I hope you are having a great Spring. Many of you were with us at the Zumbro Endurance Run in early May – we had a great event. While the snow was gone early in the Twin Cities, Central and Southern Minnesota this year – Winter just would not quit in the Northland. Today I have an update for you on how these lingering conditions could impact this year’s Superior Spring Trail Race. I will first provide a concise summary of the information, followed by a more comprehensive narrative. Thank you in advance for your time.
The North Shore had an incredibly snowy Winter. Then, in the month of April we rarely saw temperatures get above the low 40’s, there was no shortage of overnight temperatures in the teens, most days were cloudy, and new snow continued to accumulate right up until the end of the month. As of today, there remains up to two feet of snow on the sections of the Superior Hiking Trail that the Superior Spring Trail Race uses. While we think that the snow will be gone come race day, the critical period that comes just after the melt, where the frost is coming out of the ground and the trail is in its most fragile state of the year, could peak towards the third or fourth week in May. Our race is on May 21. Due to this potential, we are working on a contingency plan that would move the race from the Superior Hiking Trail onto nearby forest roads; the 50K and 25K still out-and-back(s) from Caribou Highlands with similar opportunities for aid, the 12.5K still a point-to-point, all distances still finishing at Caribou Highlands. While not the same as being on the Superior Hiking Trail, this course would consist of scenic, infrequently traveled, minimum maintenance gravel forest roads within the Superior National Forest and would still provide a great experience. It should be noted that this is a unique situation – this is the first time since the Spring races inception in 2003 that we have ever had to consider this option. We are monitoring conditions and working closely with our partners at the United States Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Superior Hiking Trail Association. We are currently working to ground-truth and get this backup route approved. Assuming it does get approved, we will make and communicate a final decision to you regarding what course we will use no later than Wednesday May 18. Updates will be sent via email and posted on the ‘News’ section of our website. Be sure to add firstname.lastname@example.org to your emails whitelist / do not spam / do not block list.
A More Comprehensive Narrative:
Resilience. Trail and ultrarunners are as resilient as anyone. We willingly introduce adversity into our lives; in the form of rugged trails, steep climbs and long distances traveled on foot. As we face these challenges, we gain greater resiliency. Resilience has been an important attribute for all of us over the last few turbulent years. The Superior Trail Races / Rocksteady Running and our racers have had countless opportunities to face and overcome unique and unforeseen challenges. Blizzards partially canceled (2018) and completely canceled (2019) our Zumbro Endurance Run in Southern Minnesota. The pandemic forced the cancellation of all of our races in 2020 and resulted in highly modified multi-day wave-start races in 2021. Then just as we were getting back to some normalcy and preparing for the 30th annual Superior Fall Trail Race late in 2021, we were faced with the impacts of the Greenwood fire, which right up until the final week of the race threatened a cancellation. Luckily things rapidly improved just in time and we were able to proceed with the race, unmodified. Enter 2022. A month ago we held a successful Zumbro Endurance Run – it felt like old times. The year ahead looks really promising, with races that should for the most part mirror our pre-pandemic events. BUT, in keeping with the theme of the last few years, I present to you a new and unforeseen challenge. May we all remain resilient as we navigate this.
The North Shore and the Lutsen area in particular, where the Superior Spring Trail Race is held, had a good old-fashioned Winter, receiving between 150 to 170 inches of snow. Uniquely, it rarely got out of the low 40’s through the month of April, there was no shortage of overnight temperatures in the teens, the sun rarely came out, and more new snow continued to fall and accumulate right up until the end of the month. There remains up to two feet of snow on the sections of the Superior Hiking Trail that our race uses. While meteorologists are often unable to compile hyper-accurate numbers due to the unique and highly localized conditions of the North Shore, April-May 2022 will likely go down in the top 5% of greatest lingering snow depth totals since records have been kept. Since the Superior Spring Trail Races inception in 2003, there have most certainly been snowy Winters, snow and ice late to melt, and some muddier than average years come race day. We have cleared the race course in advance of the event carrying chainsaws through knee deep snow drifts that lingered on North facing slopes. Part of hosting a large annual event, on a fixed date, with participants coming from all over the country is that you have to roll with the conditions you are given on race day, even if those conditions are less than ideal, even if there will be some impact to the trail. We believe that the sum total of the awareness, interest, passion, volunteer trail work, financial donations and overall engagement that our event produces not only offsets the impacts of running on a suboptimal day, but that that the trail is ultimately better off because of our events. Our trail association and governmental partners generally share this sentiment, as a result; goodwill, mutually beneficial and synergistic relationships have thrived between us throughout the years. All of that said, there is a point at which the possible impacts of our event could outweigh the value our event brings to the trail. While we have rarely seen conditions of this magnitude between the Spring and Fall races, the closest I can think of was a 14 hour downpour during an edition of the Superior Fall Trail Race a little over a decade ago, the deluge coming late on Friday after the race had begun. The trail healed from that, and 11 years later, many sections on the 100 mile course are better today than they were then due to the long arc of persistent volunteer engagement / trail work to which we have contributed. Importantly, we do not want any of this to sound alarmist or hyperbolic. Ultimately these potential impacts, even under the worst conditions, would not cause irrevocable environmental damage. Trails and the natural world are meant to be enjoyed under all conditions and trails heal, but as a race organization that knows trails as well as we do, we are deliberative, pragmatic and conscientious in our decision making processes when it comes to these matters.
