Superior RD, John Storkamp, wrote in his post-race email to runners that Superior is best described as an experience. After participating in this race for three years, I think he’s spot on. The rugged trail that gifts you with breathtaking views of Lake Superior, an incredibly supportive community, and impeccable organization offer an experience that puts this race into a category of its own. I’m grateful I’ve been able to run this race a few times (the 50 in 2017, and 100 past two years) and have no doubt why folks continue to come back year after year.
After finishing Superior 100 last year, it took me just a few days to decide to put my name in the lottery for 2019. Luckily, my name was drawn and was excited to try and better my time from last year. I went into this race with a goal to finish with a “25” in the front. Last year, I ran a 26:31 in near perfect weather and course conditions. I knew that we most likely wouldn’t have that again this year but was trusting my training and experience to help improve my time.
I knew my aid station splits from last year but decided not to pay attention to them until the second half and if it made sense. The only number I knew was when I came into Finland (about mile 50) and I also knew where I was when the sun was coming up the next morning. I told my crew to keep the split information quiet until the second half – and only if I asked. Thanks to my coach Matt Flaherty, I’ve become a big believer of running by feel (especially for the really long stuff) and I did not want splits from last year dictating my race this year, especially early on. You never know what legs are going to show up race day and the last thing I wanted to do was make my legs go faster than they wanted to based on splits – which could potentially dig me into a deep hole later on. My hope was that my training, experience, and race day legs would all align to give me a good day on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT).
Start – Beaver Bay (Mile 20)
There were lots of familiar faces at the pre-race meeting and race day morning. I was excited to see my friends Gretchen and April, who I met at other races and who’ve both won Superior 100 (and lots of other races). And other friendly northern MN faces like Tina, Tammy, and Amy. A fair amount of Iowa running friends were up north (which made the experience that much better!), including Josh Sun and Tim Bergan who were running the 100. And I can’t leave out my friend Mike, who I ran with quite a bit last year was there to hopefully set a PR of his own.
The race started at 8:00am and after a few minutes of pre-race announcements from the RD, we were off. (Side note: A few minutes before the race started, a woman was trying her hardest to get more women to front of the start line, saying “women deserve to be up front, too!” I appreciated that woman and her sentiment.)
The race starts with four miles on bike path that I honestly don’t mind too much. It’s an opportunity to spread out, take in the enormity of the day, and get a few glimpses of the lake without falling on your face. I spent the first few miles talking with another Kelly, an awesome runner I met at Ice Age earlier this spring. We talked about running and working in higher ed. After a few miles, she slowly pulled away and while I wanted to keep chatting, I knew better and kept running my pace.
After four-ish miles, we crossed under Highway 61 and made our way to the SHT, where roots and rocks were waiting. I found myself in a line of folks and had some nice conversations with a few fellas. We eventually crossed Split Rock River (where I did NOT fall this year) and soon after, I let the group in front of me know I was going to pass. They were kind and polite, and let me get around. I don’t mind running in a conga line but as soon as I feel myself “breaking” I try to get around.
I soon felt a painful sting on my hand. My first thought was that a pine needle had fallen and got me just right (stupid, I know). And then I heard someone yell “HORNETS!!!” I looked down and sure enough saw a hornet on my hand. Expletives soon followed and we were all running as fast as we could to get away from the ground nest. I felt something in my shorts and realized one of the jerks had found its way up my shorts. I got it out and found two more stings on my legs, one of which was swelling up nice and good. My hand was also quite swollen. Everyone around me had got stung but no one seemed too concerned. (For the record, the RD is very upfront that there are bees/hornets on the course and to be prepared for such incidents.)
I’ve been stung by a bee twice in my life and had no reaction. This was different. I started to feel a little off and realized my heart rate was sky high (170). I was hoping the further I got from the episode, the lower my heart rate would go but it didn’t seem to be going down. My lips and chin started to tingle. The guy behind me told me that as long as I didn’t feel anything in my throat, I should be ok.
I eventually got to the first aid station and as I left, I kept wondering if I should say something to someone. Was I overreacting? The tingling seemed to subside so I decided to just carry on. I knew there were enough people around me that if something DID happen, someone would be close.
While the tingling went away, I could not get my heart rate to go down and I was definitely feeling off. I backed off on the effort and was mildly panicking that my race was doomed. All I wanted was to see my crew so I could have a little freak out and have them tell me I’d be ok.
Around mile 17, my heart rate finally started to go down a bit and I was slowly feeling better. By the time I got to the Beaver Bay aid station, I was still a little worried but things were moving in the right direction.
