Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Warm One: Spring Superior 50K 2016 Race Report

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and
exclaim or murmur or think at some point,
"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
- Kurt Vonnegut

At the starting line, experiencing that moment
of limitless possibility when anything could happen
I ran the Spring Superior 50k for the fourth time this weekend. It's always a special weekend -- the first trip of the year to the North Shore, a trail family reunion on the Superior Hiking Trail, and it's my ultra-versary: in 2013, this was my first ultramarathon. I've run some miles and more than a few other ultras since then, but Spring Superior will always have a special place in my heart.

I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of performance this year. I'd run this one faster each year, with finishing times of 8:00 in 2013, then 7:41 in 2014, then 7:29 last year, and wondered if I could do it again. On other hand, although I'd gotten a few really solid training weeks in this spring, injuries had limited my training volume for part of the season so far. However, most of those seemed to have damped down, though, and my only worry now was pain in my right medial calf thanks to a race-week hill workout with Jon. I rested it, massaged it, and tried not to worry about it.

On Friday morning, I packed up my race gear (so much less packing than Zumbro! No headlamps, no sub-freezing gear, no camping gear, no giant cooler of food!) and headed north with Amy and Lynnea.

Lumbering our way northward. Photo: Random guy with a baby
 At Lutsen, I checked in and met up with my roommates for the weekend, Janet and Dawn. It was sunny and surprisingly warm, and it was easy to believe tomorrow's forecast of temperatures in the high 60's. (In fact, it ended up much warmer than that!).
Obligatory Moose Mountain selfie.
 After dinner, we headed to bed pretty quickly and our lights were out by 8:45. With a 5:15 wake-up time, this race felt downright luxurious!

Race morning dawns clear and sunny, and we're all awake before the alarm. I get dressed, tape my calf and hope it'll behave, drink coffee, and eat my rice, chicken, and peas. I'm a little jittery, but it's coming through as happy excitement, rather than anxiety. It's a race day feeling. There's nothing else quite like it.

By 7 am race start, it's sunny and already pushing 50. I am feeling better and better about my choice of tank top instead of T-shirt, SWAP trucker hat, sunglasses, and sunblock before the race start.

However, I regret forgetting to bring a buff to wipe off sweat. I always forget the buff.

But I remember the fake knuckle tattoos, so it's all good.
Gonna be a good day!
Photo: John Storkamp
I spot John Storkamp before the start and he snaps the picture. "Second year in a row," he says. "In 30 years, you'll have 30 of these pictures!"

I do a few lunges to warm up, and Janet asks if I'm going do to burpees. I do one and ask her if she's going to do hill repeats. She declines.

Waiting at the starting line, I stop worrying about sore calf muscles, heat, and 50 kilometers of gnarly trail, and start to get genuinely excited. I snap giddy smiling pictures of friends and bounce around, just a little.

John publicly embarrasses a few people who didn't check in this morning, and makes some quick pre-race announcements. "The trails are mostly dry, except for a few low spots. Even a little... crunchy." The crowd goes nuts.

With a countdown from five, it's "GO!" and we're off up the ski hill road. I'm running with Gregg, who's out for his first ultra, and we're discussing nutrition, pace, and moderation. Clearly I'm not persuasive because he blasts ahead after the first mile.
Race start! Photo: Mike Wheeler
Outbound across the Poplar River. Photo: Kevin Langton
To my surprise, I catch and pass Janet, who's normally going my pace or a bit slower. We play back-and-forth the whole day before finishing the race together.

The first climb up Moose Mountain passes quickly. The sun is getting strong but it's still cool, it's not humid, and there's a light breeze. I raise my arms and yell "WOOO!" as we crest the first big climb. It's a glorious day. What could be better than being here, doing this awesome thing?

The trails are in unbelievable shape. No mud, even in the places that are always muddy. They're even a little dusty and slippery in places.

I run in a little train with Janet and Ben and some others for quite a ways along here. We're having fun and moving well. Things feel exactly the way they should in the first few miles of an ultra. My calf is quiet. All is well.

There's a little more trail than I remember heading into the Oberg aid station, but we get there 5 minutes ahead of my last year's time. I'm pleased. Janet is a bit apprehensive. "My strategy so far has been 'RRR' -- 'Run Robyn's Race!'" she exclaims. I'm glad to have her company, though.
Loving the descent into Oberg.
Photo: Todd Rowe
At Oberg, I consider that I'm going to be drinking a lot today, and ask the volunteers (hi, Sam!) to fill my hydration pack with Heed instead of water. I grab some Endurolytes and salted potatoes. It's heating up. Janet and I head out together.

Oberg to Sawbill is 4.5 miles but has fewer landmarks so it feels long. There are lots of runnable sections, especially with the dry trails. I run the flats and downhills, admiring the blooming flowers (many more than usual! Spring came early this year) and the still, reflective water of the beaver pond.

By halfway through this section my skin feels hot and I'm fantasizing about ice. The breeze seems to have died along this section and it's really warm now (I later heard close to 80 degrees.) I'm still eating and drinking fine, but feel like going much faster would do Bad Things to my gut.

Front runners start passing me on their return leg. I cheer them on as they come. Mike Borst is once again killing it out there, running at least 7 minutes ahead of second place. He finishes the 50K in sub-4 hours. Awesome.

