corey and Chrissy's "Ultimate Crew Mobile" (a Mini-Winnebago) and headed up the shore to the pre-race meeting in Two Harbors Thursday night.  It was good to see a few familiar East-Coast faces there in Rob Dolan and Susan Donnelly.  We ate some pasta and headed off to park the UCM at Gooseberry Falls where the race starts.  We all turned in for the night early, but the inevitably restless night-before soon turned uglier than expected.  Something I ate certainly didn't agree with me as I had to quickly rush to the bathhouse several times during the night and a few more in the morning.  I'll spare the details, but I was a little worried that this might ruin my race if it didn't stop.  I certainly had some real fears that all my hard training and money spent travelling to this race might go down the toilet. . . literally.  Nonetheless I toed the line ready to go the next morning after pushing as much fluids and s-caps as I felt prudent to limit the dehydration my body undoubtedly had suffered.

Anxious to Start

I started out super conservatively and was really pushing the fluids - way more than I normally would have.  I made sure to drain my two bottles and push gels in the first two sections (9.3 and 10.1 miles, respectively), but I still wasn't urinating.  After about 20 miles, I finally went and it was not looking good.  Clear/LtYellow = Good . . . what I was seeing was far from clear.  Instead of focusing on racing, I focused on drinking and fueling trying to get my kidneys to push out some clear fluid.  I was hanging around 4/5th place in those first sections and I believe I moved to third somewhere after the 20 mile mark - still completely focused on running my race.  My greatest fear was to come all the way to MN and DNF.  I knew there was a LONG way to go before the finish line.

Early Miles

I made it to mile 50 (Finland) in around 9:45 and in "2nd place" - running with Andy Holak. Brian Peterson, running his first 100, was about a half-hour ahead we were told.  I honestly didn't think he was going to be capable of holding that pace without blowing up.  I certainly felt "in the hunt", especially since I was picking up my pacer Vern (Corey's friend and h.s. XC coach).

Somewhere in the last 30 miles I finally got my kidneys cranking clear and things started turning around.  I had some minor stomach issues (no puking though) and decided to push more solid foods rather than gels and it seemed to be working o.k.  The trails were starting to take their toll on my feet though.  These trails are seriously technical with rocks and roots everywhere.  I found the roots to be far more menacing than the rocks.  Several folks asked me afterward how this course compared to MMT and I just said, "they're totally different, but they certainly have the technical stuff in common."  The climbs on the course were deceivingly difficult.  Trail designers definitely didn't believe in switchbacks and had no aversion to scaling rocky ridges by hand-over-hand climbing.

I changed shoes (Mizuno Ascend to Montrail Sabino), treated a blister, and was off and running well with Vern out of Finland.  I told him that I wanted to run as hard as possible until dark - that we did.  I was very much reinvigorated with Vern's company and felt like we were really making up time.  When we got to Sonju Lake AS (mile 58), we were told that Peterson was only 15 minutes ahead.  I was a little surprised that we could have made up that much time in only eight miles, but I figured he might be unwinding.  We quickly pushed on, searching for the lead.

I waited until the last moment to turn on my headlamp, knowing full well that it meant the start of a very long night - how long, I had no clue.  I rolled into Crosby Manitou (mile 62) feeling good, but was a little bummed when the aid-station workers told me that Brian's lead was back at 30 minutes.  I wonder how accurate the previous data had been? 
This next section out of Crosby was just nasty - I don't know any other way to describe this 9.4 miles.  There were lots of rocky walls to scale, steep ups/downs, and it took forever!  I felt like I was stuck in the twilight zone here.  I know Vern didn't like it much either.  He was having some achilles issues and I had to wait up for him a few times on some of the big climbs.  This would have been a very lonely and desolate place to alone.  To make matters worse, it started to rain in this section - visibility decreased to mere feet, fog rolled in, and the already vicious roots grew teeth.