Beaver Bay (mile 20) – Silver Bay (mile 25)
My crew consisted of my boyfriend, Ross and two of my good friends, Cristi and Michele. My friends Julie and Romy were supposed to crew/pace, but Julie’s mom was dealing with some health issues (she’s ok!) and heading 10 hours north and pretty much being off the grid was not an option. While we missed Julie and Romy SO much, it was obviously understandable and encouraged that they stay close to family. Luckily, Michele was already going up to Superior and I was able to “steal” her from Josh’s crew since he had quite a few supporters already.
It was great to see my crew but I’m sure I came in looking worried. They told me I looked good, was doing great and that I’d see them again in five miles so if there was something seriously wrong, I’d be able to see them again soon.
(Ross wrote up some brief notes and just read this about Beaver Bay: Kelly came in looking terrified. I guess “worried” didn’t quite cut it!)
I took off and tried to think about other things. I’d essentially been thinking negatively for 13 miles of the race and things were feeling better so I needed to change my tune. I was running a section I was pretty familiar with and thought of the last time I ran it with Ashley Nordell (2nd place at Superior 100 in 2018 and all around badass) a few months ago. Coincidentally, we were both vacationing in northern MN at the same time earlier this summer and we were able to make a run happen on the SHT. It was a great day despite somehow turning ourselves around (still don’t know how we did that) and so I focused on that experience. It didn’t take long to get to Silver Bay and I was finally feeling like the day could end up ok.
Silver Bay (mile 25) – Tettegouche (34.9)
I told my crew I was feeling back to normal and they seemed relieved. I re-filled gels and water and got out of there. While the temps were in the 60s, the humidity was pretty high for northern MN and I was draining my fluids fast. Glad I went with a bladder because there’s no way I would’ve had enough water between aid station with just my two bottles.
This section is where I started running with a guy named Scott. I’d run with him a bit earlier but was hard to keep track of who all I ran with since I never saw their faces. Scott had also run Superior 100 last year and we talked about our races, running history, family, and all the good stuff you learn on the trail.
This section is rocky and tough, but includes one of the best views on the course – Bean and Bear Lakes. We took it in but made a point to keep moving. We had passed quite a few runners by this point (according to Superior’s splits, we passed 13 people) and was wondering if and when we’d ever catch up to any women. I thought I was maybe in 5th or 6th place at this point.
I knew we’d hit buffed out trails coming into Tettegouche and was excited to open up and see my crew again. We soon hit a section of trees and I commented “these seem like Tettegouche trees!”, excited that we were probably in the state park. I caught site of a red tank top and realized it was Kelly! We exchanged pleasantries and not soon after, we entered the chaos of the Tettegouche aid station.
My crew did crew things. I noticed April was also in the aid station, and both Kelly and April left before me. I headed out and Scott saw me as I was leaving, hurrying to join me.
Tettegouche (34.9) – Country Rd 6 (43.5)
We made our way down the wooden stairs to the suspension bridge that crosses the Baptism River. We were told to walk since there had been some issues with it earlier. I love the Baptism and tried to soak it in. Soon after, we were climbing stairs and caught up to Kelly again. We passed her, both cheering each other on. Not much longer, we caught up to April. She told me she was slowing down and that her body was just not cooperating today. I told her there was a lot of race left her things to turn around. That would be the first of MANY times I saw April throughout the race.
There was a climb before we dropped down to Highway 1 and made our way up the Fantasia climb. With that behind us, it was mostly uneventful. We eventually made our way to a ridge and could see and hear the aid station below. We knew it was a trick and there was some distance between us and the aid station, but we both forgot exactly just how MUCH distance was between us and the aid station. I’ll just say there were plenty of colorful language (especially when we rounded a corner and saw steep climb ahead). You’d think we’d remember since we both ran this race last year but I guess our brains didn’t want to keep this memory. You can bet I won’t forget next time.
We eventually descended and ran the road about a quarter mile to the aid station. I went to the bathroom, got what I needed and asked for iPod since Scott had to deal with some blisters and wasn’t sure we’d be heading out together. April did not come in much later after me and I am pretty sure she left before me, too. I knew I had just 8ish miles before Michele joined me.
Country Rd 6 (43.5)- Finland (51.2)
I think April did get out of the AS before me, because I’m pretty sure I passed her soon after leaving County Rd 6. (We seriously passed each other so much, it’s hard to keep track!) After the Section 13 climb and a few other technical sections, I found a groove. I had my music going and was clipping right along, feeling grateful for smooth miles.
