Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Superior 100 Volunteer and Pacing Report 2016

I spent the weekend at the Fall Superior Trail Races (100, 50, 26.2 miles), volunteering and pacing. It was my third year at Fall Superior, and it continues to be, to me, the premier event of the seasons, the Big Dance of Minnesota trail running. Participating is a privilege and a joy. 

I'm so glad it's time again.

My plan is to volunteer at Finland aid station at mile 50, from the 5 pm opening till my runner, Travis, comes through around 10. Then I'll pace him through to Sugarloaf (mile 72) and work Sugarloaf till it closes around noon Saturday.

Friday afternoon/evening: Finland (mile 51.2)

- I arrive at Lutsen on Friday afternoon and take a quick nap, the last I'll sleep till tomorrow night. It's great spectator weather, clearing to sunshine and in the 70's, though for the runners this is warm and surprisingly humid. I meet Bob and Colleen for a ride to Finland. Colleen is pacing too, and Bob's been volunteering today and will run the 50 mile tomorrow.

- About 10 miles down Highway 61, Bob says, "By the way, you'll have to tell me how to get there. I don't know the way."

- Colleen and I exchange looks. Neither do we, and there's no cell reception. Finally, Bob retrieves written directions from his car trunk, and we're back in business.

- After only a few missed turns and backtrackings, we're at Finland, right on time. Eric is the AS captain and there are already another 4 or 5 volunteers making PB&J sandwiches, mixing HEED, and doing other AS setup things. The first runner has already been through. I jump in to help and so does Colleen, even though she's not on the volunteer roster. Thanks, Colleen!
Finland, getting set up
- Chris and Angela are working here after driving all night in their camper van to reach the race. I met them at this spring's Zumbro, where they singlehandedly kept the entire start/finish area in coffee, among many other heroic things. They've got music playing, van positioned to provide extra light, and Angela has organized the drop bags in alphabetical and numeric order. Dang.
Angela and Chris showing off their masterpiece!
- It's after 5 pm now, and the lead runners start coming through one by one. They're well attended by their crews and have few needs. It's warm and sunny, and I'm eating a hot dog, catching up with Angela, and laughing at her music mix, which is made entirely of songs with titles that could be about running. My favorite is The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."

- This is my first time at Finland, and I'm impressed: It's got amenities. A constructed picnic shelter, electricity, running water (even a bathroom!), and -- wait for it -- wi-fi! Also a big parking lot, so crews and spectators are congregating here, awaiting their runners.
Even a playground!
- I meet 2014 winner Adam's mom, Vicki, and hear stories of when he was a toddler. I show pictures of my kids to Bill, who's crewing. Kate, her sister, and her adorable niece and nephew are here awaiting their runner. We all cheer and cowbell every runner coming through.

- It's starting to get busier. Janet G. picks up Janet H., and they're off before I can even ring a cowbell. Susan Donnelly comes through and says hello, downs a vegan hot dog, and heads off, all with the incredible focus and unflappability that I'm learning is her hallmark. We're filling water bottles, pouring Coke and ginger ale, handing out hot dogs, and ladling soup. The station is in full swing.

- An isolated thunderstorm passes just north us and the sky begins to darken in a spectacular sunset. Travis's wife Steph texts me that he's running an hour or so behind. No problem, there's plenty to be done here. She also sends word that Colleen's runner, Rob, had just left the last aid station, hurting but moving forward. In between helping runners find drop bags and distributing hot dogs, I eat some more and make sure my gear is ready to run.
Dramatic sunset, ominous skies.
- An inbound runner has told his crew he was "peeing Dr. Pepper" at the last aid station. Dehydration? Hematuria? Myoglobinuria? We don't know, but I'm concerned. He arrives a few minutes later and I come over and say, "So, tell me about your pee." I realize afterwards that perhaps I should have introduced myself first.

- He takes it in stride, though, and assures me repeatedly that since then he's been drinking more and it's cleared up. We discuss the importance of talking to an aid station medic if it gets dark again or bloody. "I want you to finish the race," I say, "but not to finish your kidneys." He agrees and heads out.

- Jason Husveth sits down. "How's it going?" I ask.
"Good," he says, smiling beatifically.
"Good?" the guy next to him says, incredulously.
"Not great, but good," he replies, absolutely serene.

