Saturday, September 14, 2019

2019 Superior 50 Mile Race Report: Patience, Acceptance, Gratitude


I’d been pacing and volunteering at the Fall Superior Trail Races for five years before my own fire started to kindle.

Spring Superior, sure. I’d run the out-and-back 50k four times, up Carlton Peak and back to Lutsen. But fifty MILES of rocks, roots, and 12,500 feet of climbing? I wasn’t convinced I wanted that, until 2018 Fall Superior, when, after pacing 28 miles overnight, I stood at the finish line and realized I did. I put my name in the lottery in January and found myself with a big goal race on my calendar. September loomed large. 

This year’s training was all about Superior preparation: two 50k races, 70 miles in three days at Western States Training Camp, Voyageur 50 Mile. My training log shows that I averaged 45 miles per week, certainly the most I’ve ever run.

I learned a lot along the way, especially about the joy of starting slow and finishing fast. I ran even or negative splits at Chippewa, Afton, and Voyageur, finishing all three ultras smiling, laughing, and running strong. Despite an unexpectedly crazy summer of job searching and career change, I stayed mostly injury free, taking a day or two off here and there when something didn’t feel right, but mostly checking off runs, intervals, hill repeats. No training cycle is perfect, but it’s been a great season. I’m amazed and grateful that I came to the starting line well prepared, well trained, uninjured, and excited to run. 

Race morning began with a 3:15 alarm, ahead of the 5:15 start. The sky at Finland Recreation Center was clear and streaked with stars, and the air was cool and breezy. The weather all day couldn’t be better: clouds moving in after a clear morning, temperatures in the 50s, no more rain after a few showers the night before. I checked in, saw some friends, danced to 80s hip hop (“Joy and pain/Are like sunshine and rain”).
Fist bump with Bob. Photo: Chad Richardson
I was in a good place mentally — eager to see sections of the course I’d never seen, and ones I’d never seen in daylight, eager to see friends at the aid stations, but with no specific time goals aside from beating the 16:45 cutoff. I thought of the advice I’d heard an experienced runner give about the course — “Be patient” — and decided that would be my plan for the day. Patience, acceptance, gratitude. 

Start to Crosby-Manitou (mile 11.7, ~3:00): Sunlight, wonder

On John’s countdown we were off, running easily up a gravel road for a few miles before a turn onto the Superior Hiking Trail, which we’d follow for the rest of the day. Aside from a few quiet conversations and the sound of footfalls, it was quiet, with headlamps lighting the road and trail. I cruised the opening miles at an easy, warming-up pace, stopping 30 minutes in to change the batteries in my suddenly-dim headlamp (and breathing relief that I'd packed spares). My friend Bob ran right behind me much of the way, in companionable quiet. It was his third attempt at Superior 50, and I wanted to see him succeed.

The brightening sky contrasted with the dim trails as the day began, and eventually it was light enough to switch off headlamps. We hit Sonju Lake aid station (7 miles) in full daylight, right around the two hour mark. Bonfire smoke swirled and volunteers directed runners in and out, refilled water, and offered food and encouragement. We didn't need much, so early in the race, and quickly headed out again on the short but rootbound 4-mile section to Crosby-Manitou.

I'd run this section three times before as a pacer, but always in the deepest hours of the night (and usually in the rain). It was exhilarating to see the trail, and to enjoy the dry ground among the deep tree roots. We crested Horseshoe Ridge, which I remembered as nothing more than a sensation of deep black open space to one side of the trail, and I gasped at the spectacular views of the Sawtooth Ridge and early fall colors. Turns out, this section is gorgeous! The woods ended quickly and I ran up the gravel road to Crosby-Manitou in great spirits, eager to see the next section in daylight.

Morning sunshine on Horseshoe Ridge

Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf (mile 21.1,~6:10): The only way to win is not to play the game

This 9.4 mile section of trail looms large in the Superior mythos. It’s the longest section between aid, and with its descent and climb through the Manitou River gorge, it starts off steep and technical, before giving way to a long 6 miles or so of mostly-runnable but often seemingly interminable wooded singletrack. I've paced it twice, and both times succumbed, at least a bit, to the "we should be there by now!" syndrome. This time, I was ready to do it differently. Patience, acceptance, gratitude. The only way to win this section, I knew, was not to play the game.

This section had given Bob trouble in years past. Once, he’d even fallen and broken some ribs on it. So at Crosby-Manitou, as we refilled water and ate bratwurst, I told him, “We’ll do this section together and keep our skeletons intact.” Then I repeated something I’d said years ago, when he first tried Superior: “We should come into Sugarloaf saying, ‘I can’t believe how good I feel!’”