I roll into Sawbill, don't recall what time. A volunteer has a portable camp shower set up and is spraying runners down. He does my back and neck and I whoop at the shock of the cool water.
"That is AMAZING!" I exclaim. "Did you think of that?"
"No, the guy over there in the blue shirt did."
I go over to the the guy in the blue shirt. "Was the shower your idea?" He nods. I give him a sweaty, disgusting hug. "I LOVE YOU, MAN!" I tell him.

Volunteers put ice in my hydration pack and ice in my hat. I put on more sunblock, slam some water and another salty potato, and head for Carlton Peak and the turnaround.

It's hot heading up Carlton, but on one side we catch both shade and a breeze, and I revive as I power-hike up. Then, around a corner, it's back in the sun and the breeze is gone. I'm grateful for ice-cold Heed and ice in my hat.

I do like the climb up Carlton. It's steep and rocky and I exclaim, "Now we're getting somewhere!"

We top out and I yell, "Woohoo!" I hear an answering whoop ahead. Around a couple of trees and there's my friend Kevin, ultrarunner, writer, and human being extraordinaire, volunteering at the turnaround.

I eye his outfit -- a long gray wig, headband, stars-and-stripes tank top, and jean shorts two sizes too small. 
"Where on earth did you get those shorts?" 
"Ragstock," he answers. 
"They shouldn't have sold them to you," I proclaim. "I think there's a law."
Yes, we're glamorous.
This is what he was wearing. Avert your eyes.
Janet tops out a little behind me and we snap some pictures and admire the view to infinity off the peak. It's a glorious day, despite the heat. 
On Carlton Peak.
I offer Kevin some of my sunblock and we head back down with a final "Woohoo!" It's a little less than 4 hours into the race.

The descent is steep and dusty, and I cheer on runners who are still climbing up, as well as a backpacking group that looks terribly hot with their full packs and long pants. On the descent, my calf, which has been quiet all day so far, begins to ache a bit.

Back into Sawbill, well ahead of the cutoff. I consider the state of my calf and decide that it can certainly handle the next section, which has no big climbs or descents to speak of. With my pack topped off and fresh ice in my hat, I head out, again just a bit ahead of Janet.

Salt has crusted on my face from sweating in the dry breeze. The ice in my hat melts and drips into my eye, and the mix of sweat and sunblock stings. Eventually it gets better, and I'm grateful.

Sawbill to Oberg still feels long, but whether it's the ice in my pack and hat, or whether it's a turn in the weather, I've got a bit of a lift now. There's a little bit of breeze and though I'm still not going as fast as I'd hoped, I'm moving a little better now. I eat Clif beet-ginger and mango-banana puree and Shot Bloks and move along, hiking mostly, running some.
Feeling the heat. Photo: Kevin Langton
I pass Jamison, who's slowing down in the heat. I wish him luck. "Don't do anything too stupid," I tell him. "Remember, it's only May. You've got all summer to be stupid. Don't use it all up now!"

I pass Stu, who wants to know if there's going to be pie at the end of this run, like the one we did at Afton a few weeks ago. "That's an awesome idea!" I exclaim. "Next time we're bringing pie!"

(Hours later, he finishes a few minutes behind me. 
As he crosses the line, I ask him, "Where's the pie?!" 
"I thought YOU had the pie!" he replies. 
"Darn it, I thought YOU did!" I answer. His family laughs at us.)

I pass another runner -- Ryan? Don't recall. We talk a bit. It's his first ultra. "Enjoy it," I start to tell him. But we're both suffering in the heat on the trail, and that doesn't seem quite right.
I think of an analogy. 
"Wait," I say. "Do you have kids?" 
"Yeah," he says. 
"You know how people tell you, 'Enjoy every minute!' and you're like, 'Fuck you'?" (Huh, I think, that came out a little blunt. But he says, "Yeah...") 
I continue, "It's kind of like that. But it's got its moments."

I'm getting tired and my calf is getting worse as I come into the last section before Oberg aid station. I had passed Nicolle earlier and now she passes me back. Not long after that, half a mile before the aid station, I hear a cry of pain. Around the bend, Nicolle is sitting down and holding her ankle.
She's rolled it and heard a 'pop.' After we ascertain she's otherwise okay, I look around and find a couple of stout sticks for her to use as trekking poles. She stands up and tries it out. It's obviously very painful but she manages a few steps and looks like she can hike out if she takes it slow. Another runner has caught up to us and hikes with her while I run ahead to the aid station to let them know she's coming in with an injury.

I get to Oberg at about the 6 hour mark and let the crew there know that there's an injured runner not far up the trail. Then, while the excellent volunteers drape ice-cold towels around my neck and fill my hydration pack, I sit down under an awning and take a stab at dealing with my own injured calf, which is now causing enough pain that I'm thinking of dropping here.

A volunteer hands me a cold can of soda to use as a roller. As I roll it up and down my leg, another runner drops into a chair beside me. "You know," I say conversationally, "this really is a ridiculous hobby. When you find yourself sitting in a gravel parking lot in the woods rolling a can of Diet Code Red Mountain Dew on your leg, you really have to question your life choices." He agrees.

Nicolle hobbles in and joins our little group of overheated, hurting runners. After briefly considering hiking it in, she wisely decides to drop here instead. I repeat my line about not using up all the stupid now. I may be trying to convince myself.