It had rained a decent amount the week leading up to the race and it was juuust enough to keep things interesting with a bit of mud and slippery roots and rocks. A muddy section was up ahead and like a good trail person, I ran right through it. (For those who don’t know, you should always go THROUGH the mud, not around it to keep the trail as narrow as possible.) Unfortunately, this muddy section was more like a mud pit. My foot sunk into the mud past my ankle. I quickly pulled my foot up, and my foot came up without my shoe! Ack! I quickly situated myself to grab my shoe and pull, and the suction was too dang strong. My shoe was slowly getting sucked in. Panicking, I re-situated myself and put my two pointer fingers in the loop in the back of my shoe and pulled with everything I had. It worked! I scooped out all the mud from inside my shoe as best I could and shoved my gross mud foot in, knowing I had just a few miles and then I could change my shoes and socks.
I continued on, shaking my head at what had just happened and wiping my hands on my shorts. I was soon on the little spur trail leading to Finland. I saw my buddy, Mike, who told me I wasn’t far off the podium.
I got into Finland and changed my shoes and socks. Like clockwork, April came into the aid station, greeted by her cute son, Archie. I cheered for her and “aww’d” at Archie. I think I tried to eat some real food but my nutrition was still fairly on point with gels every hour, Tailwind, and eating what looked good at the aid station. I saw Gretchen’s husband and he said she was feeling good. I was also told that Mallory (first place female, past Superior champion 4x, AND the course record holder) was having a great day, fairly even with her splits from last year and waaay ahead of the rest of us ladies. Mallory has inspired me for years and I was rooting for her.
I left the aid station with Michele and my headlamp.
Finland (51.2) – Sonju Lake Road (58.9)
I knew I was ahead of last year at this point and was excited I was still feeling so good. It was great to have Michele with me. She loves this race (she has run the 50 twice) and the SHT so it was helpful having someone pace me who was familiar with the course. The trail was pretty forgiving during this section and somewhere along the way, we turned on our headlamps.
After a few miles, April came up behind us. I told her to go ahead and pass and she said she’d just hook in behind us if that was ok. Of course it was! This might’ve been one of my favorite memories of the race. I had met April had Chippewa 50k a few years back and we’d connected afterwards, but I never really got the chance to talk much with her since the first time we met. The three of us talked and laughed and it was exactly what trail and ultra running is supposed to be. Doing hard, epic shit and enjoying the hell out of it with good people.
We were ready for the next aid station but it was taking it’s sweet time to appear (this seemed to happen several times throughout the day…). Eventually, it appeared because they always do.
Sonju Lake Road (58.9) – Crosby Manitou (62.9)
We didn’t take long at this aid station and I was pumped because of the short distance between Sonju Lake Road and Crosby Manitou. Somewhere along the way, April pulled ahead. This section went by QUICK, thanks to my amazing pacer. We soon popped onto a gravel road and headed into the state park. I could see April’s headlamp not far ahead of us.
Crosby Manitou (62.9) – Sugarloaf (72.3)
We got into Crosby and I thanked Michele for her stellar pacing. Ross would pace me until Temperance. I decided to get rid of my bladder here knowing that most of the remaining aid stations were a bit closer together and the temperatures were obviously cooler.
Ross and I left before April, but I was confident I’d see her soon. The next section was tough with technical downhills and some tough climbs. My weakness is hiking the ups and I know April is strong on the uphills. (As an aside, I never really felt like I was competing with April until I ran scared the last seven miles terrified she’d catch me one last time.)
Ross told me that I was actually in 3rd, not 4th like Michele and I had thought. The gal who was in 3rd had dropped at Finland without us realizing it. I knew there was still so much race left and literally anything could happen behind me. I did not ever think the podium was a given.
We made our way down to Manitou River Gorge, knowing what was waiting for us once we crossed the bridge – “an ascent with three demoralizing false peaks” as described by Kevin Langton. Demoralizing is a good word to describe this section. Somewhere during this demoralizing ascent, we came across someone sitting on the side of the trail. It was Gretchen!! Poor Gretchen had been puking and couldn’t keep anything down. She had a pacer with her, thank goodness and she urged me to continue – cheering me on, telling me I was in second place. I told her I hoped I saw her again, knowing that if she got her stomach under control, she could still finish strong. Gretchen is equally one of the most badass and supportive women I know. Unfortunately, Gretchen’s stomach would not end up cooperating BUT she still finished her race after a 5-6 hour nap and lots of hiking. I think that is more impressive than having a picture perfect day; a finish like that takes an insane amount of grit and determination.
