The Superior Trail 100-mile race’s reputation was all but solidified at its plucky 1991 debut. Heavy rain, thunder, lightning and soupy fog greeted a smallish field as it picked its way over the tricky and still-new Superior Hiking Trail, from Silver Bay to Cook County High School in Grand Marais.
The conditions compounded problem No. 1 — a course littered with tangled webs of exposed tree roots, an inexhaustible supply of rocks, near-constant climbing and descending and, the biggie, trying to cover 100 miles through remote forest in northern Minnesota, sometimes under darkness.
“It got a reputation after that,” event founder Harry Sloan, who, along with Tami Tanski-Sherman, served as co-race director from 1991-97, said Tuesday by phone.
Word quickly spread — don’t be fooled by the Lake Superior-hugging course’s terrain. Flat? Hardly.
“It’s unforgiving because it’s unending — it’s just up, down, up, down,” Sloan said. “If you take Western States (the iconic, self-described oldest 100-mile trail race in the world), they have about 18,000 feet of climbing. … Superior has 21,000 feet.”
Sloan should know: He’s a 12-time Western States finisher.
The 26th annual Superior 100 goes off at 8 a.m. Friday from Gooseberry Falls State Park — the route changed in 2006. Accompanying 50- and 26.2-mile races, added later to support the then-financially strapped 100, start at 5:30 and 8 a.m. Saturday, respectively. All three end at Caribou Highlands Lodge in Lutsen.
Sloan believes the current layout is even more difficult than the original. And that’s saying something. He recalled the words of California’s Suzi Thibeault, who was one of three female finishers in 1991.
“If this is the Superior Trail, the inferior trail is located in Hades,” Thibeault had said.
At its inception, the Superior 100 was part of a small fraternity of ultramarathons. It was a quaint community. There weren’t more than 10 trail 100-milers in the country at the time — Sloan thinks his race was the eighth. Today, there are close to 150. But the North Shore event has retained its stature as a brutal but well-respected test. To that end, its cutoff time is 38 hours, much longer than is typical.
On average, about 60-65 percent of entrants finish, said John Storkamp, race director since 2011. Slightly more than half do so in especially tough years.
As the website says: “Not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed.”
Sloan says he used to be lucky to get 80 registrants. These days, the field fills in about 24 hours and is capped at 257. Add 175 for the 50-miler and another 332 for the Moose Mountain Marathon, and 764 total will compete this weekend.
Among them will be Stuart Johnson of Shawnee, Kan., who is looking for his 19th finish in the 100, and Susan Donnelly of Oak Ridge, Tenn., seeking her 16th. Jake Hegge, who produced a record time of 19 hours, 30 minutes and 37 seconds a year ago, is not registered.
Earlier this week, Storkamp, traveling north from his Twin Cities home, said he expected favorable course conditions. But the intense round of thunderstorms that soaked the region Monday night, plus off-and-on rain since, could hijack those hopes.
And they could give new meaning to “rock and roll.”
“A lot of big, sharp rocks that can really get slippery,” Sloan said. “And the little foot bridges when you cross over them are slippery as all get-out. You slip on them and trip on them. And if it’s all wet like it has been this year, there’s probably over 100 little streams you have to cross. It’s impossible to keep dry feet so you run 100 miles in wet feet.”
After years of spectating and overseeing logistics, Sloan, then 67, completed the 100 for the first time in 2015. He barely made the cutoff time. He gained a new appreciation for what he had put runners through.
Many would come to town expecting a breezy jaunt through the north woods. They were met by surprise. This course is anything but Minnesota nice.
“We get people that are real experienced in other races from around the country and that’s a comment that we hear quite frequently, that they’re really shocked at the beauty and the severity of the terrain, but also the difficulty of how the course runs and how slowly the course runs,” Storkamp said.
Over time, those reactions have upped the prestige of the Superior 100, considered by many to be one of the more daunting trail 100s in the country. It’s the roots and the rocks, the climbing, the unequivocal alertness — especially at night — required. And it’s the miles, 103.3 of them, to be exact.
“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Storkamp said.
Written by Louie St. George as published in the Duluth News Tribune