Janet comes in and is surprised I'm still here. I still haven't decided whether to continue, but the rolling and some half-assed homebrew ART on my calf have it feeling better and I've cooled off sitting in the shade. The volunteers have filled my pack and fed me oranges. There's still 10 minutes till the 6:30 cutoff. "Are you going to finish?" she asks. "What the hell. Sure, I'll run it in with you," I reply. I feel good enough to jog out of the aid station, the volunteers whooping and cheering us out onto the trail.

 We're mostly power-hiking this final 7+ mile section but occasionally break into a jog. Janet can outpace me on the downhills, which I'm taking cautiously, but I'm still climbing faster than her, so we're pretty evenly matched. We cover the runnable section leading to the Moose Mountain climb. Hardly anyone is on the trails with us -- we figure most people are ahead of us, or have dropped. But we're going to finish this thing.

We climb the steep "Stairway to Heaven" up the back of Moose Mountain and remind ourselves that there's only one more big climb to go. We manage a little running on the top and enjoy a breath of breezy air.

On the descent, we pass Greg, who's sitting by the trail.
"How ya doing?" I ask.
I eye him more closely. He doesn't look bad, but he's just... sitting there. I'm a bit concerned. "How ya doing?" I repeat.
"I just checked my blood sugar and it was low, so I ate something and I'm waiting for my blood sugar to come back up," he replies.
"Awesome." I breath a sign of relief that he's apparently not quietly having a heart attack. "Need any extra fuel? Need some water?" No, he says, he's good.
We wish him luck and continue on. I'm happy to see him cross the finish line not long after us.

A steep descent and trip through the usually-wet valley brings us to the switchbacks up Mystery Mountain. Up we go, passing another runner or two along the way. We're swarmed by little gnats that try to get into our eyes, and buzzing flies in our ears. But we're glad there are no mosquitos. 

I share my Roctane gels with Janet. "These are magic," I assure her. "They've got branched-chain amino acids and science-y shit in them. We're getting there, step by step."

We're on Mystery Mountain now, watching for the next landmark, the campground that marks the point at which it's all downhill. Around one bend, we can hear music and voices from the finish line, far below us. At last we're at the campground.
Glad to be nearing the end!
It's a long descent down blessedly dry trails now. We're past the 8 hour mark, but we're getting this thing done. The air begins to cool and at last we hear the Poplar River.

We follow the river down and down, and suddenly, there's the bridge. We're almost there.

We cross the bridge, hit the last little bump up, and we're on the gravel road. We start to run. We're going to run it all the way in.

We keep up our run. It's slow, but it's a run. From the gravel to the pavement. Under the gondola. To the end of the line of cones. Turn off the road and around the buildings. A few people cheer as we run by.

Around the pool, and Janet speeds up. I hustle to match her pace and we cross the mat together in 8:37, all smiles. It's not the race either of us expected, but it's a 50K finish and we're elated to be here, to be alive, to be among friends and noise and music.

It's a good day.

John Pitera and me. He's one of the guys who makes the
magic happen at every Rocksteady race.
Before the start of this one, he said, "When you finish,
I want to be the one who gives you your medal."
So he did.
This wasn't the race I expected. But when you're out on the trails all day, sometimes things don't go as planned. It was a day for heat training, for running the miles and hiking the miles and climbing the climbs, for the people and stories along the way that make these things memorable. It was a day for learning to adapt and accept what the conditions and the weather and my body brought.

Any day you can run 50K is a pretty awesome day. This one was no exception.

Thanks to the amazing volunteers at this event who took care of us all, sometimes literally waiting on us hand and foot. Thank you, John and Cheri, for continuing a joyful, life-affirming tradition. Thank you, all my friends who ran with me along the way, for a little distance or a long one. It is a delight and an honor to do these things with you.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Zumbro 17 Mile Race Report, 2016 (Redemption and Sunshine)

Zumbro. It's complicated. It's bitter cold and gentle spring. Rain and hail and a little snow. Bad sleep, campfire smoke, nervous anticipation, too much coffee, bacon-and-egg quesadillas that taste like manna. It's my fourth time back, my third race, my second finish, my first really good Zumbro run. Here's the story.

The Fun Run

I signed up for the 17 miler this winter and immediately breathed a sigh of relief. No pressure to train for a 50 miler over the winter months, a chance to heal some nagging peroneal tendon pain, time and space to volunteer before and after, and the prospect of, as I wrote at the time, "just running one loop of that crazy course as fast as I can."

Winter training was relatively low mileage as my peroneal and other things kept flaring up, but I got in lots of 2 hour runs and a few 3 hour ones, cross-trained a lot, and figured that and my knowledge of the course would carry me through. I ran a weekly stair climbing workout that my coach and I dubbed #stairsforbreakfast, and hoped that would give me a boost climbing and descending Zumbro's many bluffs.

My goals for this race were pretty simple:
1. Finish the race without needing medical attention. (This would be a first for me; in 2013 I broke my olecranon at mile 2; in 2014 I DNF'd at mile 33 with hypothermia).
2. Run all the runnable parts, keep fairly even splits, and be proud of how I ran on every section. (Last year, when pacing, I'd been struck by how runnable this course is in large sections, and had been longing to get out and really run it).
3. Finish in under 4 hours. (My finish time in 2013, with a broken elbow, was 4:35.)

A Cold One

I spend the Friday of race weekend working at an aid station for the 100 mile race. It was cold, very windy, and snowed hard off and on. I was very glad to have a motel room, a hot shower, and a hot dinner... and worried about the 100 and 50 milers out in the dropping temperatures (it got down to 17 degrees on the course and runners' hydration packs froze). 