Soon after, I heard someone yell “is that Kelly???” And it was Mike! It was great to see him. We ran with him for a bit and soon April caught up to us. Mike peeled off to go to the bathroom and then Ross and I ran with April for some time before she eventually took off.
We finally had some easier trail and Ross even commented “what did we do to deserve this?” I popped in my headphones to hopefully get my feet moving a little quicker with the tamer terrain.
We finally got to Sugarloaf. It had been a long time since we’d seen Michele and Cristi! It’s a longer section between aid stations and with the tough terrain, it’d been hours by this point. April was at the aid station when we got there. We didn’t take much time and headed out with April right behind us.
Sugarloaf (72.3)- Cramer Road (77.9)
I think this section was probably my least favorite or at least when I felt the “lowest.” April ran with us for a bit but we eventually got ahead of her. There isn’t a lot of climbing in this section but it was hard to run. I wanted to, but the roots and rocks are abundant and I remember a ton of sections with long grass covering up the trail; just makes it hard to get solid footing and feel confident to do anything more than a fast walk type thing. It was also pretty narrow and rutty at times. I remember getting pretty frustrated – I just wanted to RUN. I remember April caught up to us for a little while and said something like “I think this is the most I’ve had to walk.” I agreed. Luckily, it was only five miles until the next aid station. Pretty sure I was just annoyed the entire five miles. While I try to stay positive, there’s bound to be some low spots over the course of 100 miles and it’s a lot easier to let it out when you’re running with your significant other. (Sorry, Ross.)
Cramer Rd (77.9) – Temperance (85)
We hit the Cramer AS and was gearing up for a longer section but knew we were getting closer to Temperance, my favorite section. I think I was starting to come out of my funk but this is when Ross was entering his, ha. He runs a lot but is not really used to running for six hours. I’m sure he was also counting down the miles until he could be done.
About half way through this section, nature called and I popped in the woods. I saw April run right by me and pass by Ross. I remember thinking all day, “if April can run this strong when her body is not feeling it, what the heck could she do if both her body and mind were on point??”
I tried to run as much as I could but I think I was probably being a bit of a wuss and walking more than I needed to. I also remember getting really hungry, like stomach-growling hungry. We eventually hit some smoother trail and knew we’d soon be at the aid station. Cristi would be taking over from here.
Temperance (85) – Sawbill (90.7)
I’d been looking forward to a pancake at Temperance for quite some time. I have fond memories of a pancake at Temperance last year and I wanted to re-create it. I sat down and devoured a pancake. In hindsight, I probably should’ve had two since I don’t think my hunger totally went away.
Next up was miles with Cristi! I was excited to share time with her on my favorite section of the course. Last year, the sun was coming up right about when I was crossing Temperance. This year, that wasn’t going to happen. I was happy I was ahead but kind of sad I’d be doing my favorite section in the dark.
Cristi and I headed into Temperance and caught up. She told me about all the happenings of the day and her life. It was nice. She was also making me work pretty hard which I appreciated but also pulled back when I needed to. We made a good team. After a few miles, we passed April.
We started climbing quite a bit and I was confused. I know this section well and I do not remember this much climbing before you cross the river. The climbing got harder and harder and I kept thinking/saying “WTF is happening!!!??” Temperance is supposed to be nice and smooth and forgiving until you cross the river and climb Carlton Peak. WHY WERE WE CLIMBING SO MUCH. We weren’t off course because there were flags. The miles kept clicking by and I realized we were supposed to be less than two miles to the next aid station but we hadn’t even crossed the river! How was this possible?? And then there was a huge boulder. “THIS IS CARLTON!! ” I exclaimed. “Did we cross a river??” I asked Cristi, who said yes, we had. “And we took a left??” Another affirmative.
Apparently, we had crossed the river and for some reason it didn’t register. I do remember crossing a bridge, but it was so tiny I didn’t think it was “the” bridge. In my head, the bridge was grand – like the one in Tettegouche. But nope, this one was unassuming. And with it still dark, I got myself confused and terrified poor Cristi that we’d somehow gotten off course. Either way, it made those miles go by quickly and we were soon at Sawbill.
Sawbill (90.7) – Oberg (96.2)
A quick nutrition re-up and we were off again. I reallllly wanted to ditch my headlamp but it was juuust dark enough in the woods, that I couldn’t. I was looking forward to the next section. It’s fairly runnable and not many big climbs. It was magical for me last year and I was hoping for the same this year.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t magical but it was uneventful in a good way. Just kept moving, one foot in front of the other. I started to let myself think about placing second but knew I was no where near having it in the bag. A lot can happen in 13 miles.