- Rob is in. He finds me and says, "I need a professional opinion. Am I dead yet?"
    I look him over thoughtfully. "You're moving around an awful lot. But I don't have all my diagnostic tools out here. You'll just need to check with me when you get to the finish line."
    He grins and agrees. He says he's hurting, with bad cramping early on, but he looks like he might be rallying. I cowbell him and Colleen out onto the trail. Later, I learn that they power-hike the next 25 miles, he rallies, and he blows the doors off his final 25 miles to the finish, for a big course PR.  

- Another runner comes in; he can't stop throwing up. His crew says, "We've done races with him before and we just haven't seen this before." He's laying down in the driver's seat of a car with his eyes closed. He tells me he's been throwing up everything he takes in for a few hours, he hasn't been peeing much, no, he's not hungry or thirsty, and yeah, maybe his mouth is a little dry.

- I bring over half a ginger chew (my bag of Gin-Gins is almost gone, I notice) and tell him, "This is made from real ginger. It's really good for nausea. Put it in the corner of your mouth and just suck on it. I'll be back in 10 minutes and we'll see how it's going." He nods.

- I return and he's out of the car, dry-heaving. So much for my sure-fire "psychology plus ginger" approach to vomiting. I talk it over with AS captain Eric, who turns out to have extensive, personal experience with mid-race nausea and vomiting. He comes over to talk with the runner.

- "You can go a long way on no nutrition, if you want to," Eric tells him. "And sometimes things eventually get better. You have to decide if you want it." The runner nods and says he'll think about it, but he looks like he's hurting. Later, I hear that he dropped.

- Eric tells me about a race he did where, the last 15 or so miles, he took in nearly no calories due to nasuea and vomiting. "You learn something from every race you do. Even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones."

- It's getting late now and though it's still warm, the breeze is picking up. I spot a runner sitting in the picnic shelter, wrapped in a blanket and shivering uncontrollably. Craig is vegetarian and our soup is not. Two people crewing for another runner make him miso soup out of their own stash, while he downs two veggie hot dogs. I give him one of my buffs (I've brought several) and persuade him to sit by the fire. I end up leaving the aid station with my runner before he does, but when we see him at the next aid station many hours later, he looks dramatically better. (He even gives me back my buff!)

Friday night/Saturday morning: Pacing, Finland to Crosby-Manitou (mile 62.9)

- It's midnight and Travis is finally in. After a good start to his race, he's been vomiting for the last few miles and has bad nausea now. He drops into a chair and tells Steph and me, "I'm a trainwreck." "That's okay," I respond, ready to bury him in optimism. "I love trainwrecks."

- Steph plies him with an energy shake, a shirt change, and his trekking poles, while he slumps in the chair and looks discouraged. "You're going to have your work cut out for you," he tells me. "I can't keep anything down. I'm going really slow. Make sure you pack warm clothes."

- I change into running shoes (inadvertently leaving my pants and standing-around shoes at the aid station and later leading to a "HONEY, WHERE ARE MY PANTS?!" moment; luckily, they get returned with the drop bags), shoulder my pack, loaded with water, spare clothes, and enough snacks for 10+ hours, and at the last minute, wrap my windfleece jacket around my waist. After all, getting too cold on the trail sucks. We're off, just before 12:30.

- Travis is feeling bad but still takes the time to thank me for pacing, apologize in advance for being grumpy, and warn me that we're going to be power-hiking, not running. As we enter the woods on a moderate, not-too-technical stretch, I'm happy to see that the trail is nearly dry and that we're going at a good clip. It's 7.4 miles to the next aid station, Sonju, with no crew access, then another 4.2 to Crosby-Manitou, the next place we'll see Stephanie.

- Despite his warning that he's not going to be much for conversation, we talk for the next hour or two. It's magnificently, densely dark in the woods. Clouds obscure the half-moon and our headlamps pick out reflective trail markers far ahead. In the dark and quiet, smells are amplified: pine bark, damp ground, night air. Light rain comes on and off, and we occasionally see lightning flashes and hear the rumble of thunder, but always far away. I'm intensely happy to be on the trail, and grateful to Travis for asking me to pace. "I would never be out here, deep in the woods, in the middle of the night, doing this awesome thing, if you hadn't invited me. THIS IS AWESOME." At mile 50+, I think he's skeptical, but it's true.

- I pull off the trail and turn off my headlamp to pee while Travis waits on the trail. Just then, Troy and his pacer Willow come by.
Willow: "Hi, Travis! Where's Robyn?" [starts looking around with her headlamp]
Me: "I'm peeing! Don't shine your light over here!"
Her: "I've got some Poo Pourri if you need it!"
For the next 45 minutes, I ponder what the hell Poo Pourri is.