Saturday morning dawned sunny and cold, but the wind had finally died down and it promised to be a glorious day for a run. I had a breakfast of rice, chicken, and peas with cold brew coffee, and headed back to the start/finish area to see what had happened during the night.
The start/finish area had the kind of low-level buzz of energy you see at these events. Runners came in on their next to last lap and headed out on their last one. Occasionally, a 100 miler finished, to massive cheers and cowbelling. I got updates on how friends were doing out there: Rob had taken second in the 100! Wendi had dropped after 67 miles. Kevin Chem was still out there getting it done! Janet was out on her second lap of the 50! Lots of great achievements and, Lisa and Joy told me, not too much hypothermia. Great news. 
Rob, post 100 miles, cheering on everyone else now
Jim and his YUUUUGE mittens. You know it's
dire when people break out the Arrowhead gear.
An unexpected delight was meeting up with Mike at the start/finish. He'd been sick, I hadn't seen him since November, and I was so glad he'd made it down to Zumbro!
Me, Mike, Cheri
The time came to line up for the 17 mile and I listened to John's pre-race briefing with half an ear, looking for friends in the crowd. He noted that the race would start on a gravel road instead of singletrack to reduce congestion, did a quick countdown, and off we went, following him on a four wheeler.
Flags are on the left, pick up your trash, be nice to the people with
pink ribbons on their packs; they've been out here for a while already

Start to AS 1

17 mile start! Photo by David Shannon 
The loop starts with a 300-foot climb to the top of the bluffs; for the 17 mile it was a gravel road leading to the steeper, rocky doubletrack climb. This was a great re-route that avoided the "conga line" on the singletrack that I'd seen in previous years. Before I knew it, we were at the ridge, with beautiful views of the river valley and the campground below. I stopped for a quick picture, enjoying the bright sunshine. After yesterday's wind, the light breeze felt like a caress.
Blue skies and sunshine!
As we came through the "hobbit forest", the level stand of pine trees at the top of the ridge, I chatted with Janelle and Aurora "the indigenous ladies," who had introduced themselves at Wild Duluth, where we had passed each other about a dozen times in the final half of the race. It was fun to see them again and to be running on soft trails, in a beautiful place, once again. I slowed to a walk to talk to a couple of 50 milers, and that helped me keep my heart rate down and get my breath back after climbing.

After a steep rocky downhill and some additional doubletrack, I was shocked at how quickly we rolled into the first aid station, at about the 3 mile mark. I was really happy with how I'd run the first leg of the course, and ready to take on the rest.

AS 1 to AS2

I was right in the middle of a pack, and the aid station was crazy busy. I gave Matt Patten, who was volunteering, a quick hug, and skipped the rest of the aid station. It was only mile 3, I had plenty of food and water, and I'd seen enough aid station food volunteering the day before. No need to stop!

At 4.3 miles, the AS 1 to AS 2 segment is the longest, and from previous years I recalled it feeling longer than it actually is. After crossing the Zumbro river, there are long sections on forest roads and doubletrack, a wide tour around a field, and toward the end, a very steep climb that I always seem to forget about until it's upon me.

This time, though, I resolved to be strong throughout the whole section and run whatever I could of it. Along the way, I ran with Derek, who was doing the 17 mile but also looking for his wife, Teri, out on the final loop of her first 100 mile race. "Not bad for a 55 year old woman," he bragged to me. "She gets up at 4, goes to the gym, and lifts weights!" His excitement for her and his pride were deeply moving. When he caught up to her, I told her, "I can't wait to see you cross the finish line. I'll be there, screaming my head off." Six hours later, they crossed hand in hand. I screamed my head off for them.

The steep, rocky climb was as steep and rocky as I remembered from pacing Jordan. As I passed a few runners struggling up it, I remembered that we had stopped about nine times along the way last time so that he could catch his breath.

The trails were in fantastic shape, with very little mud. In sunlit areas, the top layer of frozen mud was beginning to melt and was a little slippery, though. At one point, my foot slid out sideways and I stumbled to catch myself. I called back to the runner behind me, "Don't do that." She laughed. We negotiated the steep not-really-a-trail down to the road, and I ran into AS 2, still smiling and feeling great.

AS 2 to AS 3

I had been eating Shot Bloks and Larabars and was still good for snacks and water, so I just grabbed a few Endurolytes and ran out of AS 2 toward Picnic Rock. This section starts with another steep climb. As I powered up it, cautiously passing a few hundred milers and matching pace with a strong 50 miler, I thought, "This is the best I've ever felt on this climb!" Big credit to #stairsforbreakfast for that one. I'm not sure how my colleagues at the hospital felt about seeing me running up and down the 9-story stairwell every Tuesday all winter, but on Saturday, it paid off.

I think it also helped going downhill -- and on a loop course with 3100 feet of up, there were 3100 feet of down too. There was plenty of it descending from Picnic Rock, much on rugged rocky singletrack that was a tiny bit muddy. 

Along here, and on the long, more runnable sections, I was starting to feel tired. The last section before AS 3, through the sand coulees and over the "sandy bumps," felt long and I wondered whether I'd gone out too hard. I consoled myself with the thought that after AS 3, I had a long climb and could walk then. 

I ran into AS 3 getting a little tired, but still happy with how I was performing. I was more than halfway done! I think at this point my split was about 2:20, which worked out to 14-minute miles.

