Chris Lundstrom was attacking his course record of 3:48:54 as he entered the final and most critical 7.5-mile leg of the Spring Superior 50km. This return pass through the unforgiving Oberg, Moose, and Mystery Mountains are always risky whether you’re a leader, challenger, to just challenging the course for your own satisfaction.
Superior’s plans for Lundstrom were different this race . . . and unmovable. Sacrificial offerings of knees and hands are not uncommon for these rooty, rocky trails. Obstacles mystically occur on the way in for this out-and-back venue.
The forests called out to him, “We will collect dues from you owed for setting that 2009 course record,” or at least that’s what he might have thought he heard. Remarkably, he almost stamped them “paid in full.”
On a sold-out Saturday in May, the other 77 finishers in the 50 km followed a quality quartet of runners on a gravelly road to begin their sojourn up and over the mountains of Superior. Veterans of this race, Lundstrom and Brian Peterson (both of Minneapolis) linked with new Superiorites, Dimitri Drekonja (Minneapolis) and Joshua Wopata (Indiana), to dominate the front.
Wopata traveling to northern Minnesota for this trail-fest from near Indianapolis used an Indy 500 move to break first and pull ahead from the foursome, showing the way through the two aid stations to Carlton Peak as it climbs up over boulders, rock, and general obstacles obstructing the pace. Competitors turn around near its top to find an entirely different look — and race — on the way back.
Peterson wondered aloud if they should go after him. Lundstrom’s experience yielded a reply of “not yet.” Traipsing through Mystery and Moose Mountains, along with the smaller Oberg on the outbound trip is best remembered by cautious veterans of this race because . . . because those mounts grow taller and steeper for some unknown hallucination as racers return for their finish.
After Sawbill, the second and last aid station outbound, the threesome looking for leader Wopata became singles. Peterson holds third as Lundstrom was late leaving Sawbill.
Wopata slowing on the turn-around endured a pass on the obstacle-strewn way down by Drekonja; that’s Dr. Drekonja if you’re ever in need. The two front-runners were on a course-record pace at this point.
Lundstrom got by Peterson on the climb. If he caught the two leaders, a chase for the win would probably ensue in the under-recognized but challenging section between Sawbill and Oberg aid stations.
From the moment a racer leaves Sawbill heading in, the route climbs, twists, and turns making time seemingly go faster while distance traveled does not correspond. I wrote about this section in Ultra Superior, a book on these Superior races, relating a mystical, bordering on a religious experience with the result that one of the smaller hills where all of that occurred I named “Angela’s Mountain.” Even as the forest changes each year and old benchmarks disappear, I find that spot-feel that spot-each time a race takes me through there. Sometime I’m going to mark it. Take the time to ask Donny Clark, trail master for this and most Superior Trail races, about that day.
Even without famous mountains like the opening and closing stanza of this championship course, this Leveaux Mountain stretching between Sawbill and Oberg aid stations runs much longer than its advertised 5.7 miles.
Perhaps it is the Carlton Peak phenomenon tiring legs quicker than one realizes going into this quiet, return section; perhaps the cum effect of Mystery and Moose comes into play; perhaps just the constant up and downs of the Superior Hiking Trails wear through one’s resolve. Certainly in this stretch wet and wild patches can challenge runners, but not nearly to the degree this year as 2010. Then, one infamous runner lost a shoe in the muck, sacrificed to the Gods of Mud but limped to Oberg where by a miracle he had an extra pair in his bag.
Drekonja leads Wopata into the segment where soon enough Lundstrom catches them. “I passed Josh, then Dimitri on successive uphills where the fatigue and difficulty of the trail was starting to catch up to them.” However, not evidently to him.
Lundstrom was surprised. “It seemed to happen very suddenly, but without making a move I was alone out front.” The forests were baiting him to go faster.
Lundstrom’s resume` includes the U.S. Mountain Running Team at the 2010 World Championships winning silver medals. The incredibly steep climb of 4,500 feet in a dozen unrelenting kilometers pits the globe’s best against one another.
Last year these Superior trails tricked him into running a bonus distance, paying some trail dues then by missing a key turn at Leveaux Mountain, ending his shot at winning. Yet he still finished under four hours.
