Forty-seven people milled around in the predawn drizzle outside Mary MacDonald Elementary School in Silver Bay on Minnesota’s North Shore. It was Sept. 14, 1991. At 5 a.m. sharp, the inaugural Superior Trail 100 Mile race was underway, runners following the new Superior Hiking Trail through the rugged Sawtooth Mountains to Cook County High School in Grand Marais. They faced 10 hours of heavy rain, fog, mud, hand-over-hand ascents, one night, and 100 difficult miles.

“We were a little worried; we didn’t know how many would make it back,” said then-race director Harry Sloan. Twenty-seven people finished, including first-place for Bob Stavig, then 42, of Bloomington, who finished in 23 hours, 8 minutes and 57 seconds. Stavig did not have a support crew — a staple of the current race. He ran most of the race alone.

“It rained so much, those little footbridges were really slick. I fell a lot,” said Stavig, who now is 67. “Then in the middle of the night — around 80 miles — my flashlight batteries died. It was pitch black and sort of spooky because I could hear a waterfall, and sometimes I could feel the spray, but I couldn’t see how close I was. I came on one of those glow sticks that marked the course. It was useless if you held it up, but if you held it close to the ground you could see where you were going. I only had to go about a mile crouched down like that before I got to a checkpoint.”

At the time, ultrarunning (anything over the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance) was a fringe activity undertaken by a close-knit group of experienced outdoorspeople. In 1991, Superior was one of only 10 trail runs of 100 miles in the country.

Ultrarunning, and specifically 100-milers, have soared in popularity since then — the website lists 145 races in the United States — but Superior has retained its status as one of the toughest, wildest courses out there. This year’s race begins Sept. 9. Cutoff times being an indication of difficulty, 30 hours is about average for a trail 100-miler — Superior’s is 38 hours.

The event’s website, describing the 100-mile, 50-mile and marathon distances now offered, does not sugarcoat: “ ... rugged, rooty, rocky, 95 percent single-track trail with near constant climbs and descents …. The Superior Fall Trail Races are very difficult/challenging races and are probably not a good choice for your first trail or ultra race.”

Bringing it home

It’s no surprise that the race’s founder, Sloan, was an accomplished ultrarunner and part of a strong northern Minnesota ultrarunning community. The Voyageur 50-mile and Edmund Fitzgerald 100K (62 mile) road ultra race were familiar stamping grounds for Sloan and his running friends when they decided the newly created Superior Hiking Trail would be a great venue for a race. Inspired by his experiences at the Western States Endurance in California, which claims to be the oldest 100-miler, Sloan decided to recreate some of his favorite aspects of that race back home. Some nods to Western States were finishing on a high school track, a silver belt buckle to those who finished under 24 hours, and an assisted water crossing along the way — about 75 miles into the Superior 100, a volunteer ferries runners across a beaver pond in a canoe. The lefse served at aid stations, though, was pure Minnesota.

While the trail existed, the logistics of organizing a point-to-point 100-mile race through remote territory proved daunting. Sloan took a week of vacation from his job with the St. Louis County sheriff’s department to mark the course with 1,200 glow sticks he’d bought at a dollar apiece. He and others on foot marked 89 miles of the course, and then had to re-mark large sections when hikers removed the glow sticks. Tami Tanski-Sherman, who later became co-director with Sloan, recruited volunteers for the 18 aid stations.

“It’s really difficult, technical trail. You can never relax,” said Sloan. “There are tons of rocks and greasy tree roots — step on them the wrong way and your feet fly out from under you. And it’s hardly ever flat. By comparison, Western States, which is a big mountain run, has 19,800 feet of vertical gain and loss; Superior has 21,000 feet. People used to mountain trails had a hard time on the short, steep hills here — they’re just unending. There are a couple sections by Carlton Peak and Silver Bay that are really treacherous. You have to go hand-over-hand. Of course, our biggest fear was moose on the trail.”

One of three women finishers in 1991, Californian Suzi Thibeault assumed that because the course was not at altitude and ran next to Lake Superior, it would be relatively flat and easy, a gambol through the woods. Afterward, she wrote: “If this is the Superior Trail, the inferior trail is located in Hades.”

Worthy of writing

Mankato resident Kevin Langton, who has finished Superior three times in recent years, wrote a book about the race, “Superior: 100 Mile Endurance Run, One of America’s Oldest, Toughest, and Gnarliest Ultramarathons.” Though he has run other storied ultras, Superior’s challenges are like no other, he said: “Beaver Bay to Tettegouche, that section has a lot of climbing on exposed rocks. Basically, from 20 miles on it sucks. But I love that suck.”

As punishing as Superior’s miles are, runners ever since 1991 have uniformly praised organizers for a well-marked and -staffed and -supplied event. That may be why there’s never been a serious injury — cuts, bruises, a broken rib. Oh, and a broken leg in 1996.

That year, a Vietnam veteran snapped off his carbon fiber leg in a rugged section near County Road 6 near Little Marais. Passing runners alerted his crew, which was, as Sloan put it, “driving around with a van full of legs.” A crewmate grabbed a prosthetic leg and headed back up the trail to deliver it. Some while later the crew member came back with the leg, puffing and red-faced. He’d picked up a leg with a swimming foot by mistake. Apprised of the situation, race director Sloan pulled up in a truck with a young guy, known to be a fast skier, who’d volunteered to take the correct leg to the stranded runner. So, they fished out the running leg, stuck it in a backpack, and young Scott Jurek took off at a brisk pace. Today, Jurek is a star in the ultra world. In addition, he recently made headlines when he set the record for a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail — 2,189 miles in 46 days.

After Sloan stepped down as race director in 1997, the expense and logistics of the event threatened to sink it until Larry Pederson took it over in 2006. The course changed to run from Gooseberry Falls to Lutsen Mountain. That year Sean Andrish, who is from the state of  Virginia, set the record, covering the 100 miles in 21 hours, 42 minutes, 11 seconds on what was regarded as a more difficult course. Andrish’s father, a surgeon who was acting as his son’s crew, removed 70 staples from his son’s head in their hotel room the night before the race. Andrish, who is epileptic, had undergone brain surgery two weeks before.

Andrish, 46, estimated he has run 125 ultras, including such infamous brutes as Hardrock and Wasatch, but said Superior was, in terms of footing, more difficult than those. “Roots. Miles and miles of roots,” Andrish said by phone. “That’s what I love — really technical trail. Plus, the atmosphere was so great at Superior — laid back, old school, a real sense of community, a really enjoyable event.”

Interestingly, although Sloan, Superior’s founder, had covered every inch of the course while marking it, he had never actually run the race. Until 2015.

“It about killed me,” said Sloan, 68, with a laugh. He finished about a minute ahead of the 38-hour cutoff.

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.