One thing that was noticeable about this section and the last is we saw NO ONE except for April.
We saw the “Oberg Parking Lot” sign and I stupidly thought we were much closer than we were (you’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?!). Finally, we hit the final aid station. Michele would join us for the last section.
Oberg (96.2) – Finish (103.3)
I joyfully took off my headlamp, grabbed some food, and started walking toward the trail head. I remember coming into the aid station and thinking I was going to find some food that would make me happy and put a pep in my step, but nothing really did the trick. Ross was tailing us a bit and said to Cristi and Michele, “Have you told her yet?” And they replied no. I asked what they were talking about and Ross said it was good and really exciting stuff. Like any normal human, I told them they must tell me now.
And then they told me I was in first.
My eyes got big. “What do you mean?!” I yelled.
They explained that Mallory had dropped at mile 77 and April and I had been going back and forth for 1st and 2nd since then, not 2nd and 3rd like I thought. They decided not to tell me so I could continue running my own race and until it made sense to tell me. I think they did the right thing because that news put a fire under my ass like nothing else could. I wondered what had happened to Mallory but no one knew. I hoped it wasn’t anything serious.
I ran terrified that last section, knowing that if April got a second wind and I slowed down at all, she could very easily catch me. And I had no clue what was happening behind April. Were there any women close to her? Did Gretchen figure out her stomach? I probably looked behind me every two minutes, with Cristi continuing to remind me that she was keeping an eye out and that no one was close. I could not and would not believe it.
We climbed Moose Mountain, a steeeeeep, short climb, breathing hard and with our hands on our knees. I worked hard and tried to keep moving as fast as I could. We then climbed Mystery Mountain, a long, gradual climb. I tried hard to run the easier uphills but had a tough time running anything that wasn’t flat or down. I tried hard to hike with purpose. I also tried hard not to be a baby on the downs. I remember last year just kind of tip-toeing downhill and down boulders and rocks. I knew it wouldn’t feel good to jump off a rock or whatever, but it also wasn’t going to hurt anything.
We knew when we got to the campsite, we’d be a mile away. Not surprisingly, it took what felt like a long time to get to that campsite and we let out a big wooooop when we finally did.
We eventually hit a muddy road, something I wasn’t expecting. I hadn’t seen this in previous years but it didn’t take long for a bridge to come into view – the bridge that gives you your first glimpse of the finish and you know it’s essentially downhill from there.
I finally let myself think about winning Superior 100. I couldn’t really process it. We hit the pavement and I took one last look behind me. Cristi told me there was no one there and that I was going to win.
I let the downhill and the excitement carry my body and I took a right when the arrow told me to. Michele was hilariously yelling “Here comes Kelly!!!” I hit the grass and ran by the pool and then I crossed the finish line in 25:23:19. First female and 12th overall.
A week later and it’s still surreal.
After, we sat by the fire and waited for April and Mike to come in. April came in a little less than an hour after me and Mike was just under 26 hours. I’m so thankful to share this experience with both of them.
I spent the afternoon and evening cheering in my fellow runners (with a shower, and a nap or two intermixed in there). I saw Josh finish, who had a great race. And then Gretchen finished soon after! What a baller. Both April and Gretchen were so, so gracious and happy for me. It was incredibly heart-warming and made me feel so lucky to know them both.
It was a big party after the race and I soaked in the energy and the people and the experience. Thank you to John Storkamp and Rocksteady Running for another Superior I’ll never forget. And to the the volunteers: we literally couldn’t run these types of races without you. Thank you for being out there and making the runners’ experiences unforgettable.
And to my crew – THANK YOU!!! I wouldn’t have been able to execute this race without my crew. They kept me happy, fed, and moving. I am forever grateful for their time, energy, and support.
I want to thank Mallory Richard. She shared why she dropped at Superior on her blog and it is heartbreaking to read but incredibly brave and selfless of her to share with us what happened. Please take a few minutes to read this. And if you take anything away from her story, I urge you to refrain from commenting on peoples’ bodies. Even if you think if you’re giving someone a compliment, you don’t know what demons they’ve faced in the past or they are facing and how that person might interpret your comment. Mallory, you are both a badass and a kind, generous human – the most inspiring kind.
And finally, thanks to everyone who tracked my race, sent me messages/notes, etc. Your support means so much and I appreciate every single text, FB message/comment, email, etc. The support I received after the race was overwhelming and made me feel real lucky to have so many awesome people in my life. And it just goes to show that running ultras is anything but a solo venture.