Zumbro 100- April 8-9 2016
A year ago I conquered the beast called Zumbro. Six loops on a challenging course; did it once, can do it again, right? Last year the weather was quite friendly, and the trails were in decent shape throughout the entirety of the race. This year was looking to be similar, with the exception of below average temperatures mixed with some fair to moderate winds. As it was, the weather again proved to pose a challenge. I can only assume that many of the runners who dropped out had succumbed to the overnight chill. Race director John Storkamp wasn’t kidding when he suggested to 100 mile runners before the race that many of us might want to be wearing our winter parkas come nighttime. I wonder what he must have been thinking when he saw the guy toe the line for the midnight 50 wearing floppy shorts and a tank top.
I was wearing a shirt, two jackets, a vest, and a wool poncho during my fifth loop, and I was still struggling to stay warm. When I saw the guy in the shorts and no sleeves come hauling into an aid station, I remember making some kind of facetious comment that I should give him my poncho. He was there and gone within a matter of seconds. The water in my bottle was turning to ice as soon as it was filled. A couple times hot water was mixed in to keep it from freezing. One of those times, the water had evidently been heated in a pot formerly used for coffee. Stale coffee flavored water; I wouldn’t suggest it. Luckily, by that point, I was well hydrated and wasn’t moving fast enough to require more than a few sips of the tainted liquid. At the next aid station, a volunteer rinsed and refilled my bottle.
The race had been a bit of a grind to that point. The trail conditions were amazing. I didn’t think it possible for the trails here ever to be so dry. There was no mud to be had until my final loop, when the ground finally thawed. It certainly helped make for a quick first couple of loops. When I completed the first of six 16.7 mile loops in 3:15, I wasn’t sure what to think. That was much faster than I had expected. I was pushing myself, but not to the extreme. While on the first loop, I wasn’t feeling great, the second loop I felt even less good. I felt I was slowing, and walking through more sections than the first go around. I was expecting the second loop to be in the 4 to 4 1/2 hour range, but when I reached the Start/Finish, I saw that I had run only minutes slower than the first time. “Well alright,” I thought, “Maybe I can run a fast time here. Maybe I can cut 8 or 9 hours off of last year’s finish.” As ridiculous as that might sound out loud, I didn’t really think it was too far-fetched, given what I’d accomplished in the past year, coupled with the current trail conditions.
I got a little more food in me and took off on the third lap. Just before I entered the woods, I realized I was leaving without any lights. Initially, I figured I’d be needing a light for the last part of lap 3. I stopped and turned around. But before starting back, I realized it was only just past 3 pm, and I should be plenty safe to return before dark. So I turned back around, and headed out. The first two loops had felt rather tedious, certainly enjoyable, but like I was just putting in the time to get where I wanted to be. On the third loop, I started feeling good. I was settling in, finding the easy stride that I could maintain for the night to come. I finished loop 3 in about 4 hours, putting me at 11 hours total. I refueled, added lights, a dry shirt, and at my crew’s request, added a vest over top of my jacket. And am I ever glad I did.
Over the length of the 16.7 mile race course, weather and temperatures can fluctuate substantially. Throughout much of the race, I was continually zipping and unzipping jackets. I could feel sharp dips in air temperature as I passed through different sections of the course. Other times I felt myself heating up, apart from any change in effort. With the hilly terrain and valleys, it seems that air gets stuck in various pockets throughout the forest. Add to that the wind and effects from the nearby river, and I soon realized that there is no such thing as being perfectly dressed out here. The key is the ability to adjust your covering on the go. Adding/shedding, zipping/unzipping. This strategy is particularly important in times of cold, when excess moisture in your clothing can be both a bother and a danger. The shell vest turned out to be just enough to get me through number 4 with most of my warmth intact.
At Zumbro, as is common with many 100 mile races, runners are allowed to have a pacer after the 50 mile mark. My wonderful girlfriend Kari, had volunteered to accompany me for the final two loops, so I had just one more to go alone. As I started off on loop 4, I felt good. I had my lights, which I’d need in an hour or two, and I was ready to get down to business. After just starting out, I could hear a couple of girls following me, maybe 50 yards behind. There had been a dog wandering the Zumbro festivities, a friendly looking lab with a beautiful white coat. Now he was alongside me on the trail. Instantly a smile came over my face and I felt a jolt of energy, as I now had a most unexpected partner to share trail with. After the race, I learned through facebook that the dog was Cool Hand Luke, a local farm dog. Luke owned the trail, sidling around in spots to sniff or piss, sometimes breaking off the trail or heading backwards, then returning to clip at my heels or trot by my side. And every time he did, I would say, “Good boy”, in my gruffest voice. Not less than twice did he break off trail in chase of a squirrel or a bird, once flushing a large grouse or pheasant from its hiding spot, creating quite a commotion in the otherwise peaceful forest. I could still hear the two girls chatting not far behind us. I realize now it was the lead female and her pacer. I was moving the best speed I could, but could feel that they would eventually overtake me. I was determined not to let them steal my pacer, so we pushed on. I estimate that Luke was with me for at least a mile, maybe two, when as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone. He diverted backwards on the trail, as he’d done many times already. I never looked back to see which way he went. I was expecting he would come running back up on my heels, but he was gone. Probably doubling back to join some other runner for a mile or two. The girls’ voices grew louder. They soon passed me by. I jokingly commented that my pacer must have taken a wrong turn. After exchanging pleasantries, they quickly moved beyond me, and I was left to the quiet sounds of the woods.