Given the unique circumstances of these lingering Winter conditions, we are keeping a close eye on things, working on a contingency plan and will keep you apprised of potential modifications to this year’s race. While we believe that the vast majority of the snow will be gone on race day (May 21), the majority of the snow will likely melt within two weeks to 10 days of the event, as opposed to a normal year where the majority of the snow is gone between three and five weeks out. There is a critical period after the snow melts, where the frost comes out of the ground, that the trail is in an especially fragile state. Again, while some impacts associated with a Spring Race are unavoidable, we need to be realistic about how this Spring melt is unfolding.
We have identified an alternate race course that would primarily make use of minimum maintenance gravel forest roads to the North and Northwest of Lutsen and the Superior Hiking Trail. We are working with our partners at the United States Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to thoroughly vet this route and get it approved. Both the 50K and 25K courses would remain out-and-back(s) from Caribou Highlands and the 12.5K course would remain a point to point – participants bussed to the start just as they would be for the normal 12.5K course. 50K runners would have aid at about the same intervals as they always do. 25K runners would receive aid at their halfway point. There would still be no aid on the 7.75 mile course. There would be no crew access for the 25K. We are investigating an option that would allow crew access at the halfway point of the 50K. While not the same as the Superior Hiking Trail, this alternate course would be very scenic and while not super hilly, would be challenging enough. Note, these are not like the gravel roads within an hours drive of most of your homes, these are forest roads in the heart of the rugged and wild Superior National Forest, the sixth largest national forest in the United States. There are many “trail” races around the country that are exclusively held on forest roads. If we end up having to use this revised course, come the end of the race, I don’t think anyone will regret having run the course – it would all be pretty unique.
For those of you that don’t know, one of the primary reasons the Superior Trail Races exist and persist, is to benefit the Superior Hiking Trail and the public lands where it is held. Over the years we have donated tens-of-thousands of dollars to the Superior Hiking Trail Association. Our runners have answered our calls to action after our events and have donated tens-of-thousands more. We have collectively contributed thousands upon thousands of volunteer hours working on the trail. ALL of the SHTA’s volunteer crew leaders are heavily involved with our races, and almost all are trail and ultrarunners. Over many years we have built trust and rapport with the Superior Hiking Trail Association, the Superior National Forest, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Cook and Lake Counties and local communities. As a result of these relationships the trails are better and our races are better. As Jack Nicholson said in the movie A Few Good Men “You want us on that wall, you need us on that wall.” Friends, I know you, you are not just trail runners, you are trail people and you “can handle the truth” and that is why I always give it to you straight.
The decision regarding what course we will ultimately run this year may come sooner, or it may come later. In order to give us the best shot of running the original course on the Superior Hiking Trail, the decision may not be made until the week of the race, Wednesday May 18 at the latest. In the meantime we will be spending a lot of time on both courses and in constant communication with our partners. I will as always keep you informed as things progress. If you have questions please feel free to reach out, but know that we will be busier than ever, not only clearing 22 miles of trail on the SHT but also all of the forest roads that comprise the alternate route.
The upside of all of this? We may all get to take in some new scenery, and if we remain calm and gracious, we will almost certainly make another deposit in our resiliency banks for whatever unexpected thing pops up next. If we don’t have to use the alternate course this year, we will have it in our back pocket should we ever need to make a quick pivot for a future race. Thank you for your time, and your understanding.
