2018 Superior Fall 50 Miler - Rugged, Relentless, Remote

Let me first point out that a race is more than the race report, it is about the journey getting there with friends, dealing with challenges in training, learning to balance running with family and work, and then finally comes race day.  I will try to give this insight for anyone looking to tackle their first Superior 50.

By: Andrew Ruthenbeck (2018 Superior 50 finisher at 14:50:52; 83rd of 117 finishers)

The Why

The North Shore of Minnesota is truly one unique and special place to spend time outside.  Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by surface area and third largest in volume.  It has a mystery which surrounds it that is told through stories of romance and struggle.  The shores are a rugged outcrop of igneous rock carved out by glaciers over the most recent ice age.  A thin layer vegetation grows along the rocks with a boreal forest that reaches into the most remote regions of NE Minnesota west of the shoreline.  Having grown up less than hour from these shores, it has always held a special place in my memories.  7 years ago we moved to South Carolina for a new job, but NE Minnesota keeps us coming back each June to run Grandma's Marathon and vacation.

Over the past 7 years I have turned from a road runner into a trail junkie and ultra runner.  The Carolinas have a great expanse of trails which are easy to access year round due to the weather.  I am typically a mid-pack trail racer with a spurt of success every once and a while.  My first 50k was in 2014 and also my fastest at 5:14.  I have since run 6 formal 50k's along with numerous other 50k+ distance runs in timed events.

When looking for my first 50 miler I wanted something special, and what better race than back near home on the Superior Hiking Trail at the Superior 50.  January came and I entered the 50 mile lottery realizing it might take 2-3 years to get in the race.  When I got the email in late January I got a huge smile and then got to work on a training plan. 

The Training

 I was coming off a strong Fall race season with a good base and had already committed to running (3) 50k's in each month of March, April, & May respectively.  June would be highlighted by Grandma's Marathon which gave me a good base of training miles and speed work.

Training in the South during Summer is miserable, especially for a person who grew up in NE Minnesota enjoying Winter.  It is too hot to train more than 6-8 miles during the heat of the day, evenings rarely dip below 85 degrees until after 9:00 pm, so it is early mornings when I do my Summer training.  Most years I run Grandma's in June and then do minimal mileage weeks until cooler temps arrive in October.  This year I would have to succumb to the 4:00 am alarm clocks and escape to the Mountains on weekends to train.  The mountains of Western North Carolina are a great training ground and within 2 hours drive.  I tackled a couple of training runs on Grandfather Mountain, a couple of 3-day training runs at Mount Mitchell (highest peak on east coast), and an epic 41 mile/23,000 ft elevation change training run with my friend Kim in the Great Smoky Mountains which was highlighted by miles on the Appalachian Trail and a summit of Mount LeConte.

Training race at Grandfather Mountain (North Carolina) photo by White Blaze Marketing

Training run with friends on Mount Mitchell (North Carolina)

41 mile/23,000 ft elev change training run in Great Smoky Mountains with friend Kim (TN/NC)

The Travel

In South Carolina the kids were already back in school by mid-August so they couldn't come which also forced my wife Anne to stay in SC.  Thankfully my parents still live in NE Minnesota and would be my base, crew, support, and driver for this adventure.  I flew out of Charlotte, NC on Thursday after work through Chicago and then into Duluth.  I rented a car and drove the 1-hour to my parents.  It was my Dad's 60th birthday and I hoped to see him as I was getting there just before midnight.  When I arrived he had already slipped off to bed but my Mom was there to greet me!  Like your typical Mom she tried to fill me up on lots of food and goodies, I grabbed a quick snack and headed to get some sleep from the long day.
I think I will go to floor 3 on this trip

A special piece of art that Anne made and snuck in my backpack.