The daylight was fading fast. I flipped on my lights and immersed myself in that special zone that is only present just after dark. For the next 10 miles my mind was occupied with an internal debate and discussion about the race within the race. Heading into the weekend, I wanted foremost to finish, and all in all, to run as strong as I could while avoiding any injury that might hinder the rest of the season. The Gnarly Bandit doesn’t care if you finish in 24 hours or 34 hours. Last year my time here was 32:37. I’d be satisfied to improve on that. I never expected that at the midpoint of the race I might be considering a 100 mile pr, or even a sub-24 hour finish. But those were exactly the thoughts that had now dug their feet into my mind. Eventually I settled my timeline. If I made it back by at least 11:10, I’d start my 5th loop by 11:30, allowing 8 1/2 hours for the final two loops to make 24 hours. It seemed doable, but I became almost disgusted thinking about it. I didn’t want to push myself that hard. As the course of loop 4 continued, I was gradually able to dismiss the intention of going that fast.
I was wearing down, and so was the temperature. When I made it back to the car, somewhere in the neighborhood of 11:30, I had decided that I definitely would not go back out until after the 50 mile start. I felt relieved. I had been pondering the fact that the Zumbro 100 doesn’t really begin until the 5th lap. Loops 1 through 4 are mostly just about putting the time in, and not wrecking yourself. If you make it to laps 5 and 6, then you get to see what you’re really made of.
The weather forecast for the night: the wind will diminish, but it’s going to get really freaking cold. So I got warmed up, put on some layers, got fresh lights, and picked up my amazing girlfriend for the start of our near 34 mile trail date. By the time we started the 5th loop, I had lost all desire to speed. Truthfully, part of me wanted this adventure to be done as soon as possible, the other part of me was happy to spend as much time on the trail as I could. One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to inflict any more pounding on my body than was necessary. I was feeling tired and empty. I had maintained my food intake throughout the day. Now my body was slowing, as was my appetite. Soon I would require caffeine. I first took a few sips of coffee before starting loop 5, then began grabbing a cup or two of coke at every opportunity. Since my first “crash and burn” attempt at Zumbro in 2013, it’s been my policy for 100 mile races to abstain from caffeine 4-7 days prior to the race, and not start consuming it until absolutely needed and not before the 100k mark. I feel this allows for a much needed boost at what can be a crucial point. The coke enlivened me. When just a minute before I was slipping and sinking, I now felt recharged. I would continue this regimen through to the finish.
Lap 5 was long. 7 hours long. The cold and dark of night surely slowed things, as did my level of exhaustion. At times I was becoming slightly delirious. I always kick a few rocks when I run. Well, this one rock I kicked with my toe, and it turned out to be the funniest thing that’s happened to me in months. Right after I kicked this rock, I let a sound go from my mouth, and then I started laughing, uncontrollably. I laughed for 5 minutes, maybe 10. I couldn’t get past the hilarity of the way my shoe had collided with that stone. I explained this to Kari, in broken sentences with only a word or two spoken at a time in between fits of laughter. I think she saw the humor in it. I had a flashback to a year earlier, when I had had a similar experience. On loop 6 2015, I was trailing 50 miler Perry by 15 or 20 yards. I was hobbling along with my trusty walking stick. Mind you now, I was completely trashed a year ago, and nearer the very root of emotion. I recall a half mile period of untamed psychotic laughter as I asked a hypothetical question to the woods and to the world, “Why do people do this shit? Why do we do this shit?” Over and over I asked the question, but not once was I given an answer. I remember having a deep and thoughtful discussion with Kari on the trail later, during which I asked, “When do you think the medical community is going to recognize ultra running as a mental illness?” “Soon baby”, she said, “real soon.”
We made it across the bridge and to aid station 4. There was volunteer Adam at the TC Running Station, just as it seemed he had been for the entire race. Kudos to that guy. He rocked Zumbro the way it should be. Zumbro once again exceeded its reputation for having top notch volunteers in large numbers. From my view, Adam won the prize this year for having the most fun working an aid station. (Honorable mention goes to Brian Woods and Robyn Reed.) We didn’t stay long. It was still too cold to stay anywhere long without shelter or heat. The fire pit was ablaze, but it was too late in the race for stopping to sit by the fire. I remember on the way out that loop, spending some minutes by that fire, talking with Brian K and Kate, who were running the 17 in the morning, noticing a couple of other lost looking souls who had seemingly become enveloped and entangled in the life preserving warmth of the blaze. I grabbed a swill of coke, and we were off. I kept asking Kari, “Is it me, or is it still getting colder?” “Yeah, it’s cold,” she replied. “It will warm when the day breaks.”
