Accompanying photos at Instagram @brandon_yonke_running (link at top)
“You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day, you look back, and you’ve climbed a mountain.”
I suppose this all started out on the road with MS Run the US earlier this year. With an immense MPW, I knew it was time to toe the line at a 100M. I searched around and found the Sawtooth 100 (or Superior 100- I call it Sawtooth most of the time because it sounds exactly how the elevation chart looks) a 103 actual-mile, 21,000 ft gain, point to point course right along the shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota in the Sawtooth Mountain range. Many sources claimed this to be one of the hardest, most ruthless, unforgiving 100s in America. I looked at the screen of my laptop and thought “prove it.”
I left Grand Rapids, MI with my roommate-turned-crew James on the 3rd of September. We headed north to the big bridge. The plan was to pick up another runner I had never met before, Ben, in Traverse City along the way. A buddy had told me he needed a ride, and I am always cool with helping a fellow runner. At about halfway, I realized that I had somehow forgotten to include room in the car for Pete, our other race friend’s gear. I called ben and asked if I could leave a bunch of random gear in his house. Luckily, he was cool with it. We arrived at his place in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, letting a stranger ride along in my car for one of the longest roadtrips I had ever made. He walked out of his house, and I almost mistook him as Anton Krupicka. Long amber hair, big beard, toenails black as the night sky. Clearly a legit looking ultra runner, as if the 100 Mile sticker-covered car in his driveway didn’t already tell that. Almost immediately, he was cracking jokes and stories from the trail, and I could barely see the road though the laughing tears in my eyes. It was going to be a good ride.
We arrived to the bridge sometime shortly after sunrise. The glassy water beneath us reflected a blue sky back up hundreds of feet to us. Once into the UP, I drove us about 15 minutes off course before we found highway 28 and headed straight west toward Wisconsin. Along the way we passes by the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore and Marquette, both postcard-perfect locations. Leaves were already changing the in the UP, some trees tinted with red, orange and yellow. An abandoned train sat along the roadside, birch trees growing though the rusted, open-faced cars.
Ben told a story about camping and roadtrips. Paraphrasing; “I had a buddy that I asked to go camping on a long roadtrip. He said “hecckkk nooo!! You sleep on the ground, you stink, you pee in the woods, it rains, the beer is warm, you walk everywhere, you get muddy, you run out of things to talk about, you end up getting mad at each other, and you have to wake up early when other people start making noise. No!”
All of these were true. After 15 hours in the car, we were silent, hungry and sick of eating granola bars, the stories weren’t funny anymore, tired, and getting moody and sick of the road. Finallllyy we made it to Minnesota. Then it was 2 more hours to Temperance River Campground, through a construction zone.
However, lets not forget that the majority of the ride was directly on the shore of Lake Superior. The scenery in the Great Lakes region are unlike any other I have been to. The Sawtooth mountain range is painted with yellow and white birch trees, pine, oak, and giant rocky cliffs that empty into the water below. There are virtually no signs of human populace along the way, with the exception of a few blink-and-miss-it towns.
After a seemingly infinite detour, we arrived to Temperance campground. Lake superior was a 30 second walk from our tent. The sound of a waterfall cracked through the air. We quickly set up the 10-person tent and emptied the car before unanimously deciding it was time to go for a run and enjoy the place it took us 17 hours of butt-sitting to arrive to.
Temperance falls was incredible. A waterfall crashed through a deeply cut crevice in the rocks. We stood over the top of it and looked down as mist rose up into our faces. We followed the river upward into some rapids, splashing through some light mud along the way. James turned back, and Ben and I continued onto Temperance road, a dirt road that parallels the river and turned back toward the campground.
The next morning it was pouring rain, but the sun was still in clear sky as it began to rise over Lake Superior. James and I walked out to the shore to see the explosion of color in the sky as thunder and lightning line the horizon and ripples filled the puddles around us. It was a unique sight, being on the edge of a storm system in some light rain, while thunderstorms were on the horizon on one side, and a beautiful sunrise on the other. This is what happens when you travel and spend time outdoors; you see things that are normally unseen.