Superior Spring Trail Race
PS: A little bit of housekeeping for the upcoming race. Bib number assignments for this years race have been made and can be found HERE https://www.superiorspringtrailrace.com/2022-bib-assignments/ We are doing hats instead of t-shirts this year, you can check them out HERE https://www.superiorspringtrailrace.com/2022-race-hat/
Given the conditions, why don’t you just reschedule the race for a later date?
Since 2003, the Superior Spring Trail Race has always been held the weekend before Memorial Day weekend when the North Shore, including trails and trailheads, lodging, camping and dining, are not as busy as they are during peak season (Memorial Day to Labor Day). The nature of the North Shore in the “covid era” is that during peak season, lodging and camping are booked solid, restaurants are packed and trailheads are busier than they have ever been. Superior is a large trail race and it does not turn on a dime. We have runners coming from 2 countries, 22 states and 211 Minnesota cities. For each individual participant, and for the Superior Trail Race organization as a whole, to attempt to reschedule all of this, in addition to coordinating with countless partners, venues, vendors and more, is not logistically feasible.
I have run the Spring Race many times when it was wet and muddy, what is different this year?
Every couple of years we are fortunate and the trail is nice and dry for our race. On an average year the snow has melted many weeks in advance of the race, the frost has come out of the ground and the trail has had the opportunity to drain and “set up”. On a typical year there is generally miles and miles of “good” trail, yes, perhaps with some superficial mud, and then pockets of very memorable mud in the low or degraded areas. After a couple of particularly muddy years, I have gone out and measured the extent of these “bad” spots and on the worst year in the 25K of trail between Lutsen and Carlton peak observed about 1500 LF of what I would consider to be “bad trail”, the other 80,340 LF in relatively good shape. All of this as described is much different than the potential unique conditions that we are concerned about this year. There is a transition period that takes place each Spring, once the ground is mostly snow free and the frozen ground starts to thaw. During this time, the upper layers of the soil thaw first and become saturated with moisture from the melted snow and new precipitation, while the lower layers remain frozen down to four or five feet. As a result, these saturated soils do not drain well during this period, and can lead to widespread deep muck in the upper thawed layer. If this condition is isolated to some North facing slopes and shaded areas, we are not overly concerned, if it is widespread that is a different story and that is what we are keeping an eye on this year. Importantly, we do not want any of this to sound alarmist or hyperbolic – ultimately these potential impacts, even under the worst conditions, would not cause irrevocable environmental damage. Trails and the natural world are meant to be enjoyed under all conditions and trails heal, but as a race organization that knows trails as well as we do, we are deliberative, pragmatic and conscientious in our decision making processes when it comes to these matters.
I need to know sooner than “week of” what the course will be, why would you wait so long to decide?
We will monitor conditions over the coming weeks. Knowing what we know now, we expect conditions to look pretty poor for the next week to 10 days, that will bring us up to about May 15 (just under one week out from the race). At the same time, we cannot predict the weather – if there is a significant warming, sunny days and high winds, we might just get lucky and things may move along more quickly. The only way to know the condition of the trail is going to be for us to spend a lot of time out there throughout this transition period. Waiting until (as late as) the week of the race will give us the best chance of making not only the most informed decision but will also give us the best chance at holding the race on the traditional Superior Hiking Trail route. As far as racer preparation for one course vs the other, if you are prepared for the traditional Superior Hiking Trail course, you will be prepared for the alternate forest road option. The distances will be about the same and there will be similar access to aid. The forest road option would run a bit quicker than the Superior Hiking Trail.
I don’t want to do the race if it is not on the Superior Hiking Trail.
I would strongly encourage everyone who is able to, to attend the race even if it is modified. I know many of you do not have a great concept / frame of reference of what this alternate route would be like, but it is good, you have my word. If not presented to you under the premise of this “bad news” it would be the type of course you would be stoked to get out for a run on. It is almost certainly more interesting than what most people get to run on a daily basis. We ask for your support and solidarity for either decision that comes out of the coming weeks of deliberation. There are things that are far more important than “our” race. If we do in fact decide that it is best to stay off of the SHT this year, you can help demonstrate with grace, humor and joy, for all of our fellow non-trail / ultrarunning SHT users, that we can and will adapt because we care about the resource. The Superior Hiking Trail is everyone’s to enjoy and if we can avoid an unusually onerous impact on the trail and still have a great race on a really cool alternate course, then that is a big win. If you cannot understand this, I am sorry, and would ask you to take a close look at your relationship with the trail / trail running and who you want to race with. We know the vast majority of you and know that we have your trust and support – support that we are grateful for and never take for granted.