An Athlete's Diary
As I sat there with my eyes closed and the warmth of the fire on my legs, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I didn’t know who I saw in that moment. I talked leading up to Superior about the depth of our struggle not being a projection of who we are but of a reflection of what we are. The interesting thing, I thought, was that the reflection could project someone we don’t feel like we are. The reflection could shift in the moment and we have the power to create that shift within ourselves. I don’t know if I was surprised by what I saw in the mirror there at Sugarloaf road but I knew I needed to shift and become who I wanted to be.
Tuesday after driving the kids to school on the first day I came home with the goal of being out the door and on my way up the shore by noon. I had been prepping all week and looking forward to getting away and seeing what type of trail we’d be working with on Friday. I hit Duluth in no time and before I knew it was pulling in to Caribou Highlands in Lutsen. Because I left home about an hour earlier than expected I was the first one to the lodge. I picked up the room keys and headed down to our lodging for the week.
It was an hour or so before everyone showed up. When they did, we went and ran. I was eager to dance a little and my friend John had Eagle Mountain in mind for this one. Climb and Slide we did. Well, we didn’t slide but it sure would be fun if that was a thing! Up Eagle, down Eagle and on to some single-track just to get the full experience. I learned something on this run, a new technique, one that would give me something to think about and play around with as dawn approached. We got back to the lodge after four or five miles and it was burrito time! They were good and once we figured out how to heat ‘em up, we ate good.
Wednesday morning it was up and at ‘em. We had aid stations to prepare so, after breakfast of eggs, bacon and some jelly toast with butter, we were off to Oberg. We dropped some wood, marked some parking and headed down to Britton Peak (Sawbill). We repeated this all day until at around four we made our way back to Lutsen. I drove down to the lake to soak my legs in Lake Superior. It was a beautiful evening and they had a fire on the beach. I reflected on the happenings of the day and shifted gears to people.
Tuesday and Wednesday of race week are pretty isolated. There are just a few of us up there getting some things done. Trail gets marked on Thursday so Wednesday night is a bit of a feast. 504 is bursting at the seams. We trail people connect with people we haven’t seen for sometimes an entire year. There’s lots of laughing and food and pie and ice cream. It’s a party! And it’s a beautiful time with such an amazing group of people. The more time I spend around events the more I come to appreciate those times of feasting and laughing. It brings a tear to my eye just recollecting that time.
Thursday morning is trail marking. The past two years I’ve marked the section of trail between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay. This is where everything starts to change. We gather early Thursday morning in 504 and begin the key swap before John walks down the stairs. Things are starting to change. The energy is building and the tension is almost palpable. It’s not a bad tension, just a feeling like something really big is about to happen.
This year I marked the section of trail between Sugarloaf Road and Cramer Road. Sugarloaf has been a sticking point for me in the past so I was excited to get familiarized with what comes next. I was lucky enough to be marking trail with Jen and John. Both have served the ultra-running community for a long time so it was a pleasure to be out there with them. John told stories of trails past and Jen and I couldn’t get enough. We anticipated rain and thankfully it never came. It took a little over two hours to mark trail and it was quite possibly the most enjoyable two hours of my entire weekend. What wisdom do you get when you talk about how this section of trail might be a bit tricky to mark. No specific techniques, no detailed instructions, “Just make it flow.” It’s as simple as that so we did.
Upon returning to the lodge after marking the weight really started to hit me. Everything changed. My mindset went from keeping my mind occupied with anything but actually running to allowing my mind to be occupied with nothing but running. It consumed me beginning when my head hit the pillow for a nap late Thursday morning.
I slept about an hour and when I woke up it was full on calm before the storm. I had gone inside to prepare and would wait an hour for Jesse to get up to Lutsen. He came up so he would have options come Sunday morning no matter what happened during the event. He left his car at the finish. I have no recollection of time at this point. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we had enough time to pack drop bags, check in at the hotel and get back to the pre-race at 6:30. A nap would have been nice too and we were able to squeeze in 25 minutes.
All together packing drop bags was the best part of that whole bit. Tom and Nancy would be there and what a joy it was to share the afternoon with them! We spread out and this is where Jesse and I really started to connect. We were locked in our own little world. The only people that got to experience that were Tom and Nancy and the beauty was that they added so much to it. We heard stories from the trail and Nancy even packed our “poop bags”. One of those bags would be a big part of this Superior story.