We headed back to camp and packed up gear for the day. We were going to drive about two hours into Duluth to pick up Pete at the airport since he had no other way out there. On the way, we stopped at the Austin Jarrow’s Running Store to escape the weather and explore around. Jarrow, the owner, was working and talked to us about the race, and his past experiences with running it. He flashed his belt buckle (the typical 100M finisher medal, coveted by all those who ultra run) and said he would be volunteering tomorrow. After a bit more conversation, he mentioned that Scott Jurek worked at that store before he went pro. If that wasn’t cool enough, he had Jurek’s shoes from his first victory at Western States hanging on the wall with an autographed poster underneath. Being completely serious, I asked Jarrow if he would take them down so I could kiss them. I think he thought I was joking. No. I was totally serious. Jurek is to ultra what Manning is to football, only way better. Ben bought a rootbeer flavored GU, and was all kinds of excited to try out the new flavor, saving it as a mental boost during the race. We said out goodbyes to Jarrow, and left for a coffee shop to do some homework since we all were missing class.
After picking up pete, we drove back to the campground. I got my drop bags ready for the race, which had to be turned in at the expo that night. Once again, we all hopped in the car and rode out to Two Harbors for the race meeting. John Storkamp, the director, was speaking infront of everybody, talking logistics and details about the race. He dropped a few funny lines, but then it all got serious. “Look around you. Look to the sides of you and take note of the people over your shoulder. Statistics say that that person will not be crossing the finish line. Only 50-60% of you will make it. This is THE factual hardest 100 mile in America. That is not a hyperbole.”
That hit me pretty hard. Of the three of us that traveled up together, chances are, at least one of us would drop the race.
We departed the race expo and made the long trip home once again. We sat around the fire, eating, talking about the race, prepping our bags, and enjoying an IPA before hitting the pillow
“It is not about the destination, but the journey.”
Morning came at 3:59am. I was wide awake instantly, and wasted no time putting my gear into the car and getting around. I made sure to put on enough Body Glide, which, at this rate, should last/not wash off for about 300 more years.
James drove us up to Caribou Falls, the finish line, where the busses would drive us to the start. I got on and sat across from pete and ben. A volunteer got on the bus and very sincerely wished us good luck, and he said that he wants to see each of us at the finish. His final words were “remember that each and every one of you have a gift. You have been blessed with bodies that can do this. You have been blessed with bodies that endure.” I had a jolt of adrenaline pass though me there, and all the hairs on my neck stood up. He was right. We all had trained for months and months for this race to make sure that we would finish. I trusted my training; I trusted my body. I knew that it would all boil down to what was in my mind. Ben told me “a 100 is 80% mental, and the other 20% is mental.” It’s all about the mind.
We arrived to Gooseberry Falls, the starting line, at 7am. Larry, one of the runners of the MS Run was at the start to crew Gary, another MS Run runner. I stopped to say hi to him and catch up, and he graciously left me some Tailwind endurance fuel to use on my run. I didn’t have any of my own, but the flavorless, zero consistency powder packed calories and vitamins into my water and kept me going strong during the MS Run, so I thought it would be great to use here as well.
I stood in line to grab coffee, and then went to the start line for some pictures.
There is a meme on the internet I have seen that says “Not sure if I actually have to pee, or if it is race morning.” So true. I’ll just leave it at that.
At 7:55, I said my goodbyes to James, Larry, and sent out a final text to my family and friends. I lined up at the start with about 250 others. I started far back, which was the plan. I wanted to prevent myself from going out hard and burning out. It was my first hundred, and one of the hardest ones; I didn’t stand a chance at podium this time. Plus, a finish meant qualifying for Western States, Black Hills, and other big name races. I cinched the buckles on my Ultimate Direction SJ vest, checked the laces on my shoes, and cleared my watch.
Inhale. Close eyes. Exhale.
We all shuffled our way past the starting line, passing crowds of spectors. Immediately, we ran over Gooseberry falls. The Superior trail started about half a mile in. It was pretty wide at the start, and had a bit of mud that was pretty easy to jump over. People were chatting and laughing as we ran single file with zero passing room though tall grass and swampy area. The first hills came, and seemingly everybody turned to walking them, which was expected and part of my game plan.
