On Natchez Mountain: A Savage 100-Mile Trail Race

Savage 100 aid station at night

What is there, there on Natchez Road?

Sitting quietly . . . a cut in the woods . . . is the  back way in Minnesota’s Murphy-Hanrehan State Park, host of the trail-fest known as the inaugural Savage 100 trail race. Inside the gate rests the Natchez Aid Station.

Tucked into a far corner of the course, Natchez combines with the start-line and a two-time visit to the Horse Camp for the aid station roundup on each six 16.7- mile loops. Those laps make the 100 miles.  A four-loop option yields 100 km.

No character like Clifton Clowers lurks on Natchez Mountain like yonder “Wolverton Mountain” where he ruled. The classic country ballad of the same name leads with the lyric:

“They say don’t go . . . on Wolverton Mountain”

But the Savage 100 says go, Go GO! to Natchez Mountain.

Three Rivers Park District Officer Danny Schmitz keeping an eye on the park . . . and Natchez Mountain!

Three Rivers Park District Officer Danny Schmitz keeping an eye on the park . . . and Natchez Mountain!

Natchez holds a special place in the Savage 100 and its classic cousin, October’s Surf-the-Murph 25 km, 50 km, and 50 mile. Chugging up a woods-soaked hill to reach its relief and wonders, one lands in the world of Captain Arika, better known in her other life as Arika Hage. She reigns as chief cheerleader for the runners and a true example of having fun on trails, along with Brian Klug, Ryan Carter and others who volunteered time at the tent with the revolving disco ball. There I joined her appointed minions to greet, meet, and scoot racers out of there and on their way.

Claude King (d 2013) sang on programs with Elvis and other famous country stars. “Wolverton Mountain” was his big hit, based on a relative actually named Clifton Clowers (see YouTube link at foot of this article). A writer could never create a better name in a song. The verses follow the journey of a determined suitor continuing the quest for his love on top of the mountain, but whose father, Clifton Clowers, objects. However, the song’s tone reflects a positive likelihood of success in love . . . just the theme an ultrarunner covering distance  needs:  “All my dreams are on Wolverton Mountain . . .  I’ll take my chances and climb that mountain.”

Man of the hour, Les Martisko, with just a marathon left to reach 100 miles

Man of the hour, Les Martisko, with just a marathon left to reach 100 miles

These races, like any top trail events in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere, are handled by veteran endurance racers; the work at an aid station aims to push racers to a finish while solving beverage, food and sundry foot problems. The key remains getting competitors their belt buckle, even if it requires adhering to Arika’s Law: Runners sitting down, bad. Runners sit down; runners don’t get up. Runners drop; Arika sad. Don’t let Arika be sad.

“And Wolverton Mountain protects her there . . .  The bears and the birds tell Clifton Clowers . . . If a stranger should enter there”

Several instances over the weekend occurred when volunteers at Natchez (and no doubt other aid stations) took off with a runner to pace them at night or day to a place where they were going to make it to the finish. This is a corollary to Arika’s Law.

Veterans race directors for the Surf-the-Murph events—Bonnie Riley, Molly Cochran, Kim Martins, and Cindy Martisko—staged this raced in honor of Surf-the-Murph founder, Les Martisko, Ph.D., on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

Angela Hill handled a tough finish to win first place.

Angela Hill handled a tough finish to win first place.

Remarkably, Martisko has completed over 350 ultras since 1986; that is roughly one a month for over a quarter-of-a-century. That is one noteworthy résumé.

Now he adds the Savage 100 (Happy Birthday!) Belt Buckle to his collection much to the delight of everyone. When he came through Natchez, it was like the king of the mountain arrived, trail royalty if there is such a thing.

“I’m going up on Wolverton Mountain . . .                      It’s too lonesome down here below”

I pulled the 12 midnight to 6 a.m. Sunday morning shift with the threesome along with Bob Marsh who showed off his new Facebook cover photo featuring Viking Cheerleaders. Immediately runners arrived, leading to the ringing of the cowbell: “I got a fever; I need more cowbell” as Christopher Walken implored on SNL. Some on their fifth loop, “Only a marathon to go,” Arika would encourage, or headed to the finish, “just nine miles left!”