My favorite part of the pre-race this year was John reading a poem he wrote of Superior.
“A footrace through the reaches of dark and ethereal northern boreal forests. Not for the faint of heart or the weak willed. Each and every single footfall is greeted by earth bound by roots and littered with rocks. A challenge fit only for champions. The ultimate test of man and woman. Thus giving rise to its eternal name… Rugged | Relentless | Remote – Superior
The Packers and Bears met in an NFC Central showdown to kick off the NFL season. My brother and I are both football fans and play fantasy football so it was a nice distraction Thursday night. The last two years I’ve slept quite well heading into the day of the event. We got up, got dressed, made sure we had everything we needed to start with and went to the van for breakfast. I just cook eggs and bacon using a little single burner stove. You’ve got to start with the bacon and use the grease for non stick eggs. Looking back to the way I reacted to setting and leaving the burning hot pan on my YETI cooler was a pretty good indication as to how this whole thing would unfold.
It’s about a 20-minute drive from Larsmont Cottages to Gooseberry Falls and the start of the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race. I remember the drive as a peaceful one looking out over the big lake in the East covered with heavy fog. This year felt different. I was trying to do something I had never done before. I was trying to finish Superior in back to back years. In 2015, after my 2014 finish I quit at Sugarloaf Road. Sometimes when you run these things you don’t quit. Sometimes it’s just too hard or bad luck. In 2015 I quit and I’ve regretted it ever since. My goal this year was back to back.
It was much warmer than I thought it would be at the race start. I didn’t take any of the “long” clothes I thought I might need. Check in, bathroom, John talks, countdown… go. 8:00am start
Get to the Split Rock River Loop, get there fairly quickly since it’s blacktop and rocks and roots aren’t an issue here. Under the bridge and onto the SHT. The river is running, the hills begin. I fall in line with Matt. He says something along the lines of, “follow me.” Then takes me under a tree branch that fits him but not me. My hat falls off and my sunglasses too as they were on my hat. The hat has fallen 40 feet off the edge of a cliff but a fellow trail runner finds my sunglasses just a few feet back. Then, I come upon a man who has been stung by a bee and is allergic. He has much help and a pen in hand. Luckily another runner also has a pen and he made it out. Split Rock is a quick turn. Down the stairs, say hello, fill water, back up the hill, take a right at the top. In to Split Rock at 9:45am
It’s a steady climb coming out of Split Rock on the way to Beaver Bay. Runnable though and that’s what we do. Some exposed rock and it’s early enough so it sort of feels like you just get to Beaver Bay. I had been wearing my Speedcross 4’s and switched over to a pair of Hokas to Finland. In to Beaver Bay at 12:22pm
Always exposed is Beaver Bay to Silver Bay. This year was no different and it felt a lot hotter than it was just because of the humidity. The sun was mostly shaded by clouds though so that was nice. I started in on s caps here instead of waiting until Mt. Trudee reminded me, like in year’s past. This part was still fairly forgettable. I remember a beautiful day and feeling good coming in to Silver Bay. I grabbed a few things and headed off to Tettegouche. Silver Bay to Tettegouche is challenging for many reasons. In to Silver Bay at 1:42pm
The section from Silver Bay to Tettegouche is always memorable for me. It’s always been memorable for the wrong reasons, mostly cramping and dehydration. This year I planned a little better and took s caps early and often. For the first time I can remember during an event, I summitted Mt. Trudee and kept on going with no issues. The last little bit is runnable and that’s what I did. Tettegouche is my favorite aid station. The chaos at the aid station pretty well embodies the chaos of the trail. It’s a beautiful thing. The woods end when the aid station begins and the aid station ends where the woods begin. It’s a whirlwind. Headlamp? Check, just in case we get to County 6 after dark. In to Tettegouche at 4:40pm
The Sawmill Dome, 3 Mile Pass and the trail that never ends. This year, surprisingly enough it did end much sooner than I expected it to. I had no GPS but know that when you go through the two rock walls there are three miles left. On this section I remembered back to when my Son went to Wolf Ridge with his classmates. I went with and one night a couple of other parents and I went on a little hike. We hiked from Wolf Ridge up to 3 Mile Pass and back down to Wolf Ridge. It was five miles or so in January. It rained on this section. The rain, while inconvenient at the time, was welcomed and provided a break in the humidity. The air thinned out after the rain and it never got stormy, just rainy. In to County Road 6 at 7:25pm