We passed two rocks that stood like towers, right next to each other, about 15-20 feet tall. I figured this must be Split Rock, and that the first aid station was close. Around 9 miles in, we took a spur trail out to the aid station. A long gradual downhill stopped at the aid station. I grabbed PBJ, bananas, hydration, and salt tablets. Ben, Pete and I power walked up the hill, back to the main trail. A volunteer was enthusiastically cheering us all on and joking around with us about “almost being done.” Almost.
The next section took us through lots of pine trees and right along a river for a while. The trail was starting to get rocky in areas, which I was expecting. We crossed a suspension bridge over the water that only allowed one person on it at a time. It was a bit wobbly. Shortly after, we took swichbacks up a big hill. On top, we came around a corner, and Lake Superior took up the entire horizon hundreds of feet below us. The view was magnificent. We ran along a ledge that you definitely didn’t want to fall off from. The exposure up top was immense. There was nothing that separated my view from Lake Superior.
After descending on some switchbacks, I could hear cheering. Pete and I came out of the woods and were greeted by easily 100 spectators and crew at the Beaver Bay aid station. James found me, and I had him fill my bottles. I changed my socks, and again got PBJ and bananas and salt.
On the way to Silver Bay, the next aid station, we climbed up a very steep and rocky section, and topped out overlooking an inland lake. The rest of the segment was very runnable. The trail was flat rock in many areas, which was easy to run on. Pete and I stopped on top of a bluff for a picture, the background being Lake Superior. Silver Bay Aid Station came fast, only a 5 mile section. Pete and I started running again. I told him that If we get separated, good luck, and I hope to see him at Caribou. Not long after, there was a break in the trail, and I used the opportunity to pass a few people. The running section was less technical, and I picked up pace for the first time in the whole race. I looked back, and Pete was gone.
A marathon in, it was starting to heat up. I was holding a decent pace, and taking in lots of water/tailwind. The section was quite exposed to the sun, and the shade was kind of patchy. I wound up running with the Twin Cities Trail Club- 4 guys who all were running their first 100, all wearing the same outfit. I stayed with them for the whole section. I ran out of water about an hour into the 9 mile section, and had 45 more minutes of running with no water.
At Tettegouche aid station, I slammed Heed and water to rehydrate myself, and filled my Ultimate Direction bottles to the rim. There were vegan pizzas there, and they were delicious. I had some ginger ale, and James bought me some V8. I ate a bunch of fruit cocktail and bananas as well. I began the next section with TCTC again, but quickly left them behind to maintain my own pace and knock out as man comfortable miles as I could before nightfall. I ran on my own for a while before meeting up with a couple of guys on the trail. I introduced myself, and they were like “Brandon Yonke, the 21 year old? No way!” It was Steve and Rob, a couple of Omaha GOATZ I had ran with a couple of months prior. I hung with them for about 20 minutes and caught up on life with them before taking off. I ran into another guy, walking slowly and looking at his feet. “hey brother hows it going?” “not good.” I offered him some salt tabs, and, although I knew I would need it, water. “no thanks. I just need to tough this out.” “good luck man, you’ve got it. Push through.”
I felt bad for him. Not quite to 50 miles, and having a bad time. With about 5 miles to go before the next aid station, I ran with another guy who was lots of fun to talk to. We had a section that was rock scrambling, and a very technical descent. He had ran the section before, and said it was the most scenic one. Sure enough, we popped up top of a hill and were on a cliff over Bear Lake. The lake had cliffs almost all the way around it, and another side that was just a boulderfield leading into the water. There was no easy way down to the water that I could see, because I knew I was running low and would need to fill my bottles with something. Again, I ran out of water, but this time for only about 20 minutes. County Road 6 aid station was busy with people, and I sat down and changed my socks again while pounding down more fruit cocktail and v8. I took some grilled cheese from this one as well, which was a delicious change of tastebuds. More Heed, more water, more water, more water. I was stuffed full of it.