Winning second in class, Emma poses with Johnathon in a photo of dueling, matching headlamps.

Winning second in class, Emma poses with Johnathon in a photo of dueling, matching headlamps.

Zooming to set the goal high for a first-time course record, Madison Lake’s Ryan Chukuske led all to a sterling 17:52 finish. He explained the surprising way he did this: “The morning was crisp yet perfect for a run on the trails. They told us that conditions were ideal with a spot of water and mud here and there. I was familiar with the route, having run on these very trails in previous races. But for some reason, today was different. Today was what I would describe as the perfect run. I never meant to win. I planned on taking the entire 34 hour limit to finish the 100 mile course. Instead, I found myself feeling fresh and maintaining a consistent pace through each six 16.7-mile loops. The volunteers, including my amazing wife Megan, were terrific and attentive to all of my needs.

At the end of the day, I simply believe that the conditions were right, the help was ideal, and my training paid dividends for the perfect race. Again, I never expected to win, but I did expect to achieve success. The Savage 100 provided an ideal race course for me to experience a once in a lifetime achievement, and I am forever thankful, forever humbled, by the support provided by every person involved with the journey.”

Jacob Lawrence, St Paul, captured the overall silver with a 19:13 while long-time ultra racer, Bob McGrath, Wyoming (MN), nailed the third overall, and first master, at age 51.

Superior Wisconsin’s Angela Hill kept a ten-minute lead on Emma Hoel to finish first woman in 23:48 though Hoel was closing quickly. Hill said, “That other racer nearly caught up to me (with about eight miles to go) after I fell apart like a plastic Walmart toy. Thank God I just kept on moving. This is my first 100-mile win. There is nothing in the world like the 100-mile race; all ya gotta do is run, and when you are tired and hungry and hot and sore, you come upon an oasis in the woods where people immediately want to help you and tell you that you are awesome.

(Aid station eats) are sweeter than hon-eee
And Wolverton Mountain protects her there

Merry Maureen Montello heading to the finish for her 100 miles

Merry Maureen Montello heading to the finish for her 100 miles

Hoel was joined with husband Johnathon Hoel in a duo jaunt to 100 miles. From Minnesota, they are returning to the state after a year in Hawaii. Emma said, “It was such a joy to finish our first 100 miler at home in Minnesota. The course was beautiful, and the weather was spectacular. It was so nice and sunny I was actually excited for the sun to go down so I could bundle up in my jacket after a long day in the sunshine. My husband and I definitely could not have finished without the encouragement and help from the amazing volunteers (shout out to Arika at the Zumbro aid station, thank you for providing exactly what we needed every time we rolled through!). I wonder how long this sense of accomplishment and feeling that anything is possible will last (hopefully forever!). Thank you Surf the Murph for an unforgettable adventure, I may never take off the red hoodie zip up-I love it!” One might say the Savage 100 is their welcome-home party.

They sauntered to Natchez in great shape wearing matching his-and-her headlights. Must have been climbing that 13,796 foot peak on Mauna Kea to train for the Savage . . . or maybe something closer as John explained.

We have done many ultras but only one previous 100 attempt. This was our first 100-mile completion. We tried the Rocky Raccoon 100 back in 2012 and dropped out at mile 80. We began breaking down around mile 66 mainly because it got dark, and we had never run through the night before. This year we trained much better and did the Zumbro Midnight 50 in April, which perfectly set us up to make it through the night. To our surprise we ran the whole race. What kind of maniac runs 25 miles, is sore, and then puts one foot in front of the other knowing there are 75 more to go? I couldn’t believe it. Immediately after, we were so happy we finished but were saying never again. As we were walking from the finish line to get our official times, Emma started bawling. The entire day seemed to set in and could finally be released. About 12 hours later . . . we were looking for our next 100. I think we are addicted.” 

Trails are good drugs . . . .

"I got a fever!"

“I got a fever!”

Popular Midwest ultrarunner, Julie Berg, captured third in the class. Working at it the entire race, she wrote that at 67 miles in fifteen-and-a-half-hours she was “Feeling strong. Feeling happy .” Afterward, “This finish is so much more than just a finish for me. (I feel) like I pressed my reset button! Great race directors, incredible volunteers and runners . . . Inspiring!”