AS 3 to AS 4 

I paused only to throw out some trash I'd picked up on the trail, and headed out on the penultimate leg. A long climb led up to the ridge, and when I paused at the top for a victorious picture, I discovered my phone battery was dead. Alas! Nothing to do but to run.

Somewhere up here I got a second wind, and started feeling the fatigue drop away. I passed several hundred milers, always trying to go wide around them and their pacers and cheering them on. The trail at the ridge top undulates a bit, with a surprising little final climb before a level section. 

It was along here that I came upon John, on his final loop of the 100. He was limping, leaning on a stick, and in obvious pain. He had pulled or cramped a groin muscle and was having pain at every step. Despite this, he was moving all right and eating and drinking. I encouraged him to take it one step at a time, but I was concerned for how he'd do descending Ant Hill. I was so glad to learn later that David Shannon helped him down Ant Hill (it took them an hour to get down). A few hours later, he limped through the finish line, completing his first 100. It didn't go the way he had planned, but he showed incredible grit and determination to make it work. 

My descent down Ant Hill was un-dramatic, and in fact was kind of fun. The trail was dry, the rocks were loose, the hill was steep. I was still running well. As I came off the steepest section of the descent, before the road, I had a great surprise -- David and Mike Madden were hiking out on the trail, taking pictures and cheering! I stopped for a few minutes to chat and get another Mike hug.

photos by David Shannon
My spirits lifted, I reached the gravel road.

Oh, the gravel road. It's less than 1.5 miles, flat, and nearly straight. As I started on it, I remarked, partly to myself and partly to a nearby runner (who turned out to be Dan, and ended up running much of the rest of the race with me), "This is the sixth time I've done this road over four years. The only time I ever ran the whole thing was during a thunderstorm, trying to stave off hypothermia. Today, I am going to run the whole road. I am going to do it slowly, but I am going to do it."

With that intention stated, I put on my sunglasses against the strengthening sunlight, set an easy pace, and focused on maintaining a quick light cadence with my feet, something I've been working on recently. I kept telling myself, "Be patient." I focused on breathing. I talked with Dan. The distance dropped away, not rapidly, but steadily. Bicycles passed us, and a 4-wheeler. I kept my effort steady. And soon enough, the bridge appeared, and the aid station, and we'd run the whole thing. I couldn't have been more pleased.

AS4 to Finish

I didn't stop. No need to. I headed right out on the final leg. It was only 2.7 miles. No major climbs or descents. Time to go.
Fake-running for the camera. Photo: Kelly Doyle
The trails were still dry and beautiful, even the sections that always have mud. I took a Roctane gel and reminded myself that this was the final stretch. I could run it all. I would run it all.

The trail wound through the woods, the doubletrack section longer than I recalled. Eventually we hit the side singletrack trail and it dropped down onto the road. The road is almost back at the campsite.

I was once again running with Dan. We passed another runner, who had slowed to a walk, and I encouraged him to run with us. "We're not going fast. Just slow and steady. Run it in with us!" He did for a ways, and then we picked up another runner. As we emerged at the campground, three of us ran it in, one after another. 

Familiar faces cheering me in: Brian Klug, and then Sara Welle. Speeding up. Flags, the timing mat, across the line. Wooden "medal" on a rope around my neck. Deep breaths. I glanced at my watch. 3:39. Wow.
Happy at the finish line. Photo: Eric Hadtrath

I Did So Good

I looked at my time again, and laughed and cried a little. I'd done exactly what I had set out to do. Jason Tintes spotted me and asked, "How was your race?" "Jason," I said, "I did so good." He laughed a little as I counted off on my fingers: "I finished without needing medical attention. I ran every section I wanted to run. I negative split. And I crushed my previous time by 55 minutes. Now we know how much time a broken arm takes! 55 minutes. SCIENCE."
Post race, cheering in runners
Photo by Todd Rowe
After devouring some hot bacon and eggs, I spent the afternoon helping pack up the race. I consolidated bins, carried stuff to the truck, collapsed tents. Every time we heard a cowbell, we'd look up and cheer in another 100 miler, 50 miler, 17 miler. I got to see a lot of beautiful finishes. Teri and Derek came in together. Kevin Chem finished, to crazy cheering and his own theme song. Steph Thiede finished her first 50, well ahead of Travis, who had a rough day and finished anyway. Jamison did his 50, and so did Joe Lang, and so did Janet. John made it in. Shannon got her 100. And then, with just two minutes remaining to the 6 pm cutoff, Sally and Sree came over the line to complete their 50 and 100 miles, respectively. They laughed (and maybe cried a little) about how they'd pushed each other to finish under the cutoff. With all the runners in, we literally rolled up the finish line and packed it away with the rest of the race.

Something Special

There's nothing quite like Zumbro. The crazy weather, the sense of shared purpose, the interminable waiting and the sudden hurrying, the highs and lows... somehow, they all come together to forge friendships and memories. Thank you, John and Cheri, for putting on the best party in the woods ever. See you soon!
Cheri, finally getting warm
John, making the magic happen

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Zumbro 2016 (The Cold One): Friday Volunteer Report


Zumbro, I can't quit you.

In 2013, you were my first long trail race. There was snow, there was ice, there were broken bones. But what I've been remembering recently was that it was also my first encounter with trail- and ultrarunners.

That year, I got to the starting line 90 minutes early and decided to get some extra miles in before the race, so I ran the first two miles or so of the course, then decided it was time to turn around and come back. I turned around and started back along the trail -- the wrong way. 

