Saturday, September 19, 2015

Superior 100 - Rugged - Relentless - Remote

"The only way I'll DNF (do not finish) this race is if I have a serious injury. There is no way I'm letting anything else will stop me. I will be relentless"- Jay Wnuk

   In the weeks leading up to the 2015 Superior 100 located in beautiful Northern Minnesota, I could hardly contain my anticipation for what was to come. Meeting new friends, new trails and new experiences had been on my mind for months. Having run the Zumbro 50 mile earlier this fall, I knew this community of Ultra Runners is something special and I look forward to spending time with them any chance I can get.

   This years experience would be my first and certainly not my last. Although, I was not running the 100 mile my main goal was crewing my good running friend Jay. When his decision was made to run the Superior 100 I knew this would be a great opportunity to help him as much as I could.

   Our small running group trained relentlessly with him as we all had our own personal races throughout the year and personal goals, but overall it got us together for some consistently good long runs. His training did not stop there. With multiple 50 mile finishes throughout the summer, I knew he was well seasoned and ready for whatever the rugged Superior Hiking Trail had to offer him.

   Friday morning I awoke 5 minutes before my alarm. A quick shower, coffee and a breakfast bar were the first things to check off the list. Kristine, another running partner and crew member helping Jay and pacing another runner Kurt (who also finished an absolutely amazing 5 hours before last years finish in 31 hours) and I packed my car with everything we needed for the next few days.

   Shortly after loading up the car we were on our way. The brisk morning highway breeze felt good with my window down. In my rear-view mirror an amazing, bright sunrise dancing on the mellow waves of Lake Superior. I instantly smiled and a feeling of excitement instantly came over me. I knew good things were in store for the day. I dropped Kristine off at the first aid station, which I would later return to and headed to the start.

   Immediately when I pulled into the parking lot my phone rang, it was Kristine.

   "Kurt's hydration pack is leaking and I forgot his new one back at the hotel," she frantically yelled over the phone.

   I told her I would find Kurt and we would get things worked out for the first 20 miles and could give him his new hydration vest at the second aid station. About 5 minutes before the start Jay's wife called me and put Kurt on the phone.

   I told him we would meet him at the second aid station and give him his new bag. I made my way to the official starting area and found Kurt filling up some water bottles and shoving them in his hydration pack as Jay's wife came flying in out of breath with a hand held water bottle to save the day.

   Kurt assured us he would be okay with the amount of water he had until we could meet up with him again and made his way to the pre race briefing.

All smiles at the start
   "2.....1 Go!" race director John Storkamp yelled as the runners shuffled across the start line on the narrow pavement trail unsure of what the next several hours had in store for them.

   I chatted with a few friends before heading to the first aid station where I would spend most of my morning volunteering and helping the fresh and energetic runners fill their bottles and whipping up a couple hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

   The front three runners came in quickly, smiled and said hello to all of us as immediately circled around and headed on their way.

   Runners came in waves of big groups since it was early on in the race, but needed little attention and moved through quickly.

It's not everyday you see a 100 miler running in sandals
   Jay and Kurt came in together, grabbed a few things to eat and were on there way. A few hours later the last runner came in well ahead of the cutoff and we were given the okay to clean up.

   Kristine and I made our way to the next aid station as fast as we could, thinking if our runners kept the same pace they may have already been there or would be shortly.

   As we got closer to the aid station cars lined the right side of the road leading up the hill where volunteers were directing traffic and making sure runners could cross the road safely.

   Kristine and I jumped out of the car and started power walking up the hill. Another spectator walking towards us said only 4 runners had come though. We instantly stood up from our power-walking-hunched over pace, laughed at each other and leisurely walked up the hill.

   I knew a lot of the runners would start to settle into their own pace and spread out a little bit. After standing for a few minutes as runners came in I had the ingenious idea of walking back to my car to grab some chairs.