The next day my parents both took off work and we headed to Ely for a little day trip.  It was the Harvest Moon festival so we toured around, did some Christmas shopping for the family, and grabbed some lunch.  It was a beautiful day in the low 70's and I thought about all the 100 milers who were already out there and that I would be seeing on the trail tomorrow.  We had a nice day spending time together relaxing ahead of what would be a long day Saturday.  I retired to bed around 9:00 pm and mostly slept well ahead of the race before the 2:30 am alarm went off.
Enjoying a nice day in Ely with my parents

The Race Day

The Superior 50 starts at 5:15 am so we left my parents house by 3:15 am.  We arrived to the start at Finland by 4:30 am for packet pickup and to ensure we were early.  We arrived before the buses and it was an eerie silence at the Finland Rec Center.  The 1/2 way aid station for the 100 milers was all packed up except for a few Christmas lights strung above some folding tables.  We went inside and got my packet and waited in the warm truck until closer to the race.  Just after 5:00 am Race Director John Storkamp gave us the briefing and told us trails were in almost ideal condition.  John is an amazing Race Director and person, you can read more of his story here from a Trail Runner Magazine interview.  My parents took one more picture, we exchanged hugs, and I told them I would see them in less than 12 miles at the first aid station with Crew access.
Finland Rec Center with my Mom

Bib on & ready to go at Finland

Finland to Crosby-Manitou (Miles 0 - 11.7)

John Storkamp calls everyone out to the road in front of the Finland Rec Center and gives a simple "GO" command.  A flurry of bouncing headlamps follow him in his truck as he leads us down the road. It is less than a mile of dirt road to start the 50 miler where the group can sort itself out before entering the single track trail which we would be on all day.  After a hard left turn we head up in elevation down an old logging road and eventually onto the single track Superior Hiking Trail.  I positioned myself near mid-pack but quickly realized it was at too slow of a pace for me.  I heard several runners around me comment how this was their first time running trails at night and were certainly heeding caution.  I would spend the next 7.5 miles jockeying around fellow runners trying to get to a faster pace group.  This was a difficult task as the trail is really narrow in this section with lots of roots, I just had to be cautious and take my time.  I was glad to be out there but was kicking myself for not running harder on that first road mile.

The Trail Ahead

The first aid station is Sonju Lake Road and due to its remoteness has no crew access.  I headed down the short out & back to arrive and was greeted by lots of colorful Christmas lights, smiling volunteers, and a warm bon-fire.  I had started with 2 liters of Tailwind in my pack and hadn't drank much with the cooler temps so headed right out knowing I was only about 4 miles from the next aid station.  The volunteer lady told me they were not checking bibs so I made a quick u-turn and back to the trail.

I passed another group by getting in and out quickly.  Originally I was worried about running this section too quickly but came in at 3 minutes slower than planned.  I was now in a group of runners that were making good pace and only walking the longer and steeper hills.  It was right where I wanted to be and this section along the river went fairly quickly.  It has a few short climbs to warm you up.  The sun broke the horizon and we got our first views of Lake Superior.  On the last descent we could hear cowbells and cheering from the aid station off in the distance at Crosby-Manitou.  The sun came up and shone brightly through the trees, it was a completely clear sky for the day with temps supposed to get in the upper 60's.

We popped out of the trail and onto a section of dirt road to take us just over 1/2 mile into the aid station.  I immediately sighted my Dad who insisted on wearing a day-glow safety neon yellow shirt and bandanna so I could see him.  The last section had gone well and I came in at just over 1 minute off my expected time, hows that for planning in the first section?  I took a chair, refilled my hydration bladder with tailwind, grabbed a quick snack from my bag and then hit the trail in just 3 minutes after arriving.

Feeling strong at Crosby-Manitou aid station

Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf (Miles 11.7 - 21.1)

The first part of the next section is very technical but beautiful as you navigate rocks and roots down through George Crosby Manitou State Park.  After crossing the Manitou River it is a large climb going up and out of the park.  This section was really just a nice comfortable run for me.  I enjoyed the net climb through here and we began to hit the back of the 100 miler pack.  A few in this group were really struggling and most of them probably wouldn't make the next cutoff point but we encouraged them and passed when we could.  This section is a mix of technical rocks and roots mixed with muddy sections, some with boards across to help.  The boards were wet and slick with mud and you really had to be careful.  One runner completely wiped out in front of me and I had all I could do to stop and not crash on top of him.  Although the course was drier than most years, I still got a taste of the "Manitou mud" everyone had been referring to.

There is a nice ridge line section where you run a good pace while enjoying the beauty of Lake Superior through the trees.  While running this section I came across a wasp's ground nest that was already fully stirred up.  I didn't notice it until I had already been stung on my shin and twice in my calf.  John Storkamp gives plenty of warnings prior to the race and since I am not allergic, was not overly concerned.  The pain eventually subsided and I was back to doing my thing on the SHT.