I don’t care about Clifton Clowers . . . I’m a gonna climb up on that mountain . . . And I’ll get the (finish) I love”

Scott Doughty finds his glove at Natchez that he left on the former loop

Scott Doughty finds his glove at Natchez that he left on the former loop

Maria Pilar Ria Nelson, St Paul, and Alison Fraser, Minneapolis, raced for 28 hours to finish only seven minutes apart for 19th and 20th positions. Greg Bores, Prior Lake, edged ahead for 18th by a dozen minutes. John Taylor, Minneapolis, finishing No. 60 ultra, captured 21st less than two minutes later. Taylor wrote, “I heard my first loon call of the season this weekend . . . Almost all of the 28:19 hours I spent out there was in the good company of friends. What a great weekend.”

Fraser told me, “None of us could have completed the race without the awesome volunteers . . . I did manage to finish my first attempt at the distance and not the time I was hoping for, but I really can’t complain. I didn’t get lost, didn’t trip and fall down, and didn’t vomit, so it really should be considered a success. No lingering pain, either. I’m looking forward to getting back out running, especially since the weather is finally nice, but I promised to take at least a week off and let my muscles heal. I met so many amazing people. The thing that struck me is just how much everyone wants you to succeed. Thank goodness for that spirit on the trails and in the ultra community.”

His major hit, "Wolverton Mountain," didn't make No. 1, but won Claude King his highest chart ranking.

His major hit, “Wolverton Mountain,” didn’t make No. 1, but won Claude King his highest chart ranking.


Marty Wacker, Grand Junction, Colorado, came in to Minnesota and took a Top Five finish (4th) in 21:24. The reason he came back here to race this event? “I ran the Savage 100 because it was a birthday party for the Les Martisko. Not just any birthday either; he turned 70 and he ran the race! I met Les and his amazingly wonderful crew of volunteers in 2010 when I ran the sister event, Surf-the-Murph 50 miler. The people warmly welcomed me and the ever-rolling course treated runners to many lakes and woods teaming with geese, ducks, deer, squirrel, turtle, song birds, etc. The people and the course are beautiful. The course is not particularly fast, but the rolling terrain beckons one to run fast. And, of course, in an ultra early speed can catch up to you. The short quad burning ascents are followed by thrilling descents, and the hurdles and limbo sticks on single track through the woods get you in touch with your inner animal.”

Nate Ziemski, Blaine, nabbed the fifth spot in 22:15. He noted, “Fun to meet and run with some great new people en route to a sub-24 hour finish . . . couldn’t have done it without you (volunteers).”

Scott Burton, Winnipeg, added an International element to the race, taking home a sub-30 hour finish. Burton is no stranger to the Murphy-Hanrehan Park, plus he races the winter epic Canada’s Actif Epica. “I’ve done the Surf-the-Murph 50 mile for the last three straight years, finishing the last two. Actif was fun. I finished in 2013. This year I got frost nip in my fingers coming very close to frost bite and dropped for fear of losing my fingers after about 90 kms or so.”

Alison Fraser (R) ready to hit the trail again

Alison Fraser (R) ready to hit the trail again as Captain Arika prepares to cut them loose. Note the reflection to the right; that marks the path out of Natchez.

In the 100 km race, South Saint Paul’s Karen Gall landed another finish and win, an overall 17:16. Jamie Klemenhagen, Eden Prairie, claimed her buckle in 23:40.

Weather scripted a racer’s weekend: perfect during the daylight, comfortable at night. The Savage 100 is the first 100-mile trail race in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area; here is hoping the launch is just the beginning of a long run . . . .

Phillip Smith  |  Twitter  |  Facebook

(I have italicized the parts related to “Wolverton Mountain” to set if off from the race itself, but also italicized other areas of the article including comments that struck me as particularly cool. Let me know what you think. phillip@ultrasuperior.com or FB or FBmsgs)

Wolverton Mountain Lyrics: Rock.rapgenius.com

“Wolverton Mountain” by Claude King (be sure to listen to the song; it’s a hoot!)

Photos by Ultra Superior Media

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 motorsport. 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.
Write to him at Phillip@ultrasuperior.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook @iHarmonizing.

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