We bounded down the steep rocky trail to the river crossing. Or, rather, I bounded. I'm relatively fast on descents, and Bob was beginning to slow down. At the bridge, I waited and he caught up, and we started the big climb in a little group of runners. I knew this section well. “Three false summits, then you’re on top,” I announced, stepping up and up.
Manitou River, from the bridge
The trail climbed boulders and leveled, then climbed and leveled again. I'd slow to let Bob catch up, but despite his summer of strong training, he was beginning to hit a low point. Finally, we were finished climbing and rewarded with incredible views from the ridge. I was exultant — we had conquered one of the Big Scary Climbs on the course! — and tried to share my excitement with Bob. He replied in monosyllables.  

Top of the climb!
"This next section is a total mental game," I reminded him. "It's always longer than you think. But all we have to do is keep moving. Don't look at mileage or time. The only way to win is not to play the game."

To my surprise, the trail today was flowing under my feet and I was eager to push the pace faster than Bob wanted to go. "Okay, this is a runnable section," I'd say, following him. He continued to hike. "Let's run this," I tried. "Run!"

The morning sunshine began to give way to clouds, keeping the air cool. I was amazed by how dry the trail was, and by the work that had been done over the summer in perennially muddy sections. We ran and hiked over new boardwalks, our feet dry. I kept encouraging Bob to eat and drink, and he kept moving forward, never giving up even as he navigated a physical and mental low point. "You should go on," he said on several occasions. "As long as you keep moving, let's finish this section together," I responded.

In due time, we crossed the Caribou River bridge. "Three miles from here," I grinned. Bob's mood lifted and he ran. We both ran, ticking off the two sets of power lines, the road crossing, the covered-bridge river crossing. He consulted his phone. "Just under a mile left." "THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS NOT TO PLAY THE GAME!" I replied. Our momentum built as we began seeing the signs the Sugarloaf volunteers had posted. Finally, grinning absurdly, we ran in to Sugarloaf.

Sugarloaf to Temperance River (mile 33.8, ~9:35): Acceptance, and the gifts of the trail

Sugarloaf is MY aid station. I've volunteered there for the last five years. I've paced into it twice. Jan and Joe O'Brien, the long-time aid station captains, are beloved Superior friends. When I thought of my Fall Superior race over the past year, I had visualized this moment.

And Sugarloaf came through for me. Raucous cheers and cowbells greeted us as we arrived, and I got monster hugs from Jan, from Travis, from Steph, from LOTS of people. I couldn't stop grinning. After six hours and 21 miles of running, in the middle of the woods, I had come home. A volunteer refilled my water. Steph brought me chicken noodle soup, heavy on the noodles. Jan and I laughed that I'd signed a 10-year contract to work at Sugarloaf and would HAVE to be there next year, even if I was moving to Seattle.

Recalling my unexpected battery swap that morning, I said, "Travis, remember my [EXPLETIVE DELETED] headlamp? I had to change batteries AGAIN this morning!"

He laughed but then got serious. "I have a headlamp in the car. Want to borrow it, just in case?"

I bit back my initial "No" and considered. In the back of my head, I had been a bit worried about navigating Moose Mountain with subpar lighting. I made a decision. "Yes. Yes, please, I really would." He ran off to his parked car and returned a minute later with two good headlamps. Overwhelmed with this unexpected generosity, I shoved one in my pack and a little mental burden I hadn't even been aware of quietly slipped away. One more quick round of hugs and I was crossing the road, yelling "I LOVE YOU, SUGARLOAF!!!" as cheers and cowbells saw me off.

The next 12 miles were the only section of the course I hadn't seen before. I was now running along, moving at my own speed, and deep into the mindset of patience, acceptance, gratitude. It felt good to run and to feel the ground move beneath my feet, and this was a runnable section, traversing past wetlands and woods, with occasional inland views of brightening autumn colors. Without trying very hard, I slipped into an attitude of curiosity about what the trail would give me next.

Early fall colors!

On this section, I began to pass runners in greater numbers: mostly 50 milers, but occasionally I'd round a curve and see the pink ribbon of a 100 miler in the distance. Kevin Langton was power-hiking his way to Cramer Road, and I overtook him, got a hug, and tried to help him troubleshoot his bad stomach. His writing and his words have been such an inspiration to me and to hundreds of other runners, and I wished I could give back some of that energy today. 