I was at a comfortable pace and fueled with 2 liters of Tailwind through this section.  The temps were much cooler than my training all summer in the Carolinas so I was mixing Tailwind in at around 300 calories per liter.  The remainder of my nutrition was mostly from Gu blocks which felt easy on my stomach all day.  My legs were feeling good and in general I felt good about a strong race even though there were still a lot of miles ahead.

Sugarloaf aid station was very busy as several 100 miler crews and many 50 miler crews were waiting on runners.  The aid station is on a short section of dirt road that can be a little congested while everyone is still bunched up early in the race.  My parents spotted me and called me over to where they had setup off on the side.  I again filled my water bladder with Tailwind mix, got some snacks from my bag, and hit the trail again in about 3 minutes.

Sugarloaf to Cramer Road (Miles 21.1 to 26.7)

During this section we got bunched up several times passing 100 milers and I ended up running in a group of almost 18 runners.  We navigated more of the Manitou mud and made 2 short climbs in this section.  Due to the mud and roots this is a fairly technical section so we basically stuck together and made our way through it.  The sun was making its way higher in the sky and temps started to feel warmer so I continued to drink and felt well hydrated.

At Cramer Road my parents had a spot set out for me just after coming off the trail.  I sat down and refilled my Tailwind.  I also had wanted to change shoes after starting out with Hoka One One Speedgoats.  They run narrow in the toebox for me and typically give me blister issues past 50k distances.  I started with them to get me through the mud and early morning damp sections.  They did the job as I went without falling down.  I laced up a newer pair of Altra Lone Peak 4.0's and they felt magical, any new dry shoe feels great after a marathon in the woods.  I also chose to grab my trekking poles at this aid station to help take the load off my knees and help with the climbs in the back half of the race.  Little did I know just how much I would need them shortly.  My parents again did a fantastic job of having everything ready for me and I was out in only 4 minutes.

Cramer Road to Sawbill (Miles 26.7 - 39.5) The train comes off the tracks

This is the longest stretch without crew for the 50 milers as Temperance River aid station (Mile 33.8) only has 100 miler crew access due to its small size.  This would be both a curse and a blessing for me.  I took off from Cramer Road alone and had a nice easy pace going about a mile down the trail when the worst happened.  I was coming off a rock with my right foot when the rock shifted in soft mud to twist my toes up towards my ankle and also roll my ankle to the right.  I said a few choice words but shook it off and started a slow walk away.  Rolling your ankle is standard in any trail run but normally you just keep going and eventually get back to running.  This was certainly something different the way my foot had over extended towards my leg while at the same time rolling the ankle.  I walked for 5 minutes or so and then tried to run, the pain was excruciating to the point where I couldn't run more than a few steps.  I knew it wasn't going to get me to the finish to keep running on it so I just walked.  My hope was that it would continue to loosen up and feel better as I went along.  I was still almost 12 miles from my crew again at Sawbill and had no plans to quit this race.

The walking miles went by slowly and many concerned runners asked how I was doing when they passed.  The trekking poles now became more like crutches for me and I lifted as much of my body weight into them with my upper body on each step.  Not only was it not getting any better, but it was actually getting worse the more miles I walked.  2 miles away from the aid station at Temperance River I had it in my mind that I was going to drop.  I wasn't sure the details but with almost 22 miles left in this race and barely being able to descend, I just couldn't picture going on past there.  Each station had a ham radio operator which could possibly get a hold of my parents at Sawbill or possibly use of a cell phone.  I had been to Temperance River hiking many times, it was a favorite for our family and we always stopped anytime we were on Hwy 61.  I knew all the trails and it was just a short walk back to the parking lot where my parents could pick me up.

I hobbled painfully into Temperance River and the young aid station volunteer knew I was in pain.  He asked me what I needed and I told him I was thinking of dropping if I could get a hold of my parents who were by now at Sawbill.  He was not sure how to help me and I didn't immediately see the ham radio operator so I just continued down the trail by all the 100 miler crews.  I knew it doubled back close to the parking lot.  When I arrived at the bridge to cross over Temperance River there were lots of families and day hikers out enjoying the beautiful Fall day.  I asked one person to kindly borrow their phone so I could call my parents.  He thankfully let me use it and had service, but no answer from my parents.  I took a good guess there was no service at Sawbill.