   After setting up our chairs I walked across the road and watched runners weave through the narrow trail while balancing on narrow wood planks before bursting out of the woods. Other spectators around me watched anxiously and began ringing their cowbells. Cheers spread like wild fire as cowbells broke the mumbling of the crowd as runners popped out of the woods every couple of minutes.

  Jay arrived almost right on schedule with a good size group. I quick snapped a picture of him and ran up to the aid station to help with anything he would need and ask how he was doing.

Coming out of the woods still looking strong
   He filled up his hydration pack ate a few things and I told him the next section was wide open with little cover and to remember to drink plenty of fluids even with the cool temperatures and breeze I knew it was key to the rest of the race.

Routine aid station face stuffing fest
   "See you at the next one!" I yelled as he headed off. Kristine and I packed up our chairs and knew it would be a while before our guys arrived at the next aid station so we decided to a quick bite to eat.

   I scored probably the best possible parking spot in the parking lot and we set up shop to eat. Chips and hummus in a tortilla shell hit the spot.

   The crowd and their contagious energy had followed. As I made my way towards the action more cowbells and cheers erupted as each runner came into the aid station.

   A slight rocky downhill followed by a small bridge crossing welcomed runners. I noticed a couple volunteers at this aid station who were also at the first one in the morning, it was incredible to see so many willing to help out as much as they could.

   Jay had settled into a decent pace for himself by now and separated himself from Kurt and other runners he had been with all morning, which was a smart move with the long day(s) and night ahead of him.

   A quick water fill-up, food and a hug from his wife and a you look friking awesome I will see you at County Road 6 where I will pace you if you want from me and he was on his way.

   Kristine and I decided to skip the next aid station and try to get some sleep. I wanted to see the front pack come though the aid station down the road so I quickly headed off.

   After a few minutes I head someone say the leaders came though about 20 minutes prior, they were flying. I headed back to my car to change into my running clothes, get my gear ready and lay down.

   With a sweater blocking the blinding sun I closed my eyes and only managed to get about 20 minutes, if even that, of rest.

   About a half hour before Jay arrived I decided to head back to the aid station and cheer on some runners.

   As the blinding sunset down the road slid behind the trees Jay came in looking good and ready to eat some food and refill his water. I asked him how he was doing and if he wanted me to pace him now or at the next stop. I'm not sure if he really gave me a clear answer, but I was ready to go and soon we were off.

Heading out to pace
   We chatted a little about how the race had been so far as we mostly hiked this section. We were moving at a good click and I was able to take in a few spectacular overlooks as the sunset on the first day.

Into the Night

   Jay's plan was to hike and move well at night and run if he could, but try not to waste too much energy since we would still have a long day left once the sun came up. A solid plan for his first 100 miler.

   We rolled into Finland aid station which was about half way. After a quick change of shoes, coffee, hotdog and a few high fives we were on our way into the dark, cool night.

    We made some good time on the short gravel road that headed back into the woods and caught up with a larger group ahead of us, snaking though the trail. I had ran this section earlier this year and knew it pretty well, but was inexperienced at night.

   Soon we made our way to the next aid station, slammed some more coffee, filled up our water bottles and headed on our way. We found a nice groove though the snake like roots covering the trail to the next aid.

   Once out of the woods and onto the short gravel road we caught up to 15 time finisher Susan  Donelly. We paused for a moment, covering our head lamps, to look at the night sky searching for the northern lights that were rumored to be out, no such luck. We trotted up the hill, staying as far left as we could as cars crept towards us avoiding other cars that lined the other side of the road.

   "I've never seen so many crews and cars at this aid station," Susan muttered. Her well seasoned legs set a steady pace for us up the slight incline as we rolled into the aid station.

   Spectators sat bundled up in blankets, lining the road across from the aid station's tables. I grabbed some Vaniply for Jay and he quickly scurried off into the woods to apply it to some troubled chafing areas.

   Pickles, chocolate bars, salted nut rolls and more coffee were on the late night trail snack menu before heading out. I quickly grabbed a few salted nut rolls for some late night snacks as I knew the next 9.4 miles would take us a while to get through.

