Headlamps, Hydration, and the Pursuit of Gnarliness: Part II

Kettle Moraine 100  June 3-4 2016

The Gnarly Bandit ultra series is put on by the Upper Midwest Trail Runners (UMTR).  Four 100 mi and one 100 k race are required to finish the series.  In the past eight years, the series has been completed 25 times.  So it is certainly doable, yet far from reasonable.  Heading into Kettle this year, 9 runners remained in the series.

So why do people do these things called ultra marathons?  Many different reasons I suppose.  Some of us just want to do big things.  I feel that a year ago, I was running the schedule I did in part to try to break myself.  But I didn’t break, maybe even am stronger now because of it.  My outlook for running these things is different this year.  I am striving toward self maintenance and preservation, learning to keep some distance from absolute limits.  Hopefully this will help me to keep running through to the completion of the series.

While I say this in hindsight of Kettle, I failed at this approach in the season opening Zumbro 100.  I was a hurting unit for some weeks following Zumbro.  I tried to go right back to my daily life of beer packaging and delivering door to door flyers part time.  I ended up working a long shift at the brewery Monday, which wasn’t ideal but was fine, then was only there a couple of days the rest of the week.  So I tried to get going with some more flyers Wednesday through Friday, but it just wasn’t happening.  I couldn’t go for more than about 2 hours before the knee pain was so severe that I had to sit down.

My flyer delivery career now over, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time, so I headed out easy, with no intention of time, focused purely on self preservation.  The miles passed easily through the day.  The course was in fine shape, the weather was beautiful.  It was a bit warm and humid, but no more than one would expect for this time of year.  There existed a nice cloud cover much of the day with a few spotty splashes of rain.  My only irritation through the day Saturday was the number of people that seemed to line through the course.  It is a larger than average field, with about 450 starters this day between the 100 mile and 100k races.  Despite that, I still expected things to spread out faster than they did.  I suppose I started a little slower than normal and so had a larger percentage of runners to negotiate as the race progressed.  But the course just seemed busy nearly the entire way to the first turnaround at the 50k mark.  After that things quieted and became more peaceful.

During that first 100k, I did get the chance to meet and visit with a number of other runners along the course, including fellow gnarly bandit competitors and gnarly hall of famers.  Minnesota’s Robert Edman was the first of this year’s gnarly hopefuls to cross the finish line in a time of 25:16:16.  Next came 25-year old Kevin Clark from Ocinomowoc, WI, the same hometown as 2013 gnarly finisher and now 10-time Kettle 100 finisher Angela Barbera.  I met both Robert and Kevin at the pre-race picture, and we were able to give each other a few shouts of support as we crossed paths on the course.  I met Angela on the Superior Hiking Trail during my first trail ultra at Wild Duluth in 2012.  I have a feeling she may not have placed me when we briefly chatted on the trail today, but I could be wrong.  And so on to another female phenom of the trail running community and current gnarly contender, Tennessean Susan Donnelly.  Susan has finished more Superior 100s and Zumbro 100s than any other person.  She is undoubtedly one of the favorites to complete the series this year.  Rounding out the gnarly bandits would be myself, and then immediately after me, Jim Lemke of Fort Atkinson, WI.  I believe I have yet to meet Jim, but it seems our paces are relative to one another.  I have a feeling we’ll cross paths at Black Hills.  This being a huge undertaking, there are those who do fall short.  I spent a considerable amount of time Saturday sharing trail with Dale Nesbitt and Sreedharan Surendran, both Zumbro finishers whose gnarly dreams would be dashed by the sneaky Kettle.  I enjoyed chatting with the both of them throughout the day.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them back in the mix soon.  I must give special thanks to Sreedharan, for he saved me and another runner some unknown number of extra miles.  I was running with my head down, rather blindly following the person 15 yards ahead of me down a very straight trail in the woods.  We both ran right past the cones and markers directing us to turn.  We were some 150 yards beyond the turn when it took about 10 seconds of Sreedharan yelling at the top of his lungs before I turned around and figured out what was going on.  Other gnarly entrants who failed to post a finish this day were Terry Eldien and Rob Henderson, the latter deciding to pursue things other than the gnarly bandit after his impressive 2nd place finish earlier this spring at Zumbro.

