Thursday, September 5, 2019

I Owe Kate A Race Report: 2018 Superior Pacing Report

It's a great time for a Superior race report!

I paced Kate Leis from County Road 6 to Sugarloaf in the 2018 Fall Superior 100, wrote most of a race report, and didn't finish it until today. What better time to finally publish it than on the eve of the 2019 Fall Superior races?

Jokes aside, this was a really special event for me. It was my fifth fall at Superior, and for the first time, I came away from the race with a new fire. I had found the drive to want a Fall Superior finish of my own. A few months later, I entered the lottery for the Superior 50 Mile. The day after tomorrow, I'll be at the starting line and taking on this big, scary, beautiful, joyful, incredible event myself, for the first time.

This race report is a reminder of what brought me to this moment. It's a preview, an inspiration, and, I hope, a launching point — for me, and for all of you who are taking on something big, this weekend and in times to come. And for Kate, this is a thank-you letter. Thank you for sharing with me an event so special that it changed the trajectory of my running career. I can't tell you how much our journey through the night meant to me.


Back in July, I offered to pace Kate, who I didn't know well, but I figured it'd be fun. Turns out she's my age, going for her 5th Superior 100 start (and 3rd finish), and she can *move.* Pacing anxiety begins.

(Pacing anxiety: The almost-always irrational fear that your runner, having already gone 43 miles/11+ hours, will be able to run so fast overnight that you can't keep up.)

I pack way too many layers, shoes, snacks, and camping gear and head north on Friday morning. After stashing gear at Sugarloaf (mile 72), where I'll finish, I finally make it to County Road 6 (mile 44), where I'll pick up Kate, around 5 pm. The plan is to volunteer here, pace Kate overnight to Sugarloaf, then work there till close.

CR6 is jamming in bright sunshine. Spectators line the gravel parking lot, the aid station is serving up standard ultra fare, and runners are coming in looking happy and surprisingly non-muddy. After a dry August and early September, the trail is in extraordinarily good shape this year.

I'm immediately making PB&J sandwiches, setting up the propane stove for soup, and trying to figure out how to make coffee. This year, it's a new cone-filter pour-over system, which I love, but I fail to find either the directions or the measuring scoop so I'm eyeballing the amount of coffee grounds.

A runner asks for coffee. I pour him a cup from the still-dripping airpot.

"I'm not sure how strong it is. Let me know, okay?"

He takes a sip. His eyes widen a bit. "It's, uh, great! But, could you put some water in it?"

Superior Hiking Trail tourist

Kate had sent her crew and pacers a spreadsheet of her anticipated paces and times through the dozen-plus aid stations on course BECAUSE OF COURSE SHE DID. It had her coming into CR6 at 8:32 pm, but she'd rolled an ankle two weeks before earlier and had emailed us that she was throwing out her time goals and just wanted to finish.

Apparently she's having a good day, though, because at 7 pm her husband shows up and tells me she'll be there in 25 minutes or less.

I'm scrambling around, trying to speed-eat my dinner, telling someone else how to make the coffee (having now located the directions and the measuring scoop, glory be!), making sure my pack's ready to go. Jamison, the aid station captain and a good friend, comes over while I'm standing by Lisa, his wife.

JAMISON: "Aren't you pacing? You're not dressed for running."

ME: [I'm wearing running shorts under my pants. I start undoing them to show him.] "Ah, but look!"

JAMISON [backing away] "You're... taking off your pants in front of me. While standing next to my wife."

ME: "Yes. Yes I am. I want to show you what's underneath." I waggle my eyebrows at him.

LISA: [laughs at both of us]

Kate blows into the aid station and it's go time. I lace my shoes, grab my pack, slam a cup of Coke as she downs a turkey wrap and dances back and forth at the trailhead, ready to clock some miles.

To cheers and cowbells, we run into the woods. It's 7:30 pm.

We reach a high lookout over the inland lakes and woods just as the last light is going, and I stop for a picture, then run hard to catch Kate again. “I’m a Superior Hiking Trail tourist,” I tell her.