Crosby Manitou (One of the many GREAT aid-stations)

. . . and RAIN it did. . . all night!  Vern left me after Sugarloaf and I had about 13 miles to go alone until Temperance where Corey would start his pacing duties.  This is where things got really tough.  The rain just kept getting harder and harder, and colder and colder.  By the time I got to the next aid-station I was seriously hypothermic.  I had only packed a light Patagonia Houdini jacket for the race, thinking that it couldn't possibly be that cold that I wouldn't need anything heavier.  I was not prepared for 48 degree temperatures and driving rain.  I remember praying aloud, "God, please make it stop raining!". . . waiting. . . yep, still raining and all the while I kept getting more and more miserable.  I was not sure how much more I could endure.  I've been in low spots before and I learned tons from Grindstone last year.  I was not going to quit, but I feared that my physiology may overcome my mental fortitude.  My answer to prayer came in the form of a jacket.  A Marmot rain-jacket owned by Chrissy to be precise.  She graciously offered it to me when I staggered and shivered into the Cramer Road AS (mile 77) with my teeth chattering - without this help, I doubt that I would have made it through another section.

Along with the wool-cap, gloves, and two shirts, the jacket made me feel like a new man and I was ready to roll again!  I knew I had lost some serious time over the last few sections when I got to Temperance since no one mentioned how far out of first I was.  Corey started running with me here (mile 84) in the still pouring rain and we sloshed and slogged in shin-deep cold water as we traversed the mountains shrouded in thick fog.  It was great to have company again, but despite all the inhospitable elements I was falling asleep.  After the futility of slapping myself in the face sunk in, I resorted to popping a 200mg caffeine pill.  This fought off the "sleep-monsters", but brought me a newly found nauseousness that I did not appreciate.  I was not moving fast in these sections, but was encouraged that each step was bringing me closer to the finish line.

We reached Oberg Mtn AS (mile 95.5) a little before daylight and I had about 1:45 to cover the 7.1 miles (with two significant climbs) to finish under 24 hours [note: the race is 102.6 miles].  My spirits were not high here as I knew my current pace was well under what I needed to run.  I didn't think I could make it and I silently figured that my streak of finishing all the my 100's thus far under 24 hours was going to end.  This is where Corey really made the difference.  Until this point he just supportively cajoled me along.  I started this section as pathetically as I had finished the last until Corey piped up and said, "Why don't you try to run this."  I probably said something a little smart alec back to him and he said, "Whatever, the guy up front is probably all washed up and back in his hotel room by now anyway."  That was the fuel I needed as the sun rose and finally made it possible to run without a light.  I purposefully took off my jacket and hat to make myself chilly and to hopefully force myself to run harder in the still driving rain (seemed logical to me at the time?).  I just started pushing with everything I had left and decided that I wasn't going to walk a step - no matter what.  I was very tired, but down deep I found an untapped source - a spring of energy ready to flow.  We just kept running faster and faster; our feet pounding out a synchronized rhythm.  It was a moment of zen for the two of us floating down the trails and onto the ski resort property.  We cruised in to the finish together, stride for stride pushing the pace with each step.  When we reached the finish line, it was rather anti-climactic.  I even asked someone, "which way do I go", I believe.  Thankfully they told me I could stop.  I was happy to be done and proud that I finished strong in 23:48.  I'm so very appreciative to Corey, Chrissy, Vern, and Kadra for all their help.  It's incredibly humbling to have people make such sacrifices to help you achieve a goal.  Thank you all so much.

Anti-Climactic Finish

We hung out at the finish a while and it was good to finally get to meet the guy I had chased for the last day, Brian Peterson.  He ran a phenomenal race, especially in his first 100.  I expect to see some big things out of him.  Race director Larry Pederson has his hands full over this race weekend with the 100-mile, 50-mile, and Marathon all going on simultaneously.  I don't know how he does it, but he manages amazingly and puts on a top notch event.  This is really as good or better a 100-mile that I've done.  I'd love to come back and run it again and would highly recommend it to anyone.  The Superior Hiking Trail is absolutely amazing, the aid-stations are second to none, and running a point-to-point 100-mile race in such beautiful country makes this race very special

I was pretty spent after the race and enjoyed a nap in the UCM.  Sleeping through the night proved as insomniatic as I expected it to be, but Kadra and I took advantage of catching the beautiful sunrise over Lake Superior the morning after - I even got a chance to show off my post-race agility.

