Legend of Lost Leveaux Shines on Gardner’s Superior Championship

A dazzling day, full-to-the-rim fields, and races with enough plot twists to make their own switchbacks . . . what better way to celebrate the eighth annual 2010 Superior Trail races. The 50 km’s special designation as the Upper Midwest Trail Runners Ultra Championship was an additional honor and recognition of this event’s importance. Moreover, this race is a key component of the UMTR Fab 5 Fifties Ultra Series.

Humble in triumph but a master of the Superior Trails, 50 km winner, Duluth’s Chris Gardner, took advantage of opportunities provided him in this contest to notch a key victory (see photo, right). Gardner and race record holder from his 2009 victory, Chris Lundstrom, Brian Peterson, Tony Kocanda, Joe Ziegenfuss, Joseph Jameson, and Matt Zak were leading the record field pushing off the start in front of the host hotel, Caribou Hylands Lodge on famed Lutsen Mountain in Northeastern Minnesota.

Lundstrom had reset the long-standing course record by 14 seconds per mile (!) to a sizzling 3:48:54. The possibility of new marks with the elite racing clean trails was a conversation point, but plenty of slick-thick gunky sections squashed that.

The field covers the initial distance up graded-gravel roads, converting to dirt, and then crosses the cascading Caribou River to hang a sharp right onto the Superior Hiking Trails (SHT). That starts the first muddy-roots running characteristic of this early section but more so with the steady rains from earlier in the week. Goodly numbers of these mud trenches were liberally scattered throughout the trails perhaps by the spirit of Longfellow’s Hiawatha spreading his magic in celebration of this championship day.

In the vicinity of climbing the first of three mountains, Mystery, the dynamic duo of Chris and Chris pulled away with Lundstrom continuing to set the pace. Gardner confided, “I had been talking with my friend, Erik Kaitala, about my race-day plan. He said it pretty accurately, ‘look, if you go out with Lundstrom and it feels like a 5k pace, you know you aren’t going to be able to hang with him, but if you go out and it feels like marathon pace, then you will probably have a shot.’ That ended up being the case; it felt like marathon pace, so I decided to stick with him.”

These leaders soared down Mystery Mountain as its switchback trails were dry and fast, made their way to the steep up at Moose Mountain. Bounding quickly across its top, over the slick open-face rock, the tight undulating paths, they then spiraled down the mountain’s uneven 31 wooden steps and innumerable rock chunks to leg out on the slope leading to Rollins Creek. There, a minor event at the time, one of those trail-racing things, changed the race and very possibly the outcome. “I followed (Lundstrom) through a trail intersection and into a campground,” likely the West Rollins Campground, a very short spur, definitely not the course. “For a brief minute we were both lost, but I managed to spot the correct turn we missed so I jumped on the trail and signaled to him the correct way was that direction. I started leading at that point, and actually felt guilty since he was leading before we made a wrong turn.” Think about it: if you are following and you go past the flags and then turn back, the person following becomes ‘the leader.’ Essentially that is how Gardner became the new leader.

“I kept waiting for him to come up behind me so I could signal him to get back in front, but next thing I knew, I was in the Oberg lot (Aid Station No. 1) and had a bit of a cushion. I ran the rest of the race alone.” The chase, though, was far from certain. Gitchigumi spirits would be signaling their influence on the happenings in the trees and terrain surrounding Lake Superior.

Other contests continued in the pack, such as Joseph Jameson, MI, working his way to masters gold (seventh overall), coming in behind Minneapolis’ Tony Kocanda. Paul Holovnia (tenth overall), Chanhassen, won second masters. Third masters finisher, Arley Anderson, Plymouth, crossed the line 12th overall, just 34 seconds ahead of Jeff Denney, Bloomington, to capture the last mens award.

On the way in on this out-and-back challenge, running the Britton Peak to Oberg section, Gardner had a comfortable advantage over Chris Lundstrom. However, with only two miles remaining in the Oberg to finish line section, the Ojibwa legends inhabiting these mountains inexplicably descended. Perhaps this was their payback to Chris Gardner for his so-at-ease win of the 2008 Sawtooth 100 with the second best time ever. “Today, though, I totally bonked at the top of Mystery Mountain.” Where else but Mystery? (photo Steven Sjolund #520, finished with Carlton Peak turnaround)

Imagine the distress overwhelming him at that moment, knowing Chris Lundstrom, third in the USA Marathon Championships and holder of this race record, was back there . . . somewhere. For the rest of us, it is comforting to realize ‘bonking’ is an equal opportunity affliction having enough moxie to affix its particular misery even to the elite.

