Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Year The Trail Won: 2018 Zumbro 50 Mile and Volunteer Report


Prologue: Zumbro out-Zumbro'd itself

Weather and trail conditions are always the story of this race, and we've had some doozies in the 6 years I've done Zumbro, but this year Zumbro out-Zumbro'd itself.

In the week leading up to the race: Heavy snow, then it all melted, then rain. (So, trail best described as "highly juicy.")

Forecast for the weekend: Temps hovering around freezing, heavy rain changing to snow, with 25 mph winds gusting to 40 mph.

I'd signed up for the midnight 50 mile race. No training cycle is perfect, but I'd had some good long runs and some good intensity. I'd trained in wind, snow, -20F windchill, and ice. I was by no means ready for a 50 miler, but I figured I had a good 50K in me, and beyond that, well, I was ready to suffer, if conditions and timing would permit me to.

In light of the forecast, packing was surprisingly easy: Did I wear it some time this winter? Throw it in the car.

For the run: 3 jackets, 4 pairs of mittens and gloves, 7 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of shoes (one with screws in the soles for better grip on ice), tights in 3 different weights, and so. many. buffs.

Also, camping gear, after-race clothes, heavy winter coat, raincoat, waterproof winter boots.

Also, a snow shovel.

Let the record show that I in fact did use 80% of these things, including the snow shovel.

Watching the skies: Friday afternoon to midnight

I arrived at the start/finish Friday around 3 pm. Temperatures in the mid 30s and windy, iron gray skies, no snow on the ground, no precipitation in the air, though it had been pouring rain with standing puddles at the race start.
Campground, Friday afternoon (photo: Lisa Kaspner-Swift)
Campground, Saturday morning (photo: Lisa Kaspner-Swift)
The 100 milers had been on course for 7 hours and the fastest of them were finishing their second (of 6) 17-mile loop. They were coming in mud-spattered and with wet, gritty feet. Foot care was a major theme, and nearly everyone was changing out socks and shoes, every loop.

Rob comes in and heads to the aid station for food.

ME: "Is it as wet out there as it looks?"
HIM: "Yeah, some sections of the trail are now a river. Lots of mud."
ME: "I bet the sand coulee section isn't too sandy, though?"
HIM: "The sand coulee section is under shin-deep water."
ME: "..."

The bonfire is going and won't go out until tomorrow night. The wind whips across the campground and blows the smoke in every direction. Randy, Jim, and Larry are by the fire. Jamison's captaining the aid station, other friends are crewing runners.

Randy tells tall tales. I laugh at Jim's ridiculously warm, but appropriate, mittens.

"You know it's a good Zumbro year when you get to haul out all the Arrowhead gear again."

Jim, Randy, Larry. That's a lot of awesome packed into one picture.
Although many runners are wearing shorts or half-tights, it's cold standing still in the wind. I walk around, catch up with friends, get news of the trail.

"How are trail conditions?"
"Favorable."
"Favorable?!"
"Favorable to the trail winning."

At 5, I eat some food I've packed, and set my car up for camping.

At 6, I lay down in the back of the car to get some sleep ahead of the midnight start.
After shivering in my sleeping bag for a while, I sleep surprisingly well. 

I'm briefly awoken around 8 pm by the clatter of ice hitting my car windows. But the coating of ice seems to dim the outside light and muffle the noises of the start/finish area, and I go back to sleep.

50-mile start: This is, in fact, a blizzard

I awaken again in full darkness. Glance at my watch. Yikes! It's 11:10 pm, and I've overslept my alarm.

The car windows are completely covered with... ice? snow? I don't know until I open a door and HUGE fluffy snow flakes swirl into the car in clusters.

The term "blizzard" is often misused to describe any large amount of snow. That's not what a blizzard is. The meteorlogical definition of a blizzard is a storm with large amounts of snow (falling or blowing), with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile.

This is, in fact, a blizzard. Visibility's near-zero, the wind is whipping, and the air is full of snow.

I'm up, dressed, brushing teeth, and off to the start/finish aid station to find coffee and try to eat some of the breakfast I've packed.

The picnic shelter that houses the aid station and race headquarters is packed with 50 mile runners, pinning on bibs, shuffling nervously, and trying to stay warm.

I get to the packet pickup table. John, who I met at my very first ultra five years ago, is manning the table.

ME: "Hey John, I don't know my race number. Can I still check in?"

HIM: "Absolutely not."
ME: "AWESOME. I