Lake Superior Sunrise

Practicing karate or preparing for Broadway?

After the other three 100's that I've done, I've certainly experienced more lasting physical and mental affects than this one.  My legs recovered very quickly and I was hardly walking stiff the next day.  I attribute that to hopefully becoming more accustomed to the distance and proper training.  Normally I've taken a week off from running and have consistently dealt with lingering fatigue and irritability afterward.  This one has been completely different.  My mind and body feel so much more alive and vibrant than even before the race.   I got out for a good run this morning and enjoyed the new chill of fall in the air.  The leaves are starting to change and I still feel the hunger to run.

"Going for a run always clears my head, but running 100 miles distills my soul."
- Keith Knipling


  1. Adam: Great re-cap of your Sawtooth experience. Thanks for putting the beauty (and ruggedness) of northern Minnesota in such a good perspective and allowing others a glimpse into all that N MN trail running has to offer. As long as Chrissy and I are here our door is open for anyone wishing to race, run, vacation, learn to sauna or simply enjoy the view from the outhouse. Glad to hear your recoverying swiftly and already getting some miles in.

  2. What a report. I could see myself there with you and even my teeth chattered began to chatter as I read on. Prayers are answered sometimes in very weird ways, but it sounds like Chrissy's jacket certainly provided a turning around point in your race. What an adventure and way to push off all of the adversity that came your way. I am sure that Kadra is happy that your irritability is on a much lower level than is typical after one of these, so pay her back for all of her help and relax for a bit and enjoy a little more time together. Great race and way to persevere through tough times. By the way, don't give up your day job for karate!

  3. Awesome, awesome race report! What an amazing testament to the physical and mental strength as well as the Faith that get you through these events.
    You and Kadra are a wonderful team, in so many ways. Great work Kadra on the crewing and on the watercolor!
    As a gal of 1/2 Finnish heritage, it also does my heart good to know y'all spent time in Minnesota and learned about a proper sauna! Who knows, maybe it gave you a touch of SISU for the race. (Look it up and I think you'll agree!)

  4. congratulations and great race report, adam. Sounds like you had a wonderful crew and while you had to over come various issues ( ie physical from being sick at the start, and hypothermic from the weather) you dug deep and emerged from the pain cave! I loved the fact you finished strong!! and the anticlimatic finishes, I feel are one of the reasons I love ultras so much!! it's so much more meaningful I feel to realize PERSONAL goals and seeing your loved ones ( and maybe the RD) at the finish, than for the pomp and circumstance of a road race finish line chute.
    btw Kadra's watercolor was amazing, she is extremely talented!! watercolor is a very difficult medium.

    happy recovery! sounds like you are well on your way to bouncing back!!

  5. Corey- Thanks again for everything!

    Rick- Don't worry, I've decided karate is not my thing.

    Lori- I did actually learn about sisu in MN. Corey is Finnish as well and he enlightened me.

    Jenny- Thanks for the nice comment. I agree, these races are so much more about the personal goals and experiences than any of the extrinsic rewards.

  6. Adam, Glad to hear that you got some proper schooling while you were there!

  7. Adam, once again, Congrats. Sawtooth is Very technical and your right it is hard to believe 40,000 feet of elevation change on your way there, but it is certainly there! I was the guy who introduced himself to you at the start as a common friend of Jennifer Nichols.

    I am glad that you got to spend some time in the 9.4 mile section we call the "gordge" by far my favorite section.

    turning out a Sub 24 on this course is not an easy task consider your self a Stud! I ran it last year and was happy to be setting and sweeping this year. I look forward to toeing the line with you there in the following years!

  8. Richard,

    Great meeting you and I wish I would have had more time to visit. Thanks so much for your volunteering - I know races don't "just happen" and I appreciate folks like yourself taking the time to volunteer.
    Hope to see you back at Superior again. . . it was certainly worth every mile of travel time!
    -- Adam