The only picture I took, but it's a good one
Now it's fully dark, we're climbing and descending, Kate's ankle is giving her no trouble to speak of, and we're just riding the wave. We move along, occasionally passing or being passed by other runners and pacers, but for long stretches, the trail is ours. There are boardwalks, roots, rocky climbs, but nothing seems to exist outside the little bubble of light we carry with us.

The day has been warm, and the nighttime temperatures are headed into the 40s with a breeze. We're in shirtsleeves, breaking a sweat when we climb hard, then cooling off at the top when a breeze comes through. It's a good temperature for moving fast, in the dark, and that's what we do.

After a bit over two hours, we're into Finland. It's the halfway point of the race, it's a major aid station, and there are lots of people coming and going. Kate is still feeling great as she eats mashed potatoes and bacon, and her husband Matt helps her get geared up for the night, with poles, gloves, a more powerful waist light. He and their parents will go get some sleep; the next time we'll see them will be tomorrow morning at Sugarloaf, 21 miles later.

"That's good crew management," I comment. I've seen a lot of exhausted, sleep-deprived crews in my five years at Superior.

"I figure I'll really need them tomorrow, so they'd better be rested!" she grins.

Susan likes my hair

We're out of Finland and trading leads over and over with running legend Susan Donnelly. Incredibly, it's her 18th Superior 100, and she has done over 100 100-mile races. She passes us, exclaiming, "Robyn! When did your hair get so long?" I laugh at the sheer weirdness. We have an intermittent conversation about hair over the next several hours, before she pulls ahead for good.

The exhilaration of being out in the woods at night is kicking in for me now. It's past my bedtime. It's past *everyone's* bedtime! We're running around in the woods! We get to do this all night! It's forbidden and silly and it's a beautiful night and it feels good to be moving under our own power, across big miles of trail.

Another 7.5 miles and two and a half hours, and we're into Sonju. In contrast to Finland, it's a small aid station with no crew access, and it runs pretty much exclusively in the middle of the night. It's like a tiny oasis of light and welcome in a big dark world.

Kate is putting on a clinic on how to go through aid stations, and it's all I can do to throw down some coffee and a bite of something before she's refilled her water, moved some snacks into the front of her pack, and is ready to blaze out again. All I can do is chase after her, laughing at the contrast from the year I spent an hour in Sonju in pouring rain, trying to bring a runner back from the dead.

The bicycle

It's after midnight now and we're on the short (4+ mile) but deeply root-bound section of trail into Crosby-Manitou. Kate has been running now for over 16 hours.

KATE: "Look over there. There's a bicycle!" [points into the woods]

ME: "I see a tree stump, but not a bicycle."

KATE: "There's totally a bicycle there."

ME: "I totally believe you that you see a bicycle. That sounds awesome. I wish I could see it too."

KATE: [stops] "Robyn, look *there.* There is seriously a bicycle."

I stop and look where she's pointing... and damned if there is not in fact an actual bicycle, 10 yards off in the woods, parked next to — I can now see — a tent.

We laugh all the way into Crosby-Manitou.

Riding the wave

It's a perfectly clear night and the stars are shining with an intensity that I don't remember. The moon's just a tiny sliver. The world is big.

The last half-mile into Crosby is up a gravel road, uphill. We run it. We're riding the wave.

Crosby's a party, another all-night aid station but with a sort of "last chance" vibe, since the next section's 9+ miles long and gnarly and takes most people anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. You can get anything here — coffee, a burger, grilled cheese, baked goods, candy, three kinds of soup. I'm pretty sure that if a runner came in and demanded a beer and a shot, they could set it up. We're happy with burgers and, for me, more coffee. For the first time all night, Kate sits down, long enough to dump a rock out of her shoe.

Last year, I spent a good half-hour at Crosby, lip-synching Zevon songs and side-eyeing my runners, who did a major drop-bag dive that looked like a paleo food truck collided with an electronics store. This year? We're out in 15 minutes and Kate's complaining about how long she took. It's awesome.

It's 2:15 am and we are in the guts of the night now, moving through the longest hardest section of the race. Kate still feels good, but the hours and miles are becoming more apparent. Still, it's the fastest I've moved on this section of trail.

