I had the privilege of coaching, crewing, and pacing (or at least attempting to pace) Tom Carr to his Superior win in 2021! He currently has the fastest Superior 100 miler time of any Minnesotan! Since he executed his training and race so well, I wanted to have him share his experience with all of you in the hopes that you can learn from his amazing race. Enjoy!
What aspect of your training do you feel helped your race performance the most?
Hill repeats! Hill repeats are my favorite way to score big mental victories during training. Terrain-specific runs and workouts were a major focus, which was challenging (I prefer to run from my doorstep) but paid huge dividends.
What was your fueling strategy during the race?
This was my first 100 mile race relying predominantly on gels and sports drink. I previously relied on water in my hydration pack instead of a sports drink, which led to chronic under-fueling. I stuck to a consistent fueling schedule at Superior, eating at least 100 calories (typically a gel) every 30 minutes and drinking sports drink every few minutes. Eating in 30 minute intervals kept me honest and mentally helped chop up the race into smaller segments.
What helped you win such a difficult 100-mile race after having multiple DNFs in the past?
I started my ultra career right after my last collegiate track meet and immediately found success at the 50km and 50 mile distances. Then I moved up to 100 mile races and experienced unmitigated failure. I DNF-ed at mile 80 of my first attempt at 100 miles. Then I DNF-ed my second attempt at mile 67. Then I DNF-ed my third attempt around mile 65. Then I had appendicitis two weeks before my fourth attempt and had to get an appendectomy, leading to my first DNS. The trend was not my friend. I typically race just once per year, so I had gone about five years without even finishing a race, an unbelievably long time to go when you identify as a runner. I then paced a friend for the final 38 miles of his 100 mile race, from before sunset to after sunrise, and managing through the entire night with him changed my perspective on racing 100 milers. You don't need to be a hero in the first half!
At Superior, I had Brian's (Dr. Jamie's partner's) voice in the back of my head reminding me, "the race doesn't begin until mile 50!" It was the confidence I needed to stay cool, calm, and collected while getting my ass kicked in the first half of the race. I started the race at the literal back of the pack, due to a last minute pre-race bathroom break, and slowly worked my way up to the front.
What makes Superior 100 so uniquely difficult compared to other 100-mile races and what helped you prepare for the difficult aspects of the race?
I hadn't raced for two years when I ran Superior, and my last race was a 24 hour, flat-as-a-pancake road race. While road races have their own challenges, trail ultras deliver far more uncertainty. For example, in 2021, forest fires threatened the race even being held. The temperatures are also very unpredictable up north that time of year. The biggest challenge for me was the heat, especially during the exposed sections early in the race. The trails are certainly difficult but terrain-specific training helped me be prepared for those obstacles.
What was your mindset going into the race?
I was determined to win from the moment I signed up for the race. I am a proponent of setting big, hairy, audacious goals, and going for the win at Superior filled me with excitement. The rational part of my brain knows it isn't "SMART" to set a goal that is partially out of your control (good thing Jornet and Walmsley didn't sign up!), but I also recognized that the additional motivation from that goal would help me in training.
What helped you focus on smart pacing throughout the race and not getting caught up in the other front runners going out faster than you?
I knew that the leaders went out at an unsustainable pace and just kept reminding myself that all I needed to do was maintain my pace in order to have a shot at winning. Patience is very important in ultramarathons, because you're fit enough to run a much faster pace and therefore can't pace entirely off of "feel" like you can in shorter distance races. I stuck to the math and knew that I would be gobbling up runners later in the day as long as I could continue to maintain my pace.
What were some unexpected challenges that came up during the race and how did you work through them?
The biggest unexpected challenge I faced was my primary flashlight running out of battery far earlier than expected. I luckily had the foresight to carry a small maglite flashlight in my pack as backup, which was a lifesaver. You are reading this right everyone. Tom used a small flashlight, not a headlamp or other "running" light during his race.
Heat, while not unexpected, is a big challenge for me. I went in with a strategy to use sports drink and salt pills appropriately from the get-go, which helped stave off most of the side effects of the temperature, in addition to smart pacing. Chopping the race up into smaller chunks is often a useful mental strategy. One thing I looked forward to throughout the race was getting doused with cold water at each aid station while my crew refilled my hydration pack (with ice!). Splashing my face with ice cold water was the perfect way to mentally reset at each aid station and give myself a big ZAP! of energy as I took off back into the woods.
Nausea is a perennial problem for me in ultras. I had to rely on my rational brain to keep me fueling even when I didn't want to, because my emotional brain was not excited about gel pack number 28 washed down with my tenth liter of sports drink. Staying ahead on calories is necessary for staying rational, and a rational brain is your best tool for solving problems as they undoubtedly arise.
What was your favorite section of the race?
Everything changed at Crosby-Manitou. It was just getting dark, so it felt like a new chapter. My crew alerted me to the fact that the leader was there with me at the aid station, sitting down. It was at that moment when I knew my strategy was successful. I was doused with water, slammed a Red Bull, picked up my first pacer, and was out of the aid station in less than a minute. I later learned that I was in and out of that aid station faster than any other 100 mile runner that day.
The final miles were also hard to beat. Seeing the lights of Lutsen through the trees was such a relief, as I was starting to experience sharp abdominal pain. My pacer and I were in the highest of spirits as we came into the finish line together.