Here is what was happening to Chris Lundstrom long before Gardner makes it to Mystery: After Oberg aid No. 1 outbound, “I proceeded to climb a series of switchbacks up onto a ridge. The view was phenomenal.”

Such a panorama, unfortunately, was at the top of Leveaux Mountain — not on the racecourse. “The feeling in my stomach as I went further and further without seeing any trail markings . . . was not quite as great. I (had) managed to take (yet another) wrong turn on the trail.”

So how does an elite athlete handle “shooting yourself in the foot so seriously, and so early in the run (nine miles)? Mentally, it was tough to deal with for a few minutes. Going from feeling like I’d have a good chance to beat my time from last year to not knowing what place I was in or how far behind I was took a major adjustment of expectations. No one was in sight for quite a while. I was trying to figure out my place by counting the number of wet footprints (!) on the boardwalk sections of the course.”

He catches Joe Ziegenfuss, running third at the time, but thinking fourth. “Chris comes up behind me, which was a surprise. I thought it might be Tony (Kocanda). He passes me maybe two miles before the Britton Peak aid station (No. 2). We talk briefly about his Leveaux detour.” Then Joe offers his competitor seasoned trail advice: “I told him, he got some extra miles in and to not worry about it.” Then Chris took off with Joe in tow after Brian and Chris Gardner.

Amazingly, Brian Peterson had headed up Leveaux, too! “I missed the flags going down to the right, and instead went straight and up to Leveaux. I am guessing I lost just three or four minutes. That’s all part of the sport though and the cost of not paying attention out there.”

Catching his mistake quickly, he returned to the course unaware of Lundstrom’s blunder. He was now racing second; “I didn’t know Lundo made the wrong turn until the Carlton Peak turnaround. I was completely surprised to head up Carlton Peak and not see Chris storming down the path. Instead, Gardner came storming down, looking really strong and probably had about five or so minutes on me at the turn. Then, after I turned around, I saw Lundstrom with Joe right behind him, both running strong up to the turnaround. I sort of assumed the whole time on the second half Chris was going to catch me eventually and was actually surprised he didn’t get to me sooner. He caught up probably with a mile or so to go before the last aid station (Oberg inbound No. 4).”

Which, if you are keeping score, is right about at — you’ve got it! — Leveaux Mountain. Incredible. “Chris and I came into the aid station together, but he was off and running when I had to stop and refill the water bottle.”

Later, Chris Gardner, two miles from finishing, is atop Mystery. To win the race and the ultra championship, the hardest work is done — but his legs turn to cement. “The last miles to the finish from that point felt like ten miles.” He paid no attention to the time — “I didn’t look at my watch simply because I was more concerned about keeping my focus and winning the race.” He pushed on, winning the coveted finish a mere 148 seconds before Chris who lamented, “I believe I lost six to eight minutes on that little (Leveaux) detour. Ultimately, it may have been the factor that cost me the win in the race.”

Actually, the real factor costing him an opportunity to win occurred earlier. Chris Gardner had jumped out of Oberg Aid No. 1 leaving Lundstrom, which turned out to be a key move. Had he followed Gardner out, he would not have lost his way. The turn he missed, which falls off the trail sharply to the runner’s right, is about a mile or so out of the aid station after a steady climb past the tumbling Onion River.

Rewind some more and realize the chain of events affecting the results were set off by the tiny little detour at tiny little Rollins Creek campground. The backtracking there by the two leaders, heading the other way, making Chris Gardner the leader, was actually the true crux. Without it, the odds are high Lundstrom would have led into Oberg and a different race would have ensued, though one never knows the ultimate results from any scenario except the one that occurred.

Sounding now like a fully initiated trail runner, Chris Lundstrom confessed, “I managed to fall several times including a total face plant into a big mud puddle in which I tore off three of the four pins in my race number. Racing (on trails) requires some skills I seem to be lacking, namely navigation, balance and coordination.” We can only sigh relief realizing the elite suffer at times a few of the gaggle of challenges many of us find. Perhaps this humility exhibited by both leaders on the trails is a base in the foundation of our sport. Maybe the whole experience of trail racing requires it, indeed forces it, through the myriad opportunities to obliterate one’s ego each muddy root at a time.

To finish, Chris Gardner kept moving, albeit slowly for him; relentless forward progress is the key in ultra events, right? “I didn’t ask my crew at the aid stations about my lead because I just knew time or splits wouldn’t matter today; I just needed to run as good as I possibly could.” Moreover, it led to a Championship win.