- Travis is still fighting nausea and reluctant to try any food. Everything sounds awful. He's not throwing up, but he's not taking calories either. He tries a sip of his "weasel juice" energy drink and feels worse. Finally, he takes me up on my offer of a ginger chew. I give him half of one to suck, hoping this will go better for him than the poor nauseated runner at Finland. After five or ten minutes, just as I'm about to ask how it's going, he develops painful hiccups that persist all the way to Sonju. I'm 0 for 2 on the ginger chews.

- "There's no dropping allowed at Sonju, you know." (It's a remote aid station with no crew access.)
"Yeah, I know." The possibility is in the air. He's been considering it for a while, even if I haven't let him say so.

- As a light rain picks up to a more steadily moderate level, we slow down a bit from our initial pace to arrive in Sonju around 4:15 am. I've got high hopes that we can get Travis reset and eating here. He sits down and is quickly asleep. I shoot the breeze with the volunteers while eating soup and coffee.

- After 10 minutes, I wake him up. His hiccups are gone, for the moment. He manages half a cup of ice water and two bites of pancake. Then he stops and stares fixedly at the ground.
"Not good?" I ask.
"Not good," he replies.
"Want to hang out and let it settle, see if you can handle some more?"
He considers, comes to a decision. "No, let's just get outta here." He pushes up out of the chair, sways for a moment, takes his poles, and we're out, in a light rain.

- It's "only" 4.2 miles to Crosby-Manitou. Travis has been suffering and not eating now for over 4 hours and, though I'd love to take him all the way to Sugarloaf (and have Steph take him all the way to the finish line), I'm beginning to accept that dropping might be the right thing to do. The section from Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf is 9.4 miles through some of the most technical terrain of the entire course, beginning with the rocky and steep Manitou Gorge. It's not a section you want to start in a worsening calorie deficit.

- The rain increases from light to moderate and then rather abuptly, it's pouring down. Travis puts on his rain shell. I've got a wool shirt and a rain shell in my pack, but I'm already wearing my windfleece jacket, which has a hood, so I decide to stick with that. We pick up our pace as much as Travis can handle.

- Now the rain is bucketing down and running into my face. Our feet, dry till now, are quickly and irredeemably soaked, as the trail is transformed into a waterway, with standing water alternating with ankle-deep mud and slippery rocks. I'm still in front, and keep pausing to look back at Travis as we both laugh incredulously. "Could this be any worse?" I exclaim. As if in response, it starts raining harder.

- Sonju to Crosby-Manitou is known for its crazy tree roots, and they don't disappoint. We're hiking as fast as we can go while high-stepping over roots and going up and down with the undulations of the trail. It's certainly cooling off, but we're moving fast enough that we're both okay, for now. I think, but do not say to Travis, that this sure feels like the weather gods are trying to persuade him to definitely drop.

- As the rain finally begins to slacken, we hear the slam of a car door ahead, then another. We come out to a road, a volunteer with a huge umbrella waves us ahead, and we pass the "Crosby-Manitou State Park" sign. It's still a quarter-mile up the gravel road, but the rain has slowed down and we know the end is in sight.

- Travis and I confer one more time. Is he sure he wants to drop? It'll be light soon. We're under the cutoff. He's sure. "It wouldn't be safe to go into the Gorge this way." He's clearly running on fumes, and he's right. I agree.

His image, not mine.
- At the aid station we are greeted by Matt Patten, who exclaims, "Welcome to Crosby-Manitou, where the food is hot and the coffee is too! Oh, wait, we're out of hot coffee. Sorry." It's just before 6 a.m. and the sky is beginning to lighten. We fight off volunteers' attempts to talk Travis out of dropping (it's their job, after all), he lets Stephanie know, and she goes for the van. He collapses in a chair while I stand by the fire. Now that I've stopped moving, I'm shivering uncontrollably.

- After a long enough time to talk with other runners and pacers, Jim, Todd, Matt, and Maria -- and to destroy the last pierogi and a few other things -- Steph's back with the van. We load up, me in the heated front seat, Travis on a sleeping bag in the back, and head for Lutsen. The rain has all but stopped, though the water and mud on the trail impacts the runners for the rest of the day.

- Stephanie is a rockstar. She's been up all night patching up her runner and hauling things from one aid station to the next, and now she drives our sorry asses home. I return the favor by falling asleep in mid-conversation with her. Sorry, Steph! I try to reciprocate by offering them a shower at the volunteer condo.