Finland is next. I tell people Finland is where the race actually starts. I was able to get through most of the climbing here without my headlamp and have learned over the years that it’s best to go as long as possible without turning it on. The sun is a better guide and the longer we can put off the light hole the better. I ran a lot here because Section 13 is a runnable section of trail. It took longer than I thought it would to get from the break in the trail to Finland. In to Finland at 10:00pm
The power I used to give Finland to Crosby is gone. It’s still tough and there are some gnarly parts but for the most part, this is a runnable section of trail. I don’t slow down much, if at all, through this section. Sonju, while I love it and it is an aid station with great energy, is a place I try and leave as quickly as possible. I might have warmed very briefly by the fire this year before heading back out on the trail. In to Crosby at 2:10am
The best thing to do here is move. I had some chaffing I was hoping to resolve here and was able to do so. Thanks Nancy! The lack of sleep and the weight of the night begins to affect us here at Crosby. I ate, warmed up, posed for a picture and hit the trail. There are a couple of memorable downs and a couple of memorable ups in the first three miles or so of this section. Then the ups and downs get less memorable but no less painful. I used a way of moving I learned on my Tuesday night run with John and Scott through this not memorable, painful stretch of trail. I sought flat spots, something I usually try to avoid on the SHT. I rode my feet and let them roll with the trail. This kept me occupied for miles until things flattened out a bit and the sky began to grow lighter and lighter. The last couple miles are flat and runnable and I actually was able to do some, what I would call at that time, running. In to Sugarloaf Road at 6:35am
31 miles to go. To me, that doesn’t sound like a lot. I know though that it will take me half a day or more to get to Lutsen from here. I felt done. The sleep is always a factor here. The hurt is another. It would be much more comfortable hop in the car and head to the lodge for a nap and a donut. It wouldn’t be worth it though. I know because I’ve done that before and wished I hadn’t since I did. I took my shoes and socks off, slouched back in the camp chair and closed my eyes. I reflected on everything I’d been through and thought about what would be next. I did not know at the time what my next would be. It would not have taken much in that moment for me to quit. I went over and sat by the fire and didn’t say a word to Jesse. I don’t know how long I sat there with my eyes closed. I got up, put on my socks and shoes, grabbed my pack, posed for a picture and starting walking towards Cramer Road. In at Cramer Road at 9:15am - NO PICTURE AT CRAMER
*The video here is from a series of videos I took to prepare for the 2014 Superior 100. It's here just as a glimpse into the nature of the SHT.
I remember less of the trail and more of the decisions at Cramer Road. One of the last people I wanted to see coming in to Cramer Road was my friend John and his wife. John mentioned something about not having to do this again for a very long time and that I should be thankful for my legs. Before that encounter I was done and he could see the glaze in my eye right away. I sat down at the aid station and told Jesse I was done. As I said that I looked around through blurry lenses and saw a big white beard. He stood on his tip toes and searched the station for, who I later found out, was his runner. He was one aid station off and my brother told me to hold on for a second. He told me I wasn’t going to like him very much. I said “you’re getting Gustafson aren’t you?” He had the most gleeful look in his eye. It was like he had just solved the puzzle and called in reinforcements. There is a bond among us that is difficult to explain. Gusty knows what it feels like to be in this place at this time. He knows what it feels like to have covered almost 80 miles on this trail and want to stop, right here in this very place. He wasn’t there today though. I was and he knew just what to say and more importantly how to say it. He said what he said with an empathetic confidence in me that I would get up and finish this thing. Thank you, Jesse and Johns.
Cramer to Temperance was almost mystical as the sun continued to penetrate the trees and lit up the trail in a broken glow. The river ran wild and the ups and downs seemed to never end. That is until I got to the clearing that has been so memorable in years past. It’s about two miles from the aid station when the woods open up and we traverse on the ridge before descending down to the Temperance River Road. I texted Jesse I was done as I had about a mile to go here. My family had driven up from the Cities and I didn’t care. I slowed to a crawl and the last couple of miles took about 45 minutes longer than what they should have. I was looking for any way out.