Joe Ziegenfuss, Minnetonka, the 2008 UMTR Championship winner at Afton State Park, Mn, finished third. Brian noted, “Those two climbs up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain get me every time on that trail. I lost a lot of time on those climbs. Sure enough, Joe caught me on the top of Mystery and held me off on the descent for third place. He had a really great race and is running strong.”

Brian, following Joe under the banner in less than a minute, was the youngest finisher in the top half of the 50 km field. Matt Zak, Eveleth, rounded out the top five. The most inspired finish was by Al Sauld, WI, who made the eight-hour clock with a healthy ten seconds to spare and was the oldest finisher in the 50 km championship race.

This race has always been about Mystery, Moose and even Oberg Mountain along with the Carlton Peak rocky climb and retreat. A new mountain celebrity, though, begins in 2010 with the “Legend of Lost Leveaux” — never again will anyone ignore the 1539 ft. baby-peak of this race, or its three-way intersection whose very existence played such a pivotal part in today’s outcome.

Capturing the 25 km, Wynn Davis, WI, (Wynn Davis at finish, above #36) finishes his Superior portfolio: He has won both Spring events, the Fall Sawtooth 100 and its marathon, too. “So, I guess all that is left is the 50 mile, and I should have all the Superior race distances wrapped up. But I don’t see myself doing that one anytime soon. I’ve really been enjoying focusing on the fast stuff. In fact, my original goal, when I first started running in 2005, was to accumulate a base first, hence the ultras, to springboard into the shorter distances, ideally the marathon. Right now that has been my main focus this year to run sub 2:30 and then to run 2:25.” Covering these trails today in 1:47:59 indicates he is spot on goal.

“All the races to this point have been nothing more than a substitute for a second weekly workout. Races are just more fun than doing it alone or on a route you have done over and over. I had an intense week leading up to Superior, which included a tempo workout on Wednesday and 16 miles the day before the race. That definitely was not the brightest idea, as I could feel my legs quaking early on the first climb up Moose.”

Atrio headed out to lead the way — Wynn, 2009 winner James Sorenson, Minneapolis, and Karl Walczak, MI. Wynn added, “The pace was brisk. James Sorenson, I am convinced, is the best downhill runner I have ever seen.  Karl Walczak has multiple school track records at Michigan Tech and is an elite XC skier. Karl definitely kept the pace honest and was a hell of climber. My road speed helped reel him in on the flatter sections. James killed us on the downhills, but we were always able to drop him on the climbs and flats.”

James explained, “I faded back once the uphills started taking their tolls on my quads and was left to run in solitude. It was before the Oberg turnaround where I would meet back up with Wynn and Karl while I recklessly ‘cruised’ downhill, passing them to take the lead. I’m pretty sure my disregard for safety on those downhills kept me in the race.”

So the three of them zooming into the Oberg turn, when . . . let Wynn tell it: “I felt the race would inevitably come down to Karl and me. It was just a matter of biding my time before I decided to make a move. I felt I had better course knowledge than any of them. Unfortunately, Karl who was leading at this point got a bit messed up at Oberg (aid station No. 1) by overshooting the turnaround and was briefly lost. His finish time (2:02, fifth) does not really do him justice.”

James headed back to the Oberg climbing entrance, “I regained the lead after the aid station as I only stayed for a sip of water. However, after leaving the parking lot and up the first incline, Wynn took over. I kept hoping to make up some time on the descents. However, before I knew it, the race was over. I must have stopped thinking for around 30 minutes, which is what I enjoy most about trail running.” James captured second trailing Wynn by three minutes. Four minutes later, Bennett Isabella, Burnsville, took third place.

In the Masters category, the top four put on quite a show with only 79 seconds separating them. Jess Longley, Bloomington, took first, followed by James Keegan, New Hope, 50 seconds later. Michael O’Connor, Thunder Bay, Ontario, edged Jason Buffington, Duluth, by 16 seconds to take the last award home to Canada.

“Trying to run up Moose is just foolish,” Wynn noted. “Even (Chris) Lundstrom knows better.” I can’t begin to tell you how good knowing that makes me feel. I have always had visions of the elite bounding up that “Stairway to Heaven” like a bunny.

“I ran all the way up Mystery, though.  Although tough, the switchbacks allow you to motor up unlike Moose. In the end, I was pleased with my time considering the fact that it was a normal training week and no tapering. I was roughly two minutes off of Hexum’s time. I think if I had tapered a bit and gotten in some more trail running, I’d have had a good chance at busting it. I have a lot of respect for Greg. He’s a talented runner and two-times USSSA National Champion.”