   We continued to move well though the night, gaining ground on runners during big climbs. Rivers running though the woods roared as we approached them. I could feel the energy instantly put a surge our pace.

   The night went fast and we soon noticed a subtle light outlining the trees in the distance. Along the hillside, to our right we were once again reacquainted with Lake Superior and an amazing sunrise.

Incredible sunrise
    After the blanket of night a new day was approaching us as the sun's orange glow lit up the sky with the subtle night sky above.

   We reached the next aid, filled up or water packs and just as we were about to head out Kristine jumped out of her chair and ran over to us.

   "Did you guys see Kurt?" she asked frantically. "Nope, we haven't seen anyone all night," I replied. She quickly walked over to the HAM Radio operator and was advised he had been there about 2 hours before us.

   "I don't know how I missed him!" she yelled, wished us luck and told us she would see us at the next aid station.

   With the sun lighting our way we heard the roar of the marathon runners starting. Perfect timing I thought. We were moving at an excellent pace, considering the 70 plus miles Jay had already conquered and did not have to worry about all the fresh marathoners scampering past us.

Feeling good. Jay's wife caught us just as we were about to head out
   Jay continued to move well as we cruised through another aid station and began the biggest climb, Carlton Peak. The miles were starting to catch up with us, but Jay set a steady, relentless pace to the top. The first few 50 mile runners skipped past us as we descended down the back side of the climb.

   Sometime during the 5.7 mile section I completely skipped an aid station and thought we only had a little over 7 miles to finish.

   Jay picked up his pace, running a little more to the next aid. We arrived in high spirits, but when his wife was not dressed in her running clothes to pace the last section with us, every bit of energy Jay had was gone like a fart in the wind.

   I instantly felt horrible for my rookie mistake. As we left I quickly whipped up a small pep talk reassuring Jay he was still moving well and we just needed to adapt and get though this section.

   Little talk and a few other 100 mile runners passed us. I was losing him. There was no way I was going to let him quit, especially since he had come this far.

   The last mile or so he began to lighten up as we cruised into the last aid station with his wife ready as ever to push him through the last 7 miles.

   With a couple more big climbs, a fresh pacer and the end nearing, Jay had found a new spark. I struggled at times keeping up with them as I fumbled with my equipment bringing up the rear, but soon found my own groove.

   As we neared the top of Mystery Mountain I pointed out to Jay he could see the finish, he had absolutely no time for that, he was completely focused on his next step. Barreling down the hill the calming sound of Poplar River filled our ears.

   Across the bridge and a steady hike up the small incline onto the road Jay knew the end was within reach.

Moving right along
   Moving along at a blistering fast 8 minute/ mile pace we weaved around a few corners.

   "Where the f*** is the finish?" Jay yelled repeatedly before we finally arrived at the final path leading around the pool to the finish.

   "I'll see you at the finish man!" I yelled and patted him on the back. He quickly grabbed me and yelled, "Hell no! You're crossing that finish line with me!"

   In the last stretch around the pool Jay's wife ran ahead of us, yelling as loud as she could as other runners and spectators cheered us onto the finish.

   With the same amount of anticipation for the race to start, the feeling was still there in Jay's last steps as he crossed the finish line.

   An instant sigh of relief, congratulatory hand shake, coveted medal and belt buckle from Race Director John Storkamp, mission accomplished.

Inside he was ecstatic to be done
Relaxing after a long couple of days
Still smiling
   The community and upbeat atmosphere at every Ultra Marathon event I have been to is simply incredible. Witnessing everyday individuals coming together to test their limits may be beyond comprehension for some, but for those willing to go too far understand. As a competitor and experiencing these ultra feats first hand simply comes down to believing.

   Believing in yourself enough to let your ego go and trusting in yourself that you can and will go farther than you ever thought imaginable. Whether it's around the block, 2, 10, 25, 100 miles or more, limits have no boundaries except the ones you put on yourself. Don't be afraid to get out there and test the boundaries so many have been lead to think is possible. It may not always be easy, but trust me, nothing is impossible.