A runner with a 100-mile bib and a pair of trekking poles came up the path. Concern crossed his face. "You're going the wrong way. Are you okay?" Surprised and a bit embarrassed, I told him, "I'm fine." I was a little awed that, after 22 hours on his feet, he had the presence of mind and concern to ask how I was.

A hundred feet later, I met another one. "Are you all right? You're going the wrong way!" "Yes, I'm fine, I'm not in the race," I explained, probably incoherently. I resisted the urge to ask, "Are you okay? You're the one running a hundred miles!"

All the way back to the camp, I met runners who, many miles into their own race, inquired about mine. It was the first hint that there was something... different... about this community. It was a clue that this was something special.

I volunteered the following year, my first experience in the care and feeding of 100 milers. I learned Runner Psychology 101 from Joe Hegman, and the First Rule Of 100 Mile Aid from John Gustafson ("Always lie to 100 milers.") Last year I went all in, with two and a half days of Zumbro volunteering and pacing. By now? It's a tradition. I signed up to volunteer and run the 17 mile "fun run", cleared my work calendar, and made my plans.
AS 2/3 last year. Photo by Todd Rowe


Thursday night: Packing. Shorts, tights, three wool shirts, sunglasses, three jackets, four pairs of mittens and gloves, three pairs of shoes. Check the weather forecast and add in a down jacket and insulated skirt. Who knows? It's Zumbro.

Friday morning: I'm on the road a bit before six, stopping off to pick up Ryan, who is carpooling down. We miss a few turns here and there, but make decent time, and roll into the campground ten minutes before the 100 mile start at 8 am. 
100 mile pre-race briefing!
Flags are on your left, tell someone if you drop,
for God's sake wear a coat tonight, it's gonna be a cold one.
It's a cloudy, breezy, cool morning. I wander through the crowd of 75 hundred-mile runners, taking photos and distributing hugs. Lots of friends running this one. Everyone looks eager and a little anxious... everyone except John Taylor and Susan Donnelly, who are in the back looking like this is another day at the office. Considering they've each got more Zumbro finishes than anyone else there (and Susan more than anyone, period), maybe it is.
Kevin, and a Rob photobomb
Alan, ready to get this party started
Dale looking happy and excited
If Dale was excited, I'm not sure
there's a word for what Chris is...
John Storkamp wraps up his briefing and with little ceremony and no warning, begins to count down from five. Four... Three... Two... One... and the race begins. Crew, family, and volunteers cheer our heads off as they set off at an easy run.

Ryan, Lin, and Bob squeeze into my subcompact rental car to ride out to the aid stations. Bob gets shotgun since he's still in an arm brace, from a spectacular elbow-dislocating fall two weeks ago.
Bob's robo-arm! (photo by Erik Lindstrom)
(Flashback to me in 2013. Bob, you need a sticker!)
Since nobody jammed in the back seat can actually feel their legs, it's a lucky thing it's a short ride. We park at AS 1/4 and start out to our more remote aid station a mile further up the race course and down a shortcut. The trails are as dry as I've ever seen them, and in great shape. The first two dozen runners pass us in twos and threes and we cheer wildly for them, yelling helpful things like, "You're looking good!" and "Now's the time to make your move!"

Aid Stationing

At AS 2/3, setup is underway and there's already hot coffee. Kate is the aid station captain, and she knows her stuff: Not only does she do introductions and delegate tasks, but she reminds everyone about hand hygiene and knife safety, and tasks a couple of people with making sure we all get our race t-shirts. 
Kate! (And, why, yes, our aid station did have a lot
of coffee. Why do you ask?)
I'm the grillmaster, making soup and quesadillas on the propane camp stove. While I set up the stove and search through the dozens of bins for the lighter, others make PB&J sandwiches, cut up oranges and bananas, put out food, and mix Heed. 
"Can someone confirm there are 64 ounces in a gallon?"
"There are 128." [Frantic math-doing ensues] "Umm..."
"Yeah, don't try to do math. Throw in half a container, then taste it."
It's in the 30's and breezy. Gusts of wind ripple the tent and the light folding tables. Kate tells me, "When we got here this morning, the tent was completely blown over. We had to roll it over the right way, veeeeeery carefully. It looked like a baby giraffe learning to stand up." The HAM radio guys mess around with their tent, eventually partially collapsing two of its legs to make it more windproof.
AS 2. In the background, AS 3. It's like magic!
By the time things are more or less set up, the first runners are coming through. We cowbell, cheer, and fill water bottles, though nobody needs much of anything on their first trip through at mile 7 of the race. I get a few runner photos, but mostly I'm cooking soup and firing up quesadillas.
Chris and I are wearing matching 2013 Zumbro
shirts, 'cause we're cool people.
John stops by, making sure everything's going smoothly.
Larry Peterson, founder and godfather of the Zumbro race, wanders over somewhere around this point. We had met at last year's race. We joke about the greatly improved trail conditions this year, the ease of starting the fire, and the snow. Rob comes into AS 3 on his second loop and I introduce them. It's great to see everyone's reaction when I mention Rob's Arrowhead 135 finish this winter. It's cool to see old and new Zumbro runners talking together.