Things were progressing nicely; I’d remained patient and stuck to my plan.  “WWJTD?”  It bothered me slightly having to cross paths with people on the turnaround who were way ahead of me who I figured I should be ahead of, but it wasn’t changing anything.  I wasn’t going to catch them, I was going to run my race.  I was now within about 5 miles from the 100k mark.  Runners in the 38 mile fun run had begun coming out, and there who did I see, but 2-time gnarly bandit finisher Brian Woods and his friend Dan Cairns, both of the St. Cloud area contingent.  Brian and I shared some smiles and laughs at Zumbro this spring.  I first met Dan here on this very trail 3 years ago during my first successful 100 mile run.  Dan and I were leapfrogging on the trail during the latter parts of the 2013 race.  After stopping for a short visit today, we went on our separate ways.  I would cross paths with each of them again on my way back out for the fun run.

I remember coming in to the Nordic Start/Finish aid station in 2013, the 100k mark in the race, where you are given the option to stop your day and collect a 100k finisher award, or continue on to complete the entire 100 miles.  I was in rough shape.  I had endured 4 loops equaling 67 miles in a failed effort at Zumbro less than 2 months earlier, thus crushing my dreams of gnarliness.  I had been able to rebound with a successful marathon at the Lake Wobegon Trail a month later.  My body wasn’t in the right shape to be at Kettle, but I’d paid my entry and I needed redemption.  I needed to complete the distance.  It was around midnight when I got there, I’d just spent about 2 hours running through slosh, as we got hit by an evening downpour.  It was only about an hour in duration, but it was heavy.  The single track turned into a violently flowing little river.  Needless to say, my feet were soaked mush.  Add to this the fact that I was wearing shoes that were wrong for me, ooh my poor feet.  No chance I was quitting though.  I got my drop bag and immediately got to work on my feet, getting fresh socks and shoes, and applying tape to a few trouble spots.  And there was race director Timo giving personal attention to every runner.  He asked me if I was going back out and wished me well.  I gave some bland automatic response; I remember wishing I’d told him, “Of course I’m going back out, all that’s left is a fun run, right?”

ADS_589513401455_10157012098190224_1512124797_n ECE10612 RCT_2310

Timo met us and talked with us for a few minutes at packet pickup this year, welcoming us and wishing us well.  And once again, he was in full form through the night at Nordic, bellowing an announcement every time a 100 mile runner went out for the final leg, “Hundred mile runner going back out!”  And the crowd cheers.  Those moments and those steps feel pretty special when that runner is you.  Timo would also be there to congratulate each runner at the finish.  I want to say you won’t find many race directors who do what he does.  On the other hand, most race directors I’ve had the fortune to know do seem to expend themselves in some equivalent manner.

One of the newly crowned bandits from last season, Jeffrey Lenard, was another notable whose presence I felt throughout the weekend.  I saw Jeff several times throughout the first day, as he seemed to be at nearly every aid station offering enthusiastic words of support, and displaying his gnarly forearm ink.  Turns out he was crewing for his wife, who was running her first 100 mile race.  I met Jeff at the UMTR banquet last fall.  He drove 6 hours from Illinois that evening to attend the banquet and collect his award for completing the series.  As impressive as that sounds, I guess it’s maybe not all that much in comparison to running even one of these races.  Still, that kind of commitment is admirable.

I met another special person that night at the banquet: my crew, pacer, and girlfriend, all rolled into one.  What a dream!  I was in no hurry.  We were going to get this thing done, and skip away cheerily afterward.  “You’re going back out?”  I shook Timo’s hand and said, “Yes, sir!”.  “Hundred mile runner going back out!”  And we were off.  It was going to be a good night…

at the start

“Those are ducks, right?”, I said.  “No baby, those are frogs”, Kari replied.  I wasn’t so sure.  Frogs are one of my favorite animals, but I like the ribbity, crickety sounding frogs.  These honky, croaky sounding things I wanted nothing to do with, and they seemed to be all around us.  Slightly unsettling, I do say.  The trail quieted and several minutes passed, then the awful noise returned.  “Those are ducks, right?”, I asked, as if our previous discussion had never occurred.  I started to answer my own question, “No those are fr-“, when a response came from one of the two men approaching us.  “No, those are people”, he said.  I wonder if he really thought I was hallucinating.  Much of the rest of the morning felt carefree and fun.  We laughed and joked as we proceeded down the trail, made fun of others and made fun of ourselves.  I nearly burst a gut trying to figure out which way to go at confusion point.