Saturday morning: Sugarloaf (mile 72.3)

- At 8 a.m. I'm showered, in dry clothes, and have devoured a bag of Cheetos and a slice of ham. (Clearly, I've moved into the "bad food choices" phase of not-sleeping.) I leave the condo in search of coffee before I go to work at Sugarloaf. The clouds are clearing and the sun is coming out.

- I wander to the finish line looking for coffee, and instead find John Pitera, his wife Catherine, Kevin Langton (who has dropped with cramping), and a few other volunteers. John offers me a hug, introduces me to his wife, and points me to the coffee. He tells me he's going to run Superior in 2018. I can't wait. A hummingbird methodically strips every flower in a nearby bush of nectar. It is a tiny perfect moment. Refuelled, I head to Sugarloaf.
Kevin took a good picture of me!
- Sugarloaf Aid Station is at mile 72, and when I get there around 9 a.m., there's a steady stream of 100 milers and the front of the 50-mile race. Jan O'Brien is AS captain again and, after hugging me hello, immediately sends me over to check a 100 mile runner who's concerned she may have a stress fracture.

- I'm glad to be back in the thick of things. We peel off Katie's shoe and sock and I start examining her foot. There's no tenderness when I palpate the bone, but when she flexes and releases her big toe it hurts, and when she inverts her foot, it hurts more. "Well," I say, "I think it's more likely a problem with the tendon and soft tissue than the bone, so that's good. But it's always hard to say how much harm you'll be doing by continuing."
    We talk around the problem a little more. Then she mentions, "It doesn't hurt when I walk, only when I run."
    I break into a big grin. "In that case, put your shoe back on, get out of the aid station, and walk to the finish! You can definitely get your 100 mile finish hiking. You've got plenty of time." She grins back, puts on her shoe, and heads out. She finishes.

- I cruise around looking for runners in need of help. In between, I shoot the breeze with Jan and Joe and Loren and Rick and Eve and the other volunteers, eat about a half dozen of Joe's quarter-hamburgers with bacon, and drink coffee. The sun's out now, a breeze is coming up, and it's going to be another beautiful warm day. It's hard to remember being cold and wet now.

Vaniply and psychology

- A runner comes in and announces he's dropping. "Let's sit down and talk," I suggest. From his chair, he tells me he's got lethal chafing and his feet feel terrible. I'm not surprised; everyone's got macerated feet after the early-morning rain and the wet trails. We talk through his options: his crew could get dry shorts for him to change into at the next aid station. He could try yet another anti-chafing remedy (he's tried many already). He could find some sticks to use as trekking poles. . I kneel down by his chair and give what I'm starting to think of as the Aid Station Come-to-Jesus Talk:
    "These are problems you can keep going with, but ultimately this is your show. This is a hundred mile race. We sign up for these because they're hard. And at some point in every race, you're going to reach a point where it's going to get hard, and you're going to have to decide if you want to finish. This is that point."
    I leave him to come to his own decisions. He decides to drop.

- A spate of runners come in with wet, macerated feet. It's juicy out there. For a while, I'm handing out Vaniply ointment and bacon hamburgers, and searching drop bags for dry socks. I tell another aid station worker, "What I'm doing today is 90% Vaniply and psychology. And the other half is distributing hamburgers."

- Jordan comes through, looking like a new man. "Remember two years ago at this aid station?" he asks. "When you brought me Cheetos?" I sure do. I told him then, "You look like a finisher." I tell him again. He does.

- A little after 10 a.m., Allan comes in and announces he's dropping. "It took me four hours to come through that last section!" he exclaims.
I intercept him and steer him to a chair. "What, have you got a bus to catch?" I ask. He starts laughing.

- He's been moving slowly, his toe hurts, he's got chafing, and -- most seriously -- he's been doing race math. "At the rate I'm going, there's no way I can make it to the cutoff at Oberg," he tells me.
"Never do race math!" I admonish him. "Sugarloaf Aid Station is a math-free zone." He laughs again.

- "Hey, as long as you're sitting here, how 'bout a hamburger? With bacon?"
"Well, that sounds good."

"Yes, lots of ketchup."

- I bring him two quarter burgers, bacon, lots of ketchup. He plows into it and I tell him, "You're eating like a finisher. Let's get you fixed and get out of here."