And the muck? “You had to adjust your speed after exiting mud and running on top of the board walks. That was probably the area where you had to slow the most, or you would slip off.  Sometimes I wonder how competitors can leave that trail unscathed. There is not anything like bastinado one finds on the SHT,” meaning the torture the soles of the feet absorbs on the trails is like whacking them with a stick. James wryly summarizes the course, “The single track terrain provides unlimited obstacles and that definitely keeps your focus on not falling — not the fact your legs are burning.”

The most senior competitor of either distance, David Huberty, 66, of Minneapolis finished the 25 km in 5:00.

A well-known entrant with unique talents, Jason Husveth (photo finishing above, left, #509) described the race as “a 31 mile tour of the spring flora of the Superior Hiking Trail.” Jason was the featured speaker at the UMTR Awards Fest last Fall (save the date for 2010: Saturday, November 13). All of the honors, like the Ultra Championships, are presented in a fast-paced program. As Founder and President of his own company, Critical Connections Ecological Services, Inc. Jason is an expert in all things nature. So I asked him to identify something unique on the trail today that we could celebrate. I got the idea after viewing a poster nicely done on selected flowers on the SHT by 50 km competitor, Lisa Messerer, displayed in the registration area.

What a find Jason made — “You asked if there was one species that stuck out, and there was: The species was ‘Adoxa moschatellina.’ Do a search; there are lots of pictures available. It is a diminutive herbaceous wildflower I have never seen before but have read about, and knew exactly what it was, the moment I saw it as I ran by it. I love it when that happens. It was growing along the cool, shady, north facing white-cedar dominated ridge tops, immediately adjacent to the trail.  This species used to be considered very rare in Minnesota until it had been recently documented numerous times, but is still listed as ‘Threatened’ in Wisconsin.” Because of the four flowers facing horizontally and one vertically watching over the others, the flower is nicknamed a Five-faced Bishop. Lisa, observing it also, exclaimed, “It was a true find!”

A lesson in reality was exhibited to trail racers this thrilling day: it is critical for all to attend prerace briefings and hear the special instructions and course preview. The most professional combo in the country, Donny Clark and Bonnie Riley, leads Superior trail marking and has since, well, since they were much younger. Whether an eight-minute mile competitor or eight-hour finisher, one has to ask themselves when not making the prerace briefing, “Am I serious . . . or not.”   Every competitor contacting me wanted to thank the volunteers for the terrific aid stations, the workers staging the event, along with recognizing race directors, Gretchen and Mike Perbix. This record day reflects all of their dedication to a quality event. As this was also the UMTR Championship race, one note made particular reference to that. “I have to give great credit to how far Upper Midwest Trail Runners organization has come. Without a doubt, they have some of the strongest trail series in the country with trail and ultra championships as well. It’s a nice complement to the overall strength of the road running scene in the Minnesota/Wisconsin region, one of the top running areas in the nation,” noted Wynn Davis, a former UMTR Board Member.

The 2010 Superior Spring Races exhibited some of the most exciting outcomes on one of the most special trail days in the region’s history. Longfellow would have proud of his illusory forests beside Gitchigumi:

From the brow of Hiawatha
Gone was every trace of sorrow,
As the fog from off the water,
As the mist fr
om off the meadow.
With a smile of joy and triumph,
With a look of exultation . . . .

Finish line photos credit: Gretchen Perbix

Carlton Peak Trail Photo credit: Jen Pierce

Superior Spring Races: http://superiortrailrace.com/spring/

UMTR Fab 5 Fifties Series: http://www.uppermidwesttrailrunners.com/fab5fifties.html

Upper Midwest Trail Runners: www.uppermidwesttrailrunners.com

United States Snowshoe Association: www.snowshoeracing.com

Ultra Superior: www.ultrasuperior.com

Additions/comments: phillipgary@snowshoemag.com  www.ultrasuperior.com

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About the author


Phillip Gary Smith

Phillip Gary Smith, Senior Editor, published "The 300-Mile Man" about Roberto Marron's historic doubling of the Tuscobia 150 mile endurance snow run. He publishes "iHarmonizing Competition" on various forms of competition including drag racing, his favorite motor sport. Earlier, he wrote "HARMONIZING:Keys to Living in the Song of Life" as a manual for life with chapters such as Winning by Losing, Can God Pay Your Visa Bill?, and a young classic story, The Year I Met a Christmas Angel. His book, "Ultra Superior," is the first written on the Superior Trail ultra distance events. He mixes writing with his profession--the venture capital world--a dying art. He is a creator of CUBE Speakers, a group espousing themes in "HARMONIZING:Keys" in a unique way. Currently he has two books in the works.
Twitter: @iHarmonizing