We dr
op down into the Manitou River gorge, leapfrogging with a few other runners, then start the long, long climb out.

"Okay, I know it's wrong," I say, "but I... really like this climb? I mean, it is very clearly what it is. You don't wonder, 'Should I be running?' And then, eventually, you're done and at the top. I like it!"

Weirdly, Kate seems to understand this. She tells me about getting passed, in her first ultra, by people power-hiking faster than she could run. "So I went home and I started practicing my fast hike," she concludes.

I laugh. We've been absolutely booking it up climbs all day, and it's clear that whatever she's doing is working.

We're through the gorge and climb out, we've done the long descent off Horseshoe Ridge, and now we're in the long, *long* section of not-much-memorable before crossing the Caribou River. It's 4 a.m. or so. Kate has slowed from a very fast hike to a merely fast hike, but we're moving along, reminding her to eat and drink every 30 minutes. We're telling stories about pets, friends, our lives, races. It's companionable. We feel patient and know that if we keep moving like this, we'll reach the next checkpoint.

Weird happenings deep in the night

We cross a small bridge over a trickle of water, consisting of two 2x6 boards, side by side. One's partly rotted and rotates as I cross it. My foot slips through and is trapped between the boards.

It's 4 a.m. and my problem-solving facilities take a m
inute to get back on-line. I try pulling my foot up — not enough space. I try rotating the board back, but can't quite figure it out. Kate turns back. "I'm stuck in a bridge," I say helpfully. We laugh a little and she suggests I take my shoe off. But just then, I notice there's a wider gap further along, and manage to get my foot out through it. I shake my head and we laugh as we move on.

A little further up the trail: We come around a corner and there's someone lying on the ground in the trail. Wait, there are *two* people lying down, one on either side of the trail. Kate's in the lead and visibly startled.

The prone forms resolve the
mselves as a runner and pacer. It appears they just couldn't wait any longer to take a nap. The pacer opens one eye, gives us a thumbs-up, and waves us on.

Up the trail:

ME: "What the hell was that about?"

KATE: "I'm just glad I didn't see that when I was alone."

ME: "Yeah, my first thought was, 'PLEASE DON'T BE DEAD!'"

We've reached the Caribou River, about 3 miles from Sugarloaf. It feels like we're getting close. Kate has run this section recently and has shockingly good memory of the course and landmarks; she ticks them off as the sky turns a dark gray, then a lighter gray, and a band of orange appears at the horizon.

We pass through a clearing and admire the rainbow-striped horizon and setting crescent moon. It is sublimely beautiful. We realize our cameras can't capture it, so we just try to soak it in.

As the sky lightens, we know we're close to Sugarloaf. We keep looking for landmarks and listening for the sounds of the aid station. We're trying to be patient, but we know it's soon.

And, sure enough, soon enough, it's there, and we're out of the woods. It's 5:45 a.m., it's daylight, Matt and the crew are there, looking refreshed.

From dusk till dawn

Kate's crew ushers her into a chair and plies her with food, foot care gear, fresh socks, and encouragement. She's in good hands.

Her second pacer, Cary, has dropped my car off for me here. (I parked it at CR6, found Cary, and said, "It's a late model
 black Prius. They key's under the front wheel." There's a lot of handing your car keys to a near-stranger at Superior.)

I find the bag of fresh clothes I'd stashed in the woods yesterday and gratefully change shoes and put on long pants, while drinking coffee and eating hash browns and bacon. Even as Kate prepares to throw down the last 50k of her race, I am mentally changing gears and getting ready to work aid-station magic.

Kate takes off into the woods to cheers and cowbells. She'll go on to finish in under 32 hours, taking 27 minutes off her PR. Here's her race report: 

She, Cary, and I meet up at the finish, 12 hours later. She is radiantly happy.

At the finish line, the speakers are blasting "Could Have Been Me," punctuated by announcements of incoming runners finishing their marathon, 50 miles, or 100 miles.

I wanna taste love and pain
Wanna feel pride and shame
I don't wanna take my time
Don't wanna waste one line
I wanna live better days
Never look back and say
Could have been me
It could have been me

In my mind, a fire is beginning to take hold.

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