The miles into Cramer Road were very runnable but a bit longer than I expected. I tried not to play the game, though I worried a bit about losing my cushion of time till cutoff, and arrived when the trail brought me there. I was at the halfway point in the race, a marathon in, and about 50 minutes ahead of the cutoff. My friends Mara and Cari were volunteering at Cramer, and they filled my water, brought me my drop bag, offered food and encouragement. Colleen S was there too, giving encouragement. Bob came in as I was preparing to leave. Zevon played on the speakers. Again, I felt incredibly cared for and loved. I was eager to see what the second half would bring.

Mara and Cari: Great volunteers, or THE GREATEST volunteers?
The miles from Cramer to Temperance were again new to me, and the words patience, acceptance, gratitude were strong in my mind. The trail brought me climbs and descents, and soon I found myself running downstream alongside a rushing river: the Cross River, I later learned. I basked in its beauty, in the afternoon light, in the feeling of effortless movement as I flowed alongside it, down, down to the bridge to cross. The Cross River was a gift, one that amazed me all the more because I hadn't known it was there. An unexpected burst of joy that felt like it lasted for more than just a few miles.

A bit of climbing, a bit more trail, and I descended to Temperance River before I knew it. I had passed more runners and many hikers. The afternoon was flying by, and I was flying with it.

Temperance River to Sawbill (mile 39.5, ~11:10): Riding the wave

Temperance River aid station in late afternoon was laid back but ready to help. As "Footloose" played and I sang along, they fed me bacon and pancakes, filled my water, offered me food to go, assured me I was over an hour till cutoff. The spell of movement was on me and I couldn't stop for long. I was off, excited to see Carlton Peak and Sawbill. With two thirds of the race behind me, I was already beginning to feel like the end wasn't too far off.

The trail crossed and then climbed gently up the river, and the many afternoon hikers moved aside for me, offering encouragement as I ran. This is our family's favorite section of the trail, and it was a joy to be on familiar and much loved ground. I passed a few 50 and 100 milers and shared cheerful words and energy with them. The trail veered away from the river, climbed some more, entered the woods, climbed again.

Without really noticing when it happened, I found myself on the flanks of Carlton Peak. The last (and only previous) time I'd done this section was 5 years ago, pacing Travis. I'd forgotten just how steep and prolonged a climb it was, and I kept moving but slowed as the steps became bigger and bouldery. Around a corner and I overtook Steph Hoff and her pacer. Her smile was as big as ever and we shared a quick hug and words of excited encouragment. She was absolutely crushing Carlton, on her way to a hard fought and gritty finish. Seeing her was a huge lift as I finished what felt like the hardest climb of the course.

As I rounded the flanks for Carlton Peak and hit blessedly level ground, then gently downhills, I passed a few runners before falling in behind another 50 miler. She was moving at my pace and it was fun to have someone to follow instead of pass. We gathered speed and momentum as we descended Carlton toward the Sawbill parking lot. We seemed to go faster and faster, crossing long boardwalks and trail sections, enjoying the rewards of gravity we'd earned on our climb. Finally, I couldn't keep up and she pulled ahead, but I'd gained time and, paradoxically, felt even more energized. With a huge grin, I ran into the Sawbill Aid station. 

Sawbill to Oberg (mile 45, ~12:45): On familiar ground

Sawbill was jumping, the biggest aid station I'd seen since Crosby Manitou. They cheered every runner in like we were winning the entire race. Music played. Families hung out in chairs and on blankets. The aid station volunteers fed me soup and noodles. I was comfortably ahead of the cutoff and gaining time on every segment now. With a half marathon to go, I felt unstoppable. I realized that I was going to finish this race, and in good style.

Jason Husveth was helping out here. "Jason," I said, "there's nothing else quite like this, is there?" I started to choke up. Good grief, I thought, I can't do this yet. I probably still have 4 hours left out here! We talked a little about the day, the trails, the year. It was a good, quiet moment in a high energy, hectic place -- and a reminder that I had some big feelings around this race. I packed them up and headed out to the final aid station.

I've run Sawbill to Oberg at least five times. I remembered it being not especially hilly, sometimes muddy, frankly a bit boring sometimes. But today, I was entranced by my own movement. 40 miles into my day, I could run, and I was fascinated to watch the trail unfold beneath my feet, under the spell of my own motion. I watched with curiosity and detachment as the trail gave me climbs and descents, as it gave me a few patches of mud. I laughed at the signs for the Oberg parking lot, which I knew were comically far from the actual aid station, and at the spur trail to Mount Levaux, where I took a wrong turn one Superior.

The long double-wide section into the aid station, where you can hear your destination long before you're there, was an old friend. I was among friends, all day, every step I went.