Now with seemingly not many other easy options I decided to slowly walk the 5.7 miles to my parents at Sawbill.  Here is where I made a critical error, when having already deciding to drop the race I didn't take any aid at Temperance River.  I walked out of there with maybe 2/3 a liter of water and I was going to spend almost 4 hours on this 13 mile stretch in the mid-day sun.

I had been to Temperance so many times before and with so many great memories made this even harder.  Here I was in this beautiful area that I envisioned running through but instead was hobbling in pain.  After Temperance is a big climb up to Carlton Peak and the bouldering which comes near the peak.  Luckily this is a popular trail and I utilized every bench along the trail to rest and try to kick myself ahead.  Carlton Peak is very rocky and the trail is exposed on the Western side.  I was dripping in sweat slowly climbing while the sun beat down.  I finally made it to the top and luckily the descent is on the East in the shade.  During the descent I got chilled but I slowly made my way towards the Sawbill aid station.  I was out of water now and was cold but maybe that was enough to raise me from the pain cave.
Making the final push up Carlton Peak

At just under a mile until Sawbill the pain in my ankle started to feel better.  I had been walking in pain for almost 4 hours now but it was changing.  Maybe it was dehydration, maybe my mind had gone numb to the pain, or maybe it was just starting to improve.  In Fall of 2017 I had the great opportunity to go on a training run with a local group and Karl Meltzer on some trails in Charlotte, NC.  As we stood around talking of his many 100 mile wins, he said it is about pain management.  Karl said there have been races where he is puking and miserable at mile 13, "but you know what?" he says, "things don't always get worse."  It was my new mantra, things were starting to get better and dang if I only had a half marathon left.  I could walk this thing and still come in under cutoff time.

In a state of disbelief coming into Sawbill
Sawbill - A Great Crew

I knew my parents would be worried as this section took me 1-1/2 hours longer than scheduled and the first half of the race I was within minutes of my goal time into each aid station.  I could see the sense of worry and relief on their faces when they saw me.  I had a seat and told them what was going on.  My Mom is a registered nurse and she went right to work on taping my ankle really well.  My Dad helped me refill my Tailwind while I chugged from a gallon jug of ice cold water trying to re-hydrate.  The ankle was wrapped tightly and I laced my shoe back on, it was time to head back on the trail.  My parents actually couldn't believe I was going back but I told them I would see them at Oberg.

Sawbill to Oberg (Miles 39.5 - 45)

The first few steps from Sawbill immediately felt better with the support of the ankle wrap.  I was able to maintain a relatively quick 15 minute/mile hiking pace using my poles and wasn't getting passed so much anymore.  I was now near the back of the pack and was with several 100 & 50 mile runners who were also walking.

I started talking with two 100 milers and joined in on the stories.  It helped me to pass the time and really reflect on what a finish here meant to me.  I then realized one of the gentlemen was Stuart Johnson who was going for his 21st Superior 100 mile finish!!  I congratulated him and asked him many questions of his favorite and least favorite years.  He and the other 100 miler eventually pulled off to the side of trail to grab a drink and some nutrition.  Stuart realized I had a 50 miler bib on and said, "heck I thought you were a 100 miler moving at our pace, get up there and go finish this thing!"  I laughed and congratulated him again as I forged ahead.

Coming into Oberg the sun was starting to close in on the horizon and excitement was building with all runners I met, especially the 100 milers!  My parents greeted me again in Oberg but still had a worried look to their face.  I am sure they thought I was going to drop here, but heck there was no way I was dropping just over 7 miles from the finish.  I refilled on Tailwind and grabbed some cookies from the aid station.  It was going to be a beautiful sunset and I wanted to see it from Moose Mountain!
Excitement builds at Oberg Aid Station

Oberg to Caribou Highlands Finish (Miles 45 - 52.1)

I had now been walking for almost 17 miles and it was getting old!  With my ankle wrapped up it had been starting to improve so I gave running a shot again.  I was so excited to be able do a run/walk and it felt okay!  I started to finally pass back some of the 100 and 50 milers who had been going by me the last 5 hours.  We came to Moose Mountain and since I love to climb, I put in a hard effort and passed quite a few runners going up.  Up on top there was a congregation of 100 milers and pacers catching their breath and enjoying the impending sunset.  I congratulated them all and ran quickly across the ridge line.  I went a little slower on the descent as my ankle still was in pain on hard impacts.