“I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”
Not far after CR6 I wound up running with one of the female leaders. We talked about Kettle Moraine and other 100’s, traveling, various races, and our experience so far at this one. At 7:50pm, we dug our headlamps out of our bags and lit up the forest. It got dark fast. The clouds had started to come in. It was great to run with her not only for the conversation, but she had a great consistent pace and good footing on the technical stuff, and the extra headlamp light made things easier. At Finland, we passed through a tunnel of Christmas lights and spurred off the trail.
A big aid station awaited. I grabbed some soup, which was delicious, and changed out my shirt. I applied more Body Glide, changed socks, and put my Oakley windbreaker in my pack. James was there and hooked me up with some more PBJ and bananas. I downed an energy shot for the caffeine. The energy at Finland was absolutely electric. People were cheering so loudly, the volunteers were eager to help get me moving back onto the trail, filling up bottles, grabbing food and salt pills, you name it. The energy spilled over to me, and I cheered with them, hollering the whole way out of the aid station. I put my Ultimate Direction vest back on, and made my way back to the trail.
I ran a fast pace for a couple of miles with all the adrenaline flowing through me, maybe around a 9-9:30 pace. The runnability of the trail helped keep me going. I was trying to catch back up with the lady I was with, but considered her too far ahead since she had left a few minutes prior to me.
I could see my breath, and decided it was a good time to throw on my Oakley jacket that I had packed.
Up ahead, I caught a quick glance of a couple of headlamps, and they disappeared again. I picked m pace up again, and in a few minutes, I had them in clear view. It was a guy and his pacer. He had never run the race there before, but I could tell he was a smart runner so I stayed with him and his crew.
“The woods are lonely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go
before I sleep.”
The night section brought man adversities. The most notable and repetitive was mud. The previous day had left some sections of trail full of mud. Some of it was “wet” mud, other spots were thick and slippery mud. The trails were kind of stop-and-go because of it, as we were cautious to not get our feet wet. A couple of times I slipped off braches or “stepping stones” and got the sides of my feet wet in the mud. Another time, I slipped and caught myself with my hands, wiping it off on my shins.
The other hard part was not being able to see the tops of the climbs. Some hills just seemed to last forever. Generally, we walked hills to conserve energy, but it was mentally tough to walk so much. I started to question if I would make cut-off times, if I would make it out, if we might have missed a turn, etc. I was told this mentality would happen, and that you have to ignore it. The night and exhaustion makes you play tricks on yourself, and this was surely one of them. We were near the front of the race and still had almost 20 hours until cut-off. We were fine.
There was a climb that was large rocks, and a technical scramble for about 50 feet. I can remember looking up at the rocks and roots, and bracing myself with my hands against opposing rocks and just dreading the climb that I had to make. For the first time, the thought of just quitting crossed my mind. I realized that I had no choice but to push forward, and got angry with myself and blasted my way to the top.
The night continued. We made more technical descents over rocks and gnarly roots, slipping through mud and loose dirt. I would yell in frustration from time to time, just wanting fair ground for my feet to step on. I lost footing and bombed into mud, spraying my legs and getting my shoes wet. Many curse words followed. I just wanted daylight.
We kept pressing forward, and I was again out of water. I knew that this section was 9.7 miles. It had to be close.
Another half hour later, and we arrived to our destination. My memory is blurred at this point, but I believe we arrived at Sugarloaf. I was never happier to see people. I sat down by the fire they had as I ate my food and inhaled soup and coffee. I realized James was not there; he had gotten lost on the way. I wanted new socks so badly. I was mentally drained, and the volunteers were asking if I was okay. I was slurring words a bit, and they made me sit back down to finish my food. A lady offered me the socks off her feet since mine were soaked. They were too small. I decided “F it” and got back on the trail with the same guys.
5 o clock came, and the sky had a hint of orange on the horizon. Around 6 I shut off my headlamp. It was an amazing feeling to have made it into the sunlight again. I shook the hand of the guy I had shared the darkness with, and wished him the best before picking up my pace now that the trail was more visible.
“The mountains know the secrets we need to learn.
It might take time
It might be hard
But if you just hold on long enough
you find the strength to rise up.”