Oberg to Finish (mile 52.1, 15:02:28): Nothing left to do but finish 

Oberg was a party, and I came in feeling like a rockstar. Cheers and cowbells and music and so many people after a quiet day in the woods. This was it, the last aid station. All that was left now was to run the final 7.1 miles in. This race I'd been dreaming of for a year, for longer, felt almost over. I choked up again, overwhelmed with gratitude and amazement.

So many friends at this stop. Alex was here, pacer bib still pinned on, having sent her runner off to finish his 100 mile race with his family. I hugged her, ate more food, started to run out, came back to get out my headlamp, stopped to take a picture of the final aid station sign. "Nothing to do now but finish this thing," I grinned. I didn't want it to end, but I was ready for the end. Eager for the trail, I headed out.
Contemplating the finish!
Five years ago, I'd broken down this section for Travis. "Runnable section, steeper climb, Stairway to Heaven, long runnable section on Moose, steep descent through the saddle, switchbacks, over the top, past the campsite, and it's all downhill to the Poplar River." At the end of his 100 miler, it had been slow going. Today, the miles just went steadily by as I watched the ground flow under me. The climb up Moose was steep, but short. The top was more runnable than I remembered. Everything felt shorter today, and time slipped by. I kept passing runners and pacers, saying, "I think we should finish this thing!" and getting grunts of assent and "Hell yeahs" in response.

Night fell and I turned on Travis's headlamp. It was like strapping the sun to my forehead, and the ground leaped out in bright contrast. I breathed gratitude for friends, and thanked myself for accepting his offer of help, hours ago. The party was in full swing at the finish line and the sound carried into the saddle. I power hiked switchbacks, crested Mystery Mountain, started dropping down in the sudden silence. Passed Amy and E Rolf on the descent, moving, moving. Past the campsite. No more uphills. Sound of the Poplar River faintly ahead.

I overtook a 100 miler and we quietly discussed how close we were. "I think it's farther than you expect to the river," I said, remembering previous runs. I rounded a corner and saw reflectors. "Or, maybe, it's right here!"

The Poplar River bridge. I stopped for just a moment, admired the river in the dim light, the chaotic noise of its waters. I breathed in the cool night air. It had been a perfect day. Tears stood in my eyes. I wanted this moment to last forever

With a final breath in of river-scented air, I turned back to the trail, climbed, and ran gravel road, then paved road, then wider paved road, as the lights of Lutsen came up all around me. People stood by the road and said "Congratulations." I slowed so the 100 miler ahead of me could get her finish -- it turned out to be Angela Barbera, I'm glad I waited -- and I paused in the dark, at the corner of the swimming pool, while she finished. Then, I ran into the lights and the sound and the friends and the joy of the finish, feeling more powerful and accomplished than I have ever felt in a race.

Open to the possibility of greatness

At FANS this year, early on, Lisa Kaspner-Swift told me, "I feel great! I'm sure it'll all go wrong eventually!" I said, "Open your mind to the possibility that today could simply be an incredible day." And although she didn't feel incredible every step of the way, she proceeded to run the race of her life, covering over 100 km.

A long trail run seldom goes according to plan, and after seven years of doing these, I've come to expect that unexpected problems will punctuate any effort of many hours on the trails. But in my planning for problems, injury, gear failures, and trail disasters, I try to remind myself to be open to the possibility of unexpected greatness as well.

We run for many reasons, but perhaps the rarest and most sublime are those fleeting days where everything comes together, the world moves under your feet, and the trail unfolds before you. Superior 50 was a day of unexpected greatness for me. A year of training, a slow start, dry trails, perfect weather, five years of volunteering karma, and the love and support of my extended trail family alchemized into an experience I will never forget. I can't think of a more beautiful end to my time in Minnesota than this.

This, but running. Photo: Chad Richardson
Thank you, trail family. Thank you.


  1. Robyn. Wow! What an amazing race report. I was the med volunteer at Oberg and remember you coming through. Congrats and hope to see you next year.

  2. Wow!!! Robin, a double epic achievement, owning Superior and then writing this amazing account.

  3. End of your time in Minnesota! I don't like that at all! I am going to miss running with you so much! I am going to miss those early Saturday morning runs at Lebanon! My weekly trail therapy will not be the same without you! You are going to love Seattle though! However, in the spring when the rain depression is starting to settle in deep you will have to come back to Minnesota to run Zumbro or Spring Superior to soak in some Minnesota goodness! Great job on your awesome race. You are the most happy ultra runner I know. And always so positive! You almost make me believe I can finish the Superior 50 mile. Almost.