Next came the final climb on Mystery Mountain which was now into twilight as the sun went below the horizon.  I climbed hard and passed several more runners here.  By now we could hear the party that was going on at the finish line and the cheers as each runner finished.  It is deceiving to hear the finish line from Mystery Mountain since you are still almost 2-1/2 miles away but you have to make a big loop around Caribou Highlands area before finishing.  I ran the last couple miles under 10 mins/mile pace and passed another dozen or so runners.  I felt great and even had a little sprint on the pavement coming to the resort.

The Finish!

I rounded the fence at the resort pool which I had envisioned in my head over the last 8 months and came in at 14 hours, 50 minutes, and 52 seconds.  It was almost two hours back from my estimated finish and 3 hours from my ultimate goal.  I wasn't happy with how the day had gone but was so excited to finish.  My parents hadn't expected me so quickly to the finish so they ran through the finish line crowd to take my hydration pack and give me a big hug.  They took my picture with the my new Aspen tree slice medal and we headed for the truck.

Sweet taste of aspen and a Superior 50 finish

Accomplishing the goal

I apologized to my parents a few times as they truly had the long day waiting around for me at aid stations and missing dinner.  It was now 9:00 pm and dark.  I changed clothes at the truck and we hit the road deciding to stop and pickup pizza near home.  My Mom grabbed a nap while I reviewed the race with my Dad as he drove us home.  Without either of them I am sure I probably would have quit back at Temperance and taken a ride to Caribou Highlands.  They were the ultimate crew and stayed up for over 22 hours crewing me.  Back at their house I enjoyed a cold Bent Paddle beer with pizza and drifted soundly to sleep that night.

Superior Races

My story was one of an average runner being able to have an awesome experience due to the entire Superior Fall Trail Race staff, volunteers, my parents, the Superior Hiking Trail Association, and a supportive family back home.

This was the best marked, well organized, & best staffed ultra trail race I have ever run.  For markings a ground post with orange and reflective streamers are always within in eyesight and highly visible in day or night.  I wonder how many lay along this 103.3 mile course!?!  All turns were marked super well with multiple bright orange and reflective signs not only at the turn, but leading up to it to make sure you are paying attention.  Over 800 runners and I didn't hear the usual stories of getting off course.  I have never seen so many volunteers at a single ultra race, the aid stations were packed with people helping in any way possible.  My parents remarked how friendly they all were.  This was my parent's first race crewing so they had a share of questions which were always answered by the volunteers!

John Storkamp is visible the entire weekend at the start line, finish line, in-between aid stations and helping in any way.  He was super approachable and just a joy to be around.  You can tell how much thought he puts into the race.  The best I can describe is you will not find a better organized and professionally run low-key world class event.

The Reflection

Superior 50 was everything I hoped for except a fast finish, but not every day can be perfect.  It was the challenge that made me take away a greater sense of accomplishment.  I hope to one day get back and really run a fast 50 mile race there, I learned so many things.  First though I have my eyes set on the 100 miler which I just put in for on lottery (yes it took me until January to write this review, New Year's Resolution).  If all goes well I will be back in September toeing the line at Gooseberry Falls.

The Start area for Superior 100 - See you in 2019?
I spent the Sunday after enjoying time with my parents and going for a long walk to loosen up my legs.  On Monday they both went back to work and I had a flight to catch out of Duluth that evening.  I drove to the North Shore and went to Palisades Head & Gooseberry Falls State Park.  It was an overcast morning and I enjoyed some peaceful reflection along Lake Superior.  I also met an artist from Minneapolis who was on his way home from a plein air painting event in Grand Marais over the weekend.  He was kind enough to take out his weekend work and show them off in the parking lot of Palisades Head overlook.  He also took my picture and a few weeks later sent me a painting he did of me.  You truly meet the nicest people in NE Minnesota!!

Plein air artist showing me his works from the weekend

One last stop in Duluth before the Airport


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