The wind is picking up and snow swirls around, alternating with not-quite-sunbreaks. At times, the snow is heavy enough that visibility is low, and a bit even accumulates on the ground. We're in a little valley, so rather than constant wind, we've got gusts, coming from any direction. The bonfire smoke whips around and I stamp out little grass fires at the edge of the fire circle.
Snow! Not just a little, either.
Ryan knows the right way to dress for aid stationing:
Down coat, warm shoes... and a shark suit.
By now, most runners are through their first loop and, after a bit of a lull, we begin to see them coming through for the second time. We're keeping warm with a combination of winter-weight clothing, standing next to the fire, and impromptu dance parties. Despite the cold temperatures, wind, and snow, most runners still look pretty comfortable.
Kevin, who volunteered Superior with me,
killing it on the way to his first 100 finish
Jordan, who I paced at this race last yearwas having a rough
time, but Lin did everything she could to help him out
Rob looks ridiculously comfortable and happy as he moves up into third place. John Schreier stops and massages his quads, and his first-time crew (who may have had no idea what they were signing up for) jump into action. Wendi moves through each time with no drama, looking like the Zumbro pro she is (with the tattoo to prove it). Erich tells us about a poorly marked section of trail, and Ryan heads out to fix it. Kevin Chem makes jokes about his sponsors. Kevin Langton greets us each time with a "woo hoo!" John Taylor comes through looking steady as a metronome, smiles calmly, and breezes away again. 

I offered runners "life-affirming quesadillas," discovering along the way that keeping them on the stove is the only way to keep them warm. As morning turns to afternoon, we began to do a more brisk business in hot soup and hot coffee.

Windy afternoon

The wind keeps buffeting us from different directions. We anchor things down with water jugs and big rocks. Despite this, in the early afternoon, a strong gust lifts the tent off the ground, knocks over two tables, and blows the camp stove onto the ground, along with a half-gallon of hot soup. It lands inches from my feet and I am astonished and grateful not to be scalded, or even wet from it. We manage to reassemble our aid station (though a few runners are crestfallen to come through and find no hot food) and tie everything down to even more heavy objects. Word comes in from the HAM radio operators that AS 1/4, which is on the river, has winds so strong they've had to take their tents down.

Runners are coming through on their third loop by midafternoon, and a few are beginning to look like they're suffering. The second-place runner sits down at AS 2 and says, "I'm having trouble eating." We discuss it. He's been drinking well, stomach feels full, food doesn't feel good, though a banana at the last aid station was okay.

I make him a peanut-butter banana with a pinch of salt on top. "Try this," I suggest, "and try drinking *less* on the next little section. You'll be back here in 2.7 miles, and then you can see if that's working."

About a half hour later, he's back at AS 3. "How'd it go?" I ask. "I feel much better now!" he tells me, and runs off. I do a brief version of my "I fixed a runner!" dance before getting back to work.

By early evening, the temperature is dropping again (it hit the low 40s, now it's back around freezing). Lisa and Joy, the race medics, bring out an extra bin of blankets and tarps to help warm up any runners who drop during the night. The mercury is predicted to hit the high teens tonight, and the wind is still coming in strong gusts. You can tell runners are starting to cool off; almost everyone wants a cup of soup now as they come into the aid station, and the life-affirming quesadillas are still popular.

Handing it over

We all give a cheer when, around 5:30, the overnight volunteer team arrives, carrying winter camping gear and armloads of eggs, bacon, and pancake mix. Dan Harke is leading this crew and they are amazing, pulling both the overnight and Saturday shifts. We hand off our work to them, explaining why there are large rocks on the tables and why all the water bottles have been pressed into service as tent weights. They're cheerful, energetic, and ready to make our aid station into a runners' oasis. When Ryan and I leave around 6, it's in good hands.

As we head out of the little coulee toward the car and civilization, the wind picks up and blows in our faces. Jordan comes up the trail; he's dropping with uncontrollable asthma. We cheer on the occasional runner, heading up the trail and heading into the night. It's not my first 100-mile volunteering experience, but it always amazes me, seeing what determined, prepared people can do when they really want it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Fun Run Season

With the completion of Icebox, my official, somewhat abbreviated, 2015 racing season came to a close. Now we're in the full swing of one of my favorite seasons of the running calendar, the Fatass and Fun Run season. A time to enjoy easy-paced running with friends, frequently followed by (or incorporating) fantastic food and a lot of laughter. It's a great time to run with friends from the front of the pack, the back of the pack, or not in the pack at all because of incompatible race schedules. 

So far, it's been a good one. 

Upper Midwest Trail Runners Fatass

The season kicked off the weekend after Icebox with the UMTR banquet and fatass runs. The morning of the banquet, we held 5K, 10K, and 20K fatass runs at Lebanon Hills, finishing at the picnic area with hot drinks. 

I led the 10K route around the park at a "no runner left behind" pace. It was great to catch up with some old friends and meet some new ones. We hit some of the Lebanon Hills highlights, going up Touch-A-Butt, down the deer trail, and staying on as much singletrack as we could find. It was fun running into the 20K group, led by Janet. ("I'm leading from behind," she explained, as they all took off in front of her.) 
Thanks, Samantha, Lisa, Eric, Rick, and Radek!

Afton Volunteer Fatass

The following weekend was John Storkamp's annual Afton fatass and potluck, open to volunteers from any of his Rocksteady Running races or any of the other local trail races. The last two years, it had been a "meet up at 7 or 10, run a loop on the Afton course, then potluck at noon" affair. But this year, John reverted to the classic "Buzzard's Bluff" group run format. His invitation said "this year's format TBD... blood and/or swimming possible with a chance of some running thrown in for good measure." Mention was made of bushwhacking, opportunities for clothing ruination, and general good times. 