Loop 5 consisted of a lot of walking. And I was prepared to do a whole lot more. The sun was now up and time was aplenty. After a 20 minute warm-up in the car and a couple pulled pork sandwiches, I was ready for the victory lap. Mom was staying busy chasing and snuggling Smooshie. I’m a really lucky guy to have had not one but two amazing women in support of me on this little endeavor. That made the experience all the more special.
The relationships and connections that are forged or strengthened during these weekends of trial are so special. A year ago when I was stumbling through my fifth and sixth loop, I met a most friendly guy, who was volunteering and running some trail. Aaron would eventually pace me to a “big-buckle” finish at Leadville months later. He was not present for this year’s edition of Zumbro. He was down in Texas, for the prelude to the Leadman series. However, another compadre, who Aaron by coincidence introduced me to out in Leadville, was volunteering at aid station 2/3 sand coulee. When I saw Ed on loop 6, I lit up. I had begun wondering if I was going to see him. Ed is my oil supplier. Beard oil! What did you think I was talking about? If you want your beard to grow and shine like mine, talk to Ed. He’ll take care of you. Ed had taken part in the infamous Barkley marathons just a week prior. He completed one loop. My money says next year he does the fun run. I spent a minute or two chatting with Ed, before moving on along, for Zumbro was still calling. And I don’t recall whether it was on loop 5 or 6, but the Zumbro owl made himself well known, sending hoots through the forest with total disregard, for this was his forest.
Nearly there now, through aid station 3, only one more before the finish. Now the 17 mile runners had been ripping past. Wave after wave of runners with way too much energy. They probably all slept last night. It was sickening the way they were hop, skipping and jumping all over the trail. “Did I look like that my first time around?”, I wondered. I stepped off the trail several times to let streams of energized runners pass. Finally, we came to the 6th and final descent of Ant Hill, a long and rocky decline, which becomes less fun with each successive loop. Ant hill done, we took to the road, a near 2 mile section of flat, hard packed dirt road leading to the bridge across the Zumbro River to the final aid station. On the road this year were bikers. Word on the road was there was some kind of 100 mile bike race happening. For the most part the bikers were courteous, although I caught the words of one ignorant “biker-type”, commenting to his partner, “for a 100 mile running race, there sure are a lot of people walking.” “I’d like to see you run one loop of this course, let alone six,” I thought. “We’ll see what you and your bicycle have to say then.”
We passed the road and final aid station, escaping the temporary annoyance caused by the cyclists. We were on the homestretch. 17 milers continued to fill the trail, but the pace was becoming more relative to my own. I was now traveling among these runners, rather than just being passed by. Few passed without offering words of support. A handful were friends or acquaintances from races past. It was a good way to finish. I planned on walking in to finish, but when I reached the clearing to the campground, 17 milers were all around it seemed, chugging it in to the finish. I wasn’t going to let them show me up, so I mustered a trot to cover the last 150 yards to paydirt. Race director John was waiting with a hug and a handshake, a belt buckle and a tree chunk on a rope. “How was it?”, he asked. “It’s always a battle out there,” I replied.
It was finally time to relax and relish the moment. Zumbro is such a humbling place, and I felt greatly humbled. I could now relax and enjoy seeing others finish. It is so awe-inspiring to watch 100 mile racers come in to the finish. And the later the clock reads, the more emotional it seems to become. This is especially so at Zumbro. I had some regret for not staying the final hour until every last finisher crossed. But it had been a long weekend, and it would be good to get home. From the wintry temperatures and flurries of snow pebbles, to canine pacers and runners experiencing temporary blindness, this year’s Zumbro was one to remember indeed.
Many thanks to the race sponsors, volunteers, runners and spectators that made this race spectacular. In no particular order, John, Cheri, Ed, Ed, Robyn, Bob, Travis, Stephanie, Angela, Gretchen, Dennis, Brian, Kate, Adam, Scott, Steve, Julio, Steve, John, Daryl, Susan, Rob, Allan, Jordan, Kevin, Gary, Chad, Mikhail, Mark, Sreedharan, Bob, Long, Michelle, Fabio, Brian, Eric, Jamison, Joe, Todd, Aaron, Janet, Radek, Andy, Misty, Gary, Wendi, Randy, Garret, Michael, Ryan, Amy, Matt, Jeff, Larry, Karen, Rebecca, Cool Hand Luke, Smooshie, and many others. I may not have seen every one of you on the course this weekend, but each of you were there and in some way affected my experience. I truly can’t thank you all enough! Extra special thanks to my race crew and pacer Kari, and to my biggest fan, my mom. I love you both! Finally, I must thank my personal sponsors: Nathan headlamps and hand torches courtesy of United Sports Brands, beard oil courtesy of Bare Bear Running, and post race refreshments courtesy of Indeed Brewing Co. Until next time!