Little did I know that as I was stalling, my wife and two daughters were sitting at the wrong aid station waiting for me. When they realized they were in the wrong spot I would have been long either in and out of Temperance aid or in to Temperance and out of the event. It’s wild to me how these things work out. My friend Gusty was in the wrong aid station when I needed him to be and I slowed to a crawl to seemingly wait on my family to meet me at Temperance. I ambled down the hill to the road and was greeted by my sister in law Kelly, her two boys, my wife’s parents and Eric’s (Kelly’s husband who was doing the 50 miler) parents. They were way to excited to see me. All the talk was about what would happen next and I wanted to hear none of it. I was done. Like before, I kept my mouth shut and went with the general expectation. My wife and two daughters showed up and greeted me with smiles and lots of love. Then Katie and Hannah took off down the trail. I thought I guess I should probably follow them, so I did. In to Temperance at 12:50pm
There were a lot of videos taken on this section as Katie was with me. They can be seen over at my Instagram account @_jonhoward in the Superior 2019 Highlight.
At this point all I needed was a little chatter. I got it and had been looking forward to showing Hannah Superior for years. She finally made it up and we crossed Carlton’s Peak together. Everything hurt so bad at this point that nothing specifically hurt anymore. My pace was slow and my heart was full with Hannah pulling me along and Katie encouraging me with words of praise and praise music. At the picnic table just before the scramble I stopped to empty the rocks out of my shoes. Along came Eric and it was so uplifting to see him out there. He had so many encouraging words and looked great as he was about to attack some familiar trail. In to Sawbill at 3:30
Amy was there and so were many others. I met Israel and his energy was contagious. He helped me. At this point the only way I stop is something happens or I miss cuts. There are just a couple more battles left to fight from Sawbill. I told Amy I had thought of Jason a lot on the trail this year and that he had kept me going at times. Elli and I were off to Oberg.
Elli has an energy that is very encouraging. She’s an amazing teammate and whenever we would get passed by someone she would always, at the perfect time, just when they almost couldn’t hear us anymore, say, “you’re doing great, you’ve got this.” It’s like her timing was just enough to give them a little boost so they could get absolutely everything out of seeing another runner out there on the trail. I’ve done this section twice with Elli and the peace I’ve felt is like nothing I’ve every experienced on the trail before. She has an amazing way of being kind, empathetic and encouraging all in the right amounts with perfect timing. Elli, it was a pleasure to share the trail with you. The road into the aid station is the longest road ever! In to Oberg at 5:50
Doug slapped me in the ass. Thanks Doug! It really got me moving there… I saw so many familiar faces at Oberg and it was just wonderful to be surrounded by such an amazing support group of family and friends. Jason was there and I asked him if he would come with me to the end. He agreed and off we went. We had a lot of time to get to where we were going. I was not moving quickly at all and light was fading fast. Jason was trying hard to pull me along and kept disappearing around the next bend. I was trying to keep up but it wasn’t going to happen. I said something about how slow I was moving and he quickly nipped that negativity in the bud. That was the last of any negative comment or thought really. It was all about business and getting to the end. We would set goals about how far we could get before dark and I would tell Jason all about the running style I’d been using that had saved me overnight. Climbing was tough here late. I was needing to climb slow and take lots of breaks. My pace was slow but I knew that once I got to the top of Mystery it was all downhill from there. We’re at the point now where we start listening for the river. That’s a good place to be at Superior.
The mood changed as we knew we would be in with plenty of time to spare. We hit a little service road and heard the river. I stopped at the bridge over the Poplar, shut my headlamp off and just soaked in the moment. You could see the lights of the finish line off in the distance and hear the cheering for each runner as they came in. Jason and I walked it in until we left the road. As we ran toward Caribou Highlands, I heard the most beautiful voice. It was my queen, my Katie. She was so excited to see me and the girls joined me and Jason to the finish line. We made it! I still don’t know exactly how. This one was hard. In to Finish at 9:12pm
I don’t feel like I’m able to summarize Superior 2019 in a word or two. There was so much to it and so many different pieces that fit just perfectly into place. The greatest lesson I learned this year was that even when you’ve quit in your mind, continue doesn’t need to happen real fast but no matter where you’re at, keep going, keep moving, get up and run, get up and walk. At some point it won’t hurt quite so bad and you’ll have made ground towards your goals. That’s my Superior Story.
There are more photos and videos over at my Instagram account @_jonhoward in the Superior 2019 Highlight.
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