These trails do compete against a runner whether the sensation in the Superior forests is of native folklore or just tradition. They showed no respect to this global athlete, particularly in the last section he described as “rugged.”
A rock and a hard place grabbed Chris Lundstrom as he crashed to the ground. He fell in dramatic fashion-where’s the photo of that?-continuing a link to his past trials on trails. At his speed a fall is different from many of ours; when he does, hands, legs and torso are at a higher risk. He recuperated a minute or so and returned quickly back to pace, itself a feat, overcoming the challenge the forest used while almost snaring him.
His 2009 course record remained. That’s what the trail wanted, no new record—winning the race, he fell short by a measly 34 seconds.
Peterson continues his meteoric trail running success coming from a 2009 seventh in 4:51, fourth the next year at 4:08, to nail the 2011 Superior second overall at 4:01. He is 26, nine years younger than Lundstrom. Weeks prior to this race, he ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim just after winning the Chippewa 50 km under four hours. Training at a Minnesota State Park, Hyland, with some of the top area trail runners, his improvement and the reasons for it are apparent.
Dr. D finished third commenting the Moose and Mystery trails going-in were “murderous.” Wopata fell back to 4:13. He noted Mystery Mountain’s extended climb coming after the rugged testing of his quads were not the same as flatland trails “Back Home Again in Indiana,” as Jim Nabors famously sings.
Young med student, Christina Nowak, Duluth, showed veteran’s experience on Superior trails as she won the class in 4:41:42 in her first attempt in this race. Placing eighth overall, she outlasted veteran and a previous winner (2009), Connie Lutkevich.
Nowak won April’s Chippewa 50 km a month prior in 4:46. The rolling moraines of Wisconsin are tough on legs, but her five-minute improvement on Superior’s tough climbs reflects an improvement, a coming of age.
Lutkevich also raced Chippewa, finishing in 5:13. Fearless, she has finished the Sawtooth 100 competed on these same trails whose final 15.5 miles is virtually the same as this out-and-back course.
Veteran racer, Kim Holak, chased Lutkevich over the line about a minute later. She has competed here for years, winning this distance in 2005 in 5:03 and the companion 25 km in 2003 and 2004. In the region, she has wins in toughies such as July’s Voyageur 50 mile sizzle-fest, which she and husband Andy now direct.
Baxter’s Rebecca George is an inline skate pro, winning a recent NROC event in Brainerd while sitting on top of their pro points. She has added trail racing, finishing her first Superior Spring race fourth in the women’s class. Three weeks later the experience paid off as she won the inaugural Rochester (MN) 50 km in 5:05. Fifteen minutes quicker than her Superior finish, the results reflect a rough comparison of the relative difficulties of the two.
The packed-to-capacity companion 25 km, won outright by Ethan Richards in 2:10, featured an excitingly dramatic finish by 2010 women’s victor, Leslie Semler and Lee Johnson. Semler’s margin of victory was a mere nine seconds as she curved around the wooden fence separating the resort’s pool and the finish line with a 2:15:20 finish. She holds the women’s record for this distance by nearly four minutes quicker than this finish. In 2010’s Wild Duluth, Semler completed the 50 km seventh overall in 5:14. Last month, she was second woman at the Chippewa 50 km.
Brad Anex finished fourth and first master, at 2:16, edging fifth overall, Timothy Maki by a minute. Marcia Migay was next, and second woman, in 2:18:01.
A runner’s vow is to train hills and mountains, climbing those steep steps so another quest can, once again, be attempted.
Unknown is whether one ever really succeeds here. Wins, yes. Finishes, yes. Ultimately, though, Superior triumphs as it grabs you and just never lets go. Until you line up for the 2012 race.
Some info courtesy of Chris Lundstrom’s Blog http://struggletowardtheheights.blogspot.com/2011/05/spring-racing.html
Photos: Top, of Women’s winner Nowak, courtesy of Lisa Messerer, trail runner and photographer, Duluth, Mn.
All others: Courtesy of Gretchen Perbix, Co-Race Director with Mike, owners of Sweetland Orchard, Webster, Mn (an Apple’s throw from Minneapolis)
Write your experiences on these trails to: Phillip@ultrasuperior.com