Which way to go?

After that it was the homestretch.  Only another ~8 miles or so of rolling trail.  And then came the hiker…  It was light, and normal morning hours now, and this portion of trail began to fill up with some “regulars”.  And here comes this hiker, a friendly stocky guy in his early fifties.  He told us how he was doing preparation for a trip to hike Pike’s Peak.  This guy was a good walker.  He came upon us from behind.  We matched pace for probably a mile or more before pushing on ahead of him.  Later due to aid station and other pit stops, the hiker passed me and made a little distance on me.  It ended up being a hilarious (to me) joke and game that I was not going to let this guy beat me to the finish.  Eventually I did pull away and got comfortably ahead of him.  But I was cruising pretty good at the end.  I imagine I passed by a dozen other runners on that last 5 miles of trail, and I believe my hiker friend did about the same.

morning sunrise

The finish seemed like it had to be soon, maybe just around the next bend of the trail.  Well after about 8 more bends and another half dozen small hills, there it was, the final uphill stretch to the finish!  Crossed the line in 28:32:08, I’ll take it!  I was awarded my little copper kettle, then got to visit with those gathered at the finish.  The ever present John Taylor was seated at a table next to Susan Donnelly.  John, a 2-time finisher of the Gnarly Bandit series, was the trail runner who left the biggest imprint on me after my first run at Wild Duluth in 2012.  I visited with him a couple of times when we met on the course today as well.  I was following him closely for a brief time early in the day, watching his steps with careful attention.  Over the past decade, John has amassed more 100 mile finishes than would seem humanly possible.  The guy is teeming with bits of trail running wisdom.  So any chance I get, I try to study his ways.  Fellow Minnesotan Mark Smith and his crew, comprised of Joe, Matt, and Paul, were waiting at the finish as well, to congratulate the final gnarly finishers of the day.  Mark ran his goal of sub-24 hours!  It was pretty cool to feel all the support throughout the race right on through to the finish.

feeling fine, looking good

Two down, now I could clean up a little, grab some food and some drink.  I had a little bit of my Lucy left, a kettle sour pale ale for the Kettle 100!  Then while handing out a few Indeed cans to others, another runner named Lewis, got to talking with me, and shared a few beers brewed by his friend at Pigeon Hills Brewery in Muskegon, MI.  And it was a good one: an oatmeal creme pie stout, which is their signature offering.  Oatmeal Creme Pies were always my favorite kind of Little Debbie Treats growing up.

So why do we do these things called ultra marathons?  Do we love the act of running, and the feelings that accompany it?  Yes.  Do we love seeing places of beauty in nature that are only accessible by foot?  Yes.  Do we strive for the feelings created by physical feats and personal accomplishment?  Of course, but there is surely more to it than that.  It is about the community and the connections.  All of the people mentioned above and many others who weren’t mentioned impacted my day, my experience, and my life.  As I attend to final preparations for the Black Hills 100, I try to keep this in mind.  Seek those connections, explore them and cherish them, for what we get to do is amazing, but that we get to share it with others is what makes it truly special.  Happy Trails!…


Oh, happy day!

Chippewa 50k: Kettle on the mind

Chippewa 50k  4/23/16

“You’re nuts,” said John Storkamp as we crossed paths on the trail.  I considered this quite a compliment coming from a guy who had recently notched his 100th marathon/ultra finish.  Just two weeks after Zumbro, my legs had yet to really shake out.  I figured running this 50k might be the best way to get things moving forward again.?

It was an absolutely beautiful day for a trail run, and the setting at Chippewa Moraine is so serene.  The race follows the Ice Age National Scenic Trail out and back from the David R. Obey Ice Age Interpretive Center.  I first took part in the race a year ago, as an aid station volunteer with Break the Stigma (now Defeat the Stigma), a non-profit organization that uses running as an avenue to open up conversations about mental health issues.  That was my first experience as an aid station volunteer.  I had a really good time and made some new friends.  The parts of the trail I saw that day looked so appealing; I wanted to come back and experience the race as a participant.

