Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Superior 100 Mile: Pacing Report


I agreed to pace Travis about two weeks before the Superior 100, when his original pacer became injured. I hadn't "officially" paced a runner before, though I did some improptu pacing for the last 20 km of last year's Icebox 480. There were a lot of unknowns: Was my runner going to still be in the race? I'd heard a rumor he had dropped at mile 50, but it turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Would he be well fed, uninjured, and ready to run, or would we be contending with problems in the last part of the race? Cutoff times could be a problem. On the other hand, would I be able to keep up with him? Irrational, but it crossed my mind. More realistically, would I be able to take care of myself and be an asset to him, rather than a distraction?

Despite working overnight at the Sugarloaf aid station, I focused on doing everything I could to be ready. 3 hour nap the night before, hydrating, eating. Arika saved me by taking me to the Coho Cafe for a real meal after I finished up at the aid station. She dropped me at Temperance early and I changed into my running clothes, loaded my pack, and made sure everything was ready when Travis arrived. 
Waiting for my runner in the afternoon sunshine!
At 2:30 pm, 30 hours and 30 minutes into the race, Travis and Steph ran into the aid station. Go time.

Temperance River to Sawbill (5.7 mi)

A quick shoe change, a few pancakes, and we headed out. I knew the last 15 miles of the course, but had never seen Temperance River to Carlton Peak. It was staggeringly beautiful.
Temperance River. So beautiful.
"And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards..."
I ran ahead and Travis followed. It was exciting to see that he was moving well to be 85 miles in. His main problem was exquisitely sensitive feet, but his stomach was good, his legs were feeling good, and he looked to me like a finisher. We gradually gained speed up to a sustainable run along the river. An occasional 50 mile racer passed with words of encouragement.

The climb up the back of Carlton Peak was long and steep. Exposed to the sun, we were getting hot. I tried to aim for a steady pace heading up. We talked as we climbed and, on reaching the high point of the trail, we both gasped at the cobalt blue of Lake Superior and the lighter blue of the sky. I pointed out a spur trail. "Want to summit Carlton?" "Ehh, not today," he said.

A few tense moments as we hit a long section of descent without blazes or trail markers. When a marker finally appeared a quarter mile and a lot of downhill later, we breathed a big sigh of relief. Now we were on the Spring Superior 50K course, which I had run twice. Travis hadn't seen it before and I tried to let him know about what was coming up. It mostly worked well, though the section into Sawbill aid station was (as usual) longer than I expected. Pro tip: Don't use the expression "We're almost there" when pacing unless you're really, really almost there.

Sawbill to Oberg (5.5 mi)

We rolled into Sawbill in just under 2 hours, at about 4:40. We were both concerned about the next cutoff, which was at 7 pm at Oberg. But Travis needed a different pair of shoes with more cushioning, and he needed to eat. He sat down, I plied him with turkey ("Hey! The package says it's 'ultra thin' slices, so it must be good for this!"), Steph swapped out his trail shoes for road shoes. She was a pro at crewing and really kept him on track, which was great.

Five minutes later, we were on our way. "We did that in just under two hours. We're going to do the next one in two hours too," I told him. "It's shorter and you don't have to go over Carlton Peak. No problem."

Right and wrong. It's a runnable section with only a few climbs. But it was also a very muddy section, especially after hundreds of racers had passed through. Nowhere near the mud we saw this spring, but plenty nonetheless. Travis's new shoes were doing great things for his feet, but they didn't perform well in the mud and we wanted to keep them as dry as possible.

We tiptoed around the edge of mud puddles, walked on logs and rocks, and even detoured through the woods. It slowed our pace, but Travis's foot pain was so much better in these shoes that it seemed worthwhile to keep them functional. I tried to find the best route, and Travis made full use of his hiking sticks to balance. Whenever we hit a stretch of non-muddy trail, we tried for a run, but it was hard to get a rhythm going. Still, Travis was moving well and making decent time. I was very impressed.

"Hey, you should drink your energy stuff. Oh, and go this way around the mud."
"You're bossy."
"I'm the closer. We're getting this thing done."

Two miles from the next aid station he was tiring and slowing down. It was time to do something new. I considered what it could be. Just then, we passed two local runners we knew who had stopped for a pee break. "Hey Travis," I said. "We just passed LaPlante. Let's bury him."

He didn't need further encouragement, and broke into a very respectable run. Soon we were doing decent 12 or 13-minute miles down the trail, and kept it up almost all the way into the aid station. "I haaaave no leeeegs," Travis sang.

"That was awesome," I told him, as we got within ear-shot of the aid station cheers. "You look great."
"Oh, I don't really get warmed up till mile 95 or 96," he replied. "Now I'm good to run."
"Good thing this race is 103 miles and not just 100, then," I said.

Steph met us at Oberg. We'd run the section in 1:53 and were 21 minutes under the cutoff. "BOOM! Under two hours!" I exclaimed. He was going to finish this thing!
Oh yes.

