Listening to Bob Dylan is a treasured ritual that marks every trip I’ve made up the iconic drive on Highway 61 to the North Shore of Minnesota, bound for the 12.5k, 25k and 50k Spring Superior Trail Races. Put on by John and Cheri Storkamp of Rocksteady Running, plus a veritable army of volunteers, these races show off the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and its unsung attributes: deep and unrelenting mud, ancient roots, rocks and climbs. The twisting, primeval trails create a pine-scented celebration of North Shore vert. 

With white skies, a stiff wind and a faint mist, runners lined up at the start. Preparing to wave the group off, John exhorted the crowd to cheer loudly. “I don’t want to hear a golf clap,” he teased. “And when you finish, remember to give our new wolf statue a big kiss. Hardrock has a rock, Western States has a track and now, Superior has a wolf!” Armed with this advice, the long colorful train disappeared into the woods.

My friend Erin and I soon made our way up to the top of Carlton Peak to watch the 50k turnaround. As a 3-time finisher of the race and multi-year volunteer, I realized that I recognized parts of the trail immediately – in that intimate way you only know the places where you’ve left both your blood and your desire.

We were not yet to the base of the peak when the exuberant Coree Woltering came flying down the steep trail – fast, light and effortless – with a smile of joyful concentration. He would not surrender this lead the entire way, and then stayed to cheer on other runners long after he had finished.

Carlton Peak is splendid, but on this day it had been transformed. We heard the Tom Petty guitar riffs before we reached the summit. John Horns, a Superior 100-mile winner and veteran of Hardrock, Western States and countless other ultras, stood resplendent in a blonde mullet wig and vintage Superior race jacket, proffering Twinkies, Fireball, cheese balls and beer. He warned of imminent bad luck if the runners failed to make a complete circle around the jar of cheese balls, which they all did dutifully.

The top groups of runners were coming more quickly now, energized to have reached the halfway point. Jay DeCoux, sporting a red plaid kilt, black bike shop tee and intricate sleeve tattoos, cheerfully accepted a shot of Fireball and a Twinkie. “When in Rome,” he smiled, before continuing his fast pace. Gretchen Metsa, fierce and funny, with a dominant lead that remained until the finish line (she was first woman and 10th overall), joked with the volunteers as she sped around the cheese ball jar.

As we made our way down, diamond points of sleet stung our faces and began to wet the trail. “Cue the mud,” I thought, remembering past Superior races with such epic, Biblical levels of mud that the only reasonable response was laughter. The runners streamed in from both sides now, determined, weary, stoic, but looking grateful – even on this wet, hard climb.

Perennial racer and volunteer, Jason Tintes, had twisted his ankle and been rescued by another runner in last fall’s Superior 100. This time he carried his friend, Madeline, along the trail to safety when the same fate befell her in the early miles. No one runs Superior alone, and a victory for one is a celebration of a collective relentlessness.

At the brightly colored finish area, the 25k and 12.5k victors (Nathan Swenson, Anna Lahti, Marco Salmen and Rena Viehbeck) had charged up the final bend in the road, offering a master class on the pure beauty of efficient, hard running.

The afternoon turned gold at the edges, and the finishers fell into the embrace of family, the euphoria of completion and the pride of the chunky wooden medal around their necks. They leaned back against the fence in quiet relief and silent, exhausted gratitude, removing their muddy shoes and replaying the amazing adventure that had just happened.

It’s been a hard few years for Minnesota trail running. Races were canceled due to blizzards, trails were washed away in floods and beloved community members had left the world far too soon. But here, on this cool spring day, with the wind whipping the determined green leaves and the sounds of cowbell, birdsong and cheering floating through the air, everything seemed new, blessed and infinitely possible.