So, even though I was far from feeling 100% on this day, I believed running the race was the right move.  I would go really easy on the front half, and pick it up on the way back if I was feeling it.  That was my plan.  Did I stick to it?  No.  After about 3 miles of easy running, Kari said she was going to slow down, but that I should continue, so what do I do?  Why, speed up of course, pummeling the trail for the next 10 miles or so, passing several tens of runners over that period.  The trail was just so inviting; it begged to be run, and my legs wanted to run!

Well, come the turnaround, the desire to run had mostly fizzled.  By the time I hit the 2nd to last aid station on the way back, where I’d been posted a year earlier, I accepted the fact that I’d be walking the last 10 miles to the finish.  A couple more hours of grinding it out.  Only, fate would have it that the grinding would soon be softened.

Ahead of me on the trail, I saw someone else who was running on fumes.  By this point, runners I had passed on the way out were returning the favor.  But this guy ahead of me was moving slower than I was, and looked to be in just as bad of shape.  As I moved around him, we got to chatting.  He asked me where the buff I was wearing was from.  It was from Zumbro 2013.  As we continued talking, we discovered that we had crossed paths at Zumbro two weeks earlier.  Aaron finished the 100 less than a half hour ahead of me.  He recalled following my Altras up the ascent just past the final aid station.  How fitting it was that we would be walking in the final miles of this race together!

As we continued on the trail, we shared stories.  Zumbro was Aaron’s first 100 miler, which he’d gone into on something of a whim, originally having planned for Chippewa to be his first race of the season.  Sounds like my kind of guy.  Having the company seemed immediately to lessen the strain and ease the miles.  Near the end of our trek, Aaron even admitted that he had been strongly considering dropping out and walking back on the road, before I had come along.  We crossed the finish line together in a time of 6:28, well off the 5:45 I ran last year at Afton.  For a good part of the day, I was fully expecting to make that time.  Lol!

I took a seat on the hill and cracked an Indeed.  It was time to “Let it Ride”.  The stream of finishers was pretty consistent.  Kari came in about a half hour after me.  We spent the next two hours relaxing and visiting while watching runners finish, before departing for home.  It was a good day on a great trail.  Many thanks to the race organizers, volunteers, and runners.  I’m sure I picked up some vital pieces of information that will serve me in my continued pursuit to be gnarly.  One final note; I think they might have run out of T-shirts before I finished, but I checked the results, and for the record, I did beat Maria Barton!



Quest to be Gnarly )) Part 1

13023366_10156818088475224_327001605_n 12963500_1754991424715427_4580952606935520229_n(2)  13023255_10156818088575224_1240352730_n12992091_10156818088505224_1218184981_nZumbro 100- April 8-9 201612963568_1582645942046980_6447663134834729012_n 12998378_979356312101794_8215389457401234737_o(1)

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!



Zumbro style

Zumbro 100 mile report 2015 (not quite a year late)

So, there I was, returned to the site of my previous failure and disappointment.  However, interestingly it also remained a place of awe and inspiration.  I was determined.  I wasn’t going to let myself be defeated by Zumbro again.

For those unfamiliar, the Zumbro 100 mile endurance run takes place in early April in southern Minnesota.  It is run on a 16.7 mile loop course through the Richard J Dorer State Forest.  Six loops for the 100 mile race.  In 2013 I made it four loops.  I was confident I would finish this time, though much uncertainty remained as to the how.  I had learned a good deal since then.  My training miles in the months leading up may have been scanty, but I was in the best shape of my life.  It was going to be a great day(s), and I wasn’t worried about speed.  I would spend as much time on the course as I could, you know, get the most for my money.  As long as I came in under 34 hours, that was all that mattered.  I had a good plan.  I wasn’t going to get shortchanged again.

The weather Thursday before the race was looking uncomfortably mild.  Well, that quickly changed.  By the time I arrived on Thursday the rain had begun.  I was able to park and throw my tent up without getting too soaked.  Overnight the rain turned to ice.  “Oh Zumbro, you don’t disappoint”.  It was a chilly, windy, noisy night; I always sleep well when weather and cold is about.  When I awoke it was still pitch darkness.  The excitement was within me.  I scrambled out of my tent shivering, hopped into my car, and sat for a minute, trying to catch my breath and my warmth.