Oberg to Finish (7.1 mi)

Fastest aid station stop yet. He didn't even sit down. Slugged down a shake, Steph filled his pack, we pulled out headlamps. Our mood was high. We had 3:15 to do the last 7.1 miles. This was going to happen! We ran out of the aid station and even started running the first hill, before calming down a little. Optimism abounded. Could we do it in just over two hours? We would see.

I explained to Travis that this section has three parts: the gradual runnable climb to Moose Mountain, the steep climb up Moose, and then the long section through the saddle between Moose and Mystery, and the descent all the way to the finish. We'd take it one stage at a time.

We quickly established that his road shoes didn't like running on the damp, slightly slippery run-up to the mountain, and settled into a well paced power hike instead. We approached and climbed Moose with a few other runners and it was fun to have people to talk to. It was still light out, but from the summit of Moose we could see that the sun was setting. It would be dark for our last few hours.

Along the Moose Mountain ridge, I turned on my headlamp for the first time. My, that was dim. That's not good. After a bit, I paused to swap in my one remaining spare battery (I'd given the others away at the aid station... oops). Hmm, that didn't really help. I was leading a little train of about four people, and every time someone behind me shone a light, mine became a shadow. Not bringing my brighter headlamp with the fully charged batteries was the biggest mistake I made at Superior. I think I could have paced better in this section without the distraction of not being able to see where I was going. Lesson learned.

We hiked along the ridge and descended the back of Moose into the saddle. We were moving well, but we weren't running, because of rocky trail and dark. With the coming of a second round of darkness (and now 36 hours and 98 miles into the race), the high of being on the last section had faded and Travis was getting tired and a little low. He talked with Ben, a 50 miler, for a long way. I was out ahead, trying to stay on the trail and set a manageable pace.

"Don't run this downhill," I suggested. "If you f*ck up your knee, that would really suck."
"Hey, you shouldn't talk that way."
"You're right. If you f*ck up your knee, you'll be very disappointed."

Coming up Mystery, we joined a half-dozen runners, mostly 50 milers and one 100 miler, as they hiked up the switchbacks. They were moving just a bit faster than us, and they pulled ahead around the summit of Mystery. We passed the 100-mile mark, according to Ben's GPS, and gave a cheer. The descent down Mystery felt very long. Travis said, "I'm just ready to be done." I said, "We're going to put this puppy to bed." We kept moving. We hit some more mud and were much less careful going through it. We were in the home stretch.

Around a bend, and I stopped. "Do you hear that?" It was a faint roar. "I believe that is the Poplar River. When you can hear that, you're almost there." Our spirits lifted and we went on. And on. And on. Where the hell is that bridge? Are we still on route? Yes, there's another reflective marker. So glad this section was well marked -- even my Petzl POS could light up the markers.

The air temperature dropped, like being in a refrigerator. The river roared louder. Then, around another bend: "Gentlemen, I present to you... The Poplar River Bridge!" I whooped in the night and a few spectators on the bridge laughed.

We were at the gravel road. 0.3 miles to go! We had already discussed it -- Travis was going to run it in. We started slowly, then gained speed as stiff legs loosened up and muscles remembered how to move. Up ahead we spotted the half-dozen runners we'd seen on Mystery Mountain. "Hey Travis, wouldn't it be funny if you passed them on the road?" Once again, he needed no further encouragement. After 103 miles of rugged, relentless, remote trail, he accelerated into a sub-8 minute mile pace, zoomed past the group ahead, and picked up even more speed. I was glad I'd been doing regular speedwork -- suddenly, we were flying!

"I don't know if this has all sunk in," he said.
"Don't worry, you've got all the days and weeks and years to let it sink in. This is really happening," I said.

Down to the end of the line of cones, off the road onto the grass. "Careful! Rocky here!". People sitting on a lodge balcony saw us coming in and cheered. I yelled as loud as I could, "Hundred miler, coming in!" and they cheered louder.

We sprinted to the edge of the pool. I peeled off and he headed around the corner and into the chute. 37 hours, 28 minutes. One hundred miles (and 3.3 bonus) done.
This is what a 100 mile finisher looks like.
Congratulations, Travis!

Final thoughts

I feel so lucky that I could be part of this day and this achievement. Somewhere on the trail, I think I realized how much ultrarunning is a team sport. The runner is out there all day (and night, and day again...) and has a clear, single goal: keep moving till the finish. Massive credit to the runner at Superior. That course takes physical and mental strength like few other things I've seen. The crew, on the other hand, does all the little things to make that happen, and puts the wheels back on when something goes wrong. I was amazed by the selflessness, hard work, and strength that I saw in support crews and pacers all weekend long. Steph and Arika were amazing crew and were incredibly supportive -- not just of Travis, but of me.

I know so much more about what it takes to do this thing and do it well now than I did before. I'm so glad I could be part of it. I hope I can do it again and do it better.

Travis, huge congratulations on finishing your first hundred. You picked a beast! You told me every step of it was just as hard as you expected it to be... and you did every single step of it. That wasn't just the stars aligning -- that was your hard work. Own it, and remember it, and be proud of it. 


  1. I love this race report! It is very detailed, and very human. Please keep them coming! -fatgirlrunning