Saturday before Thanksgiving dawned cold -- 20 degrees starting temperature -- but still no snow. A couple dozen of us took off from the visitor center and immediately plunged into the dense woods, pushing through buckthorn on deer trails. Soon, the little group I was running/hiking with was off trail altogether and bushwhacking through the November woods. 

We caught up with everyone else by a ruined fireplace in the woods.
Sheila, Jamison, and a whole bunch more 
Listening to readings from John's very important book.
We wound through the woods some more, on trails I'd never seen, stopping every so often for re-grouping and tomfoolery. The sun came out and despite the cool start, it was comfortable going.

We came down a bouldery descent and found ourselves on the river trail, right by the Meat Grinder. John organized sprints up the flat railbed trail.
John, Kevin, and some other fast dudes. Look at those smiles!
(photo credit: Todd Rowe)
Back up the Meat Grinder, around to the Snowshoe Loop, where we again quickly went off-trail and down a creek bed...
photo credit: Karlene Apelt
... tried some bad parkour, and made and an aid station stop under the road bridge with snacks, sparkling juice, and a rock-throwing contest. 
Then, a little rock climbing! (Karlene Apelt)
Mostly class IV scramble with a couple of class V moves.
Or you could do what John did, and just run up the
vertical slope next to the rocks. (Todd Rowe)
Somewhere in here was the "photo booth".  
We looped back past the Visitor Center, then skirted around the Africa Loop on narrow singletrack, with great views of Afton Alps' snow-making operation. Ended up at the Back 40 where the group split between the folks doing the "VO2max workout" (Kevin later told me it involved a sprint straight up a steep bank) and the rest of us. We climbed back up to the prairie and ran in the sunshine, talking as we went.

With a loop out to Campground Hill to see the new trail under construction and three hours or so on the clock, the fatass was over and it was time to eat. Lots of folks at the potluck who ran earlier, later, or different.

Including Rob, who had just completed the first
ever Afton 100K. FOUR freaking loops!
The highlight of the potluck was talking with runners and volunteers who've been doing this stuff for a long time. It was great to talk to John Horns, Steve Quick, and Loren and Pam Albin. Every year, I come away from this event with a better sense of where the Minnesota trail running scene has been, where it's headed, and where I belong in it. Thanks, John, for catalyzing such an amazing multigenerational running community.


Never did this one before. Edward and Alicia Sandor issued a general invitation to their Thanksgiving morning fun run, and my schedule was open. Why not?

Nine of us headed out from their Uptown/Lowry Hill neighborhood and quickly found ourselves on trails I'd never seen, right in Minneapolis.
By Cedar Lake? Some body of water or another.
Woods. Dirt. It's all good.
We ended up on the trails by Cedar Lake and the Luce Line, and from there meandered up to Theorodore Wirth Park. As we set out on Wirth trails, the light rain turned to light snow. By the time we'd run the cross-country ski trails around the wildflower garden, there was a light coating on the ground.
Edward, Bob, Scott, me, SNOW!
I got thrashed on the XC trails, then pushed to keep up on the secret singletrack running along the rail lines. Snow was falling. I was starting to get hungry. Two hours and about 10 miles later, we were back at the Sandors' and drinking hot coffee. It was a perfect way to start Thanksgiving Day.

Donut Day Fun Runs

An organized loop run around Minneapolis, stopping at donut shops along the way? Pure genius, courtesy of Jordan Hanlon. I've done this one before, twice, and was looking forward to doing it again.

Unlike other years I've donutted, the weather was warm. (In 2013, our starting temperature was -11F; this year, it was 32, rising to the 40s!) A half dozen of us met at 7 for a pre-donut out-and-back along Minnehaha Parkway, then regrouped at 8 for a couple of laps around Nokomis. At 9, we gathered for the official run.
BJ, Hadley, and a photobomb.
The photobombers, unmasked. Steve and Bob.
John talking with donut mastermind Jordan
I wanted to be home by 11, so again opted for the 5 mile/2 donut shop route. I ran it with Janet...

Warmed up with pre-donut miles,
and ready for some donuts!
... and with Mike.
We enjoyed fantastic donuts and coffee on the house at Mel-O-Glaze, skipped A Baker's Wife, pleading long lines and donut overload, and the miles flew by. Jordan raised money for TreeHouse Youth and organized a canned goods drive for the Little Kitchen Food Shelf. Thank you, Jordan! Awesome event and I'm glad we could do some good.

Burroughs Family Fun Run

K's school does a Family Fun Run every year in their PE class. It's a continuous long run -- in kindergarten, 20 minutes; first graders do 25 minutes, and so on to 45 minutes in 5th grade. The kids train for it every week and learn about pacing. During the run, in the gym, the teachers play music, turn on laser lights and a disco mirrorball, invite "special guests" (teachers), and generally make it super fun. It's a little like FANS for 7 year olds.

Yesterday, K and I ran 25 minutes (61.5 laps in the gym -- we counted!). We held hands, high-fived a lot, sped up in the last 5 minutes, and generally had an awesome time.
Super proud of this guy.

'Tis the Season

Here's to a great running year nearly past, and to a great year to come. Peace and joy to you all, and enjoy your season.
Just had to put this one in again :-)