As one minute passed to two and then three, I realized that there was nowhere else I wanted to be.  I packed up my tent, shattering the thin layer of ice that covered it.  As darkness turned to light, the sky also showed clearing.  The weather was going to subside?!  It was a little cool and misty to start, but soon the air was dry and the temps eventually warmed.  The first three loops flew by.  I was running smart and within myself, power walking through the sand and up the hills.  I was eating a lot and feeling good.  I continued moving strong through loop four.

I had seen people use trekking poles during these races in the past.  That seemed like such a brilliant idea.  Let your upper body log some of the miles.  I took poles with me for loop 5.  I’ll be very hesitant to ever do it again.  It started out well.  I was really letting my arms work, and allowing my legs some relief.  At least that’s what I thought I was doing.  About mid-way through the loop, I had developed a stinging, stabbing pain in the muscle above my inner right knee.  I hobbled the rest of the way back to the start/finish, but every step was a shock of pain.

I was feeling near dire straits, as I entered the aid station requesting athletic tape to wrap around my leg.  Someone went and woke up this chiropractor guy who was volunteering at the race.  I get up on his table, he checks out my leg and then pulls out a big old knife!  I didn’t know what he planned on using it for, I mean, it couldn’t have been that bad.  He must have rubbed my leg with the backside of that blade for some 10 minutes.  He was digging in hard and it hurt.  It didn’t feel all that much better afterwards either, but it loosened up a bit.  The words of assurance he gave me might have been the kicker.  He basically said something like, “you’ve only got one more loop, this will be good enough to get you through one more loop”.

I don’t know why, but hearing those words come from a professional in this context caused me to accept them as fact.  I had no other choice. So I set off, no poles, leg still twanging with every step, but taking each one nevertheless.  I was only a mile or two into the loop, and things were getting ridiculous.  I was descending a hill facing backwards with two hands and one foot on the ground, when a woman came upon me from behind, or from my face, as it was.  She was a 50 mile runner.  She stopped and asked if I was okay.  We talked for less than a minute.  I didn’t even get her name.  She offered me some ibuprofen, and I gobbled them immediately. I didn’t expect they’d help much, but I would have taken anything at that point.

Soon I was off in search of an adequate walking stick.  I found a good one and took to the trail.  Before I knew it, I had developed a nice little three legged hop of a gait using my newfound stick.  It was a constant struggle, but I was making consistent forward progress.  And then wouldn’t you know it, I found me some company!  A 50 miler named Perry came upon me.  Perry had traveled from Michigan for the race and incurred his own share of trials and troubles over the course of the weekend.  We were moving close to the same pace and ended up covering most of the final loop together.  He told me of his issues throughout the weekend and I probably shared mine too.  He never so much as made mention of the goofy way that I was waddling down the trail, using my stick as something of a crutch to take weight off my right leg.  I guess he was probably occupied with his own concerns.

It was daytime now.  The sun was high in the sky and it was warm.  With a few miles remaining Perry moved on ahead and I was alone once again.  By now, the pain above my knee had gone completely numb.  I knew that I was going to finish, it was only a matter of time.  I moved through the final aid station and the last couple miles to camp.  The walking stick went home with my dad’s dog.  I got to write my name on the big poster, and then watch as the final 100 mile finishers came in.  The feeling I felt was a good feeling.  I would be able to ride this one for a little while, yeah.  This was the greatest triumph of my life.

The moral of this story is two-fold.  First, our bodies are often capable of more than we give them credit for.  Give your body credit.  Second, I would not have finished this race by myself.  I went into it still thinking I could do it all on my own,  but without a number of specific acts by volunteers and other participants, I don’t know if I could have made it.  I had not yet known the purpose and importance of crews and pacers in ultra running.  At Zumbro, I was provided these things within the race.  I also made connections there that would help me greatly in the months to come.  It truly is an amazing culture to know and be part of.

Special thanks to John for making the race what it is, Ryan for the nifty chiropractic work, Perry for the loop 6 company, 50 miler female for the ibuprofen, Ed for the endless pulled pork, Aaron for introducing himself on the trail and taking me under his wing, Mom and Dad for making the trip down to see me, and all the other volunteers, spectators and participants.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I can’t wait for Zumbro 2016.  Good thing it’s tomorrow!