- He eventually agrees to take off his shoe and sock and look at his hurting toe. 
"It hurts when I go downhill."
"Well, yeah, I see a bruise near the end of your big toe. And your toenail's ugly as shit." We both laugh.
"You know," I say, "There are only three major descents left on this course."
"Huh," he says, looking at his laminated elevation profile.
"If you can handle the pain on just three descents, you can finish this race."
He starts looking at his mileage chart. "Stop it!" I say. "No race math! Here, have another hamburger."
"I haven't finished a hundred this year," he tells me, eating a fourth quarter-burger.
"Then today's your day!" Maybe he's starting to believe, or maybe he's humoring me.

- I refill his homebrewed nutrition from his drop bag. He puts Vaniply on his foot and slowly wriggles it back into the wet double layer of socks. Puts on his shoe. Slings his belt with dangling headlamps and a giant flashlight that looks like a lightsaber. (I may have called him "Jedi master of the Superior Trail Race.") Stands up, and heads out of the aid station. I cowbell him like crazy and the whole aid station cheers. 

Saturday noon: Sugarloaf

- As cutoff time at 11:45 approaches, there's still a steady stream of runners coming into the aid station, mostly 50 milers. The sweep crew has gathered and we've given everyone in the station a five-minute warning. Four minutes later, Scott comes in. He's running the 100, and he sinks onto the grass. 
"Sweeps are about to head out," I tell him, "but can I get you something to go?"
"I'm done," he says.
I look him in the eye. "You need to decide right now whether you're really done," I tell him.
"I'm really done," he confirms. His calf got pulled and has been worsening. He's done.

- The sweeps head out and just a few minutes later, four 50 mile runners come in. Nobody seems to be prepared to tell them they've missed the cutoff, so I do it, as gently as possible. They aren't happy. They pull their timing chips off their bibs, discuss among themselves, and continue down the trail, no longer racers, but private citizens out for a trail run.

- Bob comes in, among several other 50 milers. It was slow going out there, he said, but he didn't fall. I'm sad he's missed the cutoff, but delighted that he's looking cheerful and noninjured.

- As a dozen or more runners come in after the cutoff, it becomes clear that although some have crew or family who can give them a ride out, several have no way to get back to Lutsen. We're 2 miles from Highway 61, 20 or more from Lutsen, and there's no cell signal. I tell Bob I can give him a ride, then tell Dave and Lisa, other runners, the same thing, and finally decide it makes sense to take them back now, rather than wait till the aid station's broken down.
    Five of us walk back to my car. "We're kind of muddy," one runner warns me. "That's okay," I say, "It's a rental!" We pack in and head down the road, telling stories of other runners and of the day on the trails.

- By the time I'm back at Sugarloaf around 1 p.m., everything but one table is taken down and they're loading the truck. I help with the final breakdown, though Jan, Joe, Eve, and other have done all the really hard work. 
The last of the drop bags.
- Sugarloaf aid station is done for another year. Watching it transform from a tiny parking lot to a small busy city and back again never ceases to amaze me. By the time we're finished, only the trampled grass tells our story. 

- There are two runners still on the course, and they trickle in over the next 30 minutes, followed by the sweeps. I'm heading back to Lutsen, so they again pile into my car. I hug Jan, Joe, and Eve, and hope we'll be together again next year for the party in the woods.

- It's time to go back to the finish line, to soak in the joy, and elation, and disappointment, and all the emotions of the day. It's time for a square meal and, eventually, for sleep. There's still lots that will happen this day, but my immersion in the meat and bones of the race has ended for now.

It's okay. I'll be back. Superior gets a hold on you, a longing at unexpected times to be out in the mud, in the dark, in the woods. I'll be back.


  1. In love your race writ-up, Robyn. I need to be on teh trails and hope to get back asap.

    1. Kate, I hope to see you out there soon! Thanks for the kind comment.

  2. I never met you on the trail, but thank you for what did for other runners. My favorite quote----

    "These are problems you can keep going with, but ultimately this is your show. This is a hundred mile race. We sign up for these because they're hard. And at some point in every race, you're going to reach a point where it's going to get hard, and you're going to have to decide if you want to finish. This is that point."
    I leave him to come to his own decisions. He decides to drop.

    I chose to finish. Physically, I was a mess. Relationally, I was blessed with a great pacer. My finish time expectations, like many others, got destroyed by the rain, ruggedness and relentless grind of the course. My finish expectations did not. What a great community the Superior AS folks are! Runner #188, now finisher of the Superior 100, thanks you.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I joked afterwards that my runner pep talk gets better every year; in a few years runners will no longer be physically capable of dropping out after hearing it. (Cross your fingers for me!)

      Congratulations on your finish, and hope you recover quickly.