-Tyler Knott Gregson
I was heading toward Temperance River. The segment is the hardest one, with an estimated 1,500 foot climb, then the same descent. It didn’t feel like it. The first 4 miles was easy going, flat ground. My feet were starting to really bother me, and I could feel the blisters sloshing from the bottoms of my feet and up into my toes. None the less, I pressed onward at a decent pace, and enjoying the scenery as usual. Then I saw it. It just never stopped. Up. Up. Up. Switchback. More up. I pressed my palms onto my legs as I climbed up. Big steps over rocks, washouts, and roots made for a slow ascent. I would grab the occasional tree for support on my way up.
For the first time, the view at the top wasn’t worth the climb. Beautiful, yes, but I was a wreck, and in my mind I no longer wanted to be here. I just wanted to be at the finish. I yelled at myself for getting discouraged, and kept the forward motion going. The descent was gradual at first, but then it turned steep and with lots of roots and drop-aways. My knees hurt. My legs were getting unresponsive. My feet were swollen and painful. I stopped and sat on a downed tree. I gazed out over the lake, and then down the trail beside me, the path rugged, loose, and treacherous. A couple of guys ran by and asked how I was. I just shook my head. “Hang in there man. You can do it.” Then I started thinking to myself. “You’ve came this far. Why would you quit now. Quit. Its still 15 miles. Don’t quit. 15 miles is nothing. You crossed 85! What if you get injured? I won’t get injured. I live for this. But only 50% finish. You aren’t one of them. I trained my ass off for this. This race is mine…” It was the most in-depth mental battle I may have ever been in. I let out a yell and got up, trudging down the mountainside. It wound and wound in seemingly infinite switchbacks. My knees were screaming. I was babbling sobs and tears of frustration and pain.
At the bottom, I came out of the woods right into the aid station. I managed to limp in, and was in full mental-breakdown mode. I was crying, hyperventilating, couldn’t speak right, and had little balance. The volunteers wasted no time at assisting me. They pulled me up a chair. James came running to my side. Everybody asked what was going on. I explained that my knees were locked and in pain and about the blisters. They gave me 1,000mg of ibuprofen, which is like running rule #1 of things you DON’T do while running. I didn’t care. Meds, caffeine, fresh socks, some motivation, lots of food, great volunteers all helped. James said he would finish the race with me. I was shocked. He grabbed food and stuffed his pockets. I remembered that I had a skull-face bandana packed away that I would use as a fun mental boost if I needed. I put it on and it reminded me that I am more hardcore than anything the course could put in my way. I broke out my phone for the first time, and cranked up my running playlist, which ranges from metal to dubstep to hip hop.
I cruised. Up the hills, over the bridge, full speed ahead. I don’t know what it was- obviously an extrinsic source of motivation had helped me get out of the place my mind had put me. I felt rejuvenated and energized (that was the caffeine).
Next stop was Oberg Mountain. Oberg was basically a rock face, a scramble up a small “boulderfield”, and a summit on a cliff that overlooks Superior. Another beautiful scene.
Then, up Moose Mountain. The trail here was all boulders, all the way up, for about a quarter mile. It was one of, if not the most technical place on the course. I crazy part of me actually had fun here.
The aid station had Lasagna, and I ate a bunch of that. James and I took off for the last 5 miles of the course. I sped off into the woods.
The worst pain I have ever felt while running literally dropped me to the ground. The blister on my left foot had ruptured. I screamed, and painfully removed my shoe to assess the damage. It had burst all right, but no blood. There was another larger blister on the center of my foot that hurt to walk on in my shoes. I decided to try walking barefoot since my foot was so shriveled, attempting to let some air dry it out. After about 5 miles of this, I lost balance and drug my foot over a stick, ripping open the other blister. Again, I screamed in pain. However, the pain seemed to be gone somehow. I put my shoe back on. It was painful just to do this, with the pressure of the shoe back on my foot. However, the drained blisters no longer sloshed around, and running was a bit more comfortable. I picked up the pace for about 3 more miles before the blister on the other foot, full of water, broke my skin further to expand. Again, I dropped to the ground screaming. James helped me take off the shoe. I was to the point of anger with these blisters now, cursing them, and telling myself they would not get the best of me. Without thinking twice, I took a pin off my bib and stuck it into the blister in multiple spots, letting all the water drain from it. It was like a waterfall coming from my foot. I put my shoes back on, and we were off.
I ran by a couple of day hikers, and asked them frantically how for it was until the road. The road marked one mile left on the course. They looked at me like I had three heads and the guy said “uhhh… I don’t know like 6 city blocks maybe?” I looked at James and said “we are in the middle of the freaking woods- who uses city blocks?” We laughed at the response, while at the same time, I bombed down a hill. After rounding the corner at the bottom, I could see a ray of sun brightly shining through the woods- it wasn’t THE sun, but a reflection. A windshield. I let out an earth shattering “YESS!!!” and pointed it out to James. It was a car parked on the side of the road.
After 102 miles, I had crossed the Sawtooth Mountain range. I stepped out of the woods feeling like I had just won a war. Invincible. As if I could do anything. I looked back, not believing where I had just come from. Lake superior was downhill to our right. I had paralleled that shoreline for 29 hours. I was here.
I could see the ski lodge where the finish was from there. Tears came down my face; I was so happy to see the end. Words can’t describe the feeling of achieving what I had worked so hard for, as one of the few to emerge from the woods. I gave James a hug and told him thank you. I made the final turn of the course onto the lawn of the ski lodge. I followed the building around back, made a lap around the pool, and could see the flag that said “finish” and the finish chute. I teared up again when I saw John, the race director, standing there with a medal. 29 hours and 24 minutes after the start, I crossed that finish line. I shook johns hand, and thanked james again. I stood there in disbelief, exhausted, wondering if all of this was real. John asked “was it tough?” I thought for a second, the race flashing before my eyes. I laughed and said “F yeah!” we both laughed and he put the medal around my neck, saying “I’m glad you made it. Congrats.” I thanked him again.
I sat right down and took off my shoes, and told James jokingly that I would never put them on again.
James gave me a piggy back to the hose, and I washed the 29 hours of mud off my legs as I sat in the grass. I couldn’t walk because my feet were so swollen and blistered with trench foot as well. James took me back to a bench and got me a huge bowl of chilli, which I demolished and had 4 more of. I stopped by the finishers tent to pick up my lifetime finisher hoodie, which comes with your name on it and a star for each time you finish the race, like a varsity jacket kind of.
I put the hoodie on, and fell asleep on the grass for about an hour. James and I cracked open a Sawtooth Nitro Ale, which are Colorado brewed- the name just sounded like a perfect match- and enjoyed the sweet taste of victory.
I went back to John and asked if he knew where Ben and Pete were. Both were past mile 90. I was soooo pumped. All three of us were on track to finish the race. Pete came in around 35 hours, and Ben shortly after. So much for that 50% drop rate. We proved that wrong, and made it out alive.
The 100 mile distance is one that is unlike any other. In the case of Sawtooth, being a point to point, there is only one way to the finish line. There are no loops to circle multiple times. You never see the finish until the end, and that it the ultimate reward. The finish becomes, metaphorically, the source of life. You feel a burning desire to get there, and nothing else matters. The ultra distance is a curious thing. You run for 100 miles for a belt buckle. A belt buckle. But it isnt a material good. It is a symbol. A symbol that represents the highest level of mental toughness. Perseverance through pain, darkness, uncertainty, and miles and miles of dirt. A symbol that was earned through camaraderie and friendships, many that will last for a long time, and are renewed at future races. With each step, you learn about yourself. There is no way to finish without looking deep into yourself and asking “how badly do I want this, and how willing am I to fight for what I want?”
Leadville 100 founder Ken Chlouber said “the toughest distance to cover on the course is five inches. The five inches between your ears. If you can’t do that… If you can’t do that, you’re dead meat.”
There really is very little physical aspect of a 100. You need to be able to control that five inches not once, but thousands of times over, until all those five inches add to 100 miles.
Was it tough? Yes. Did it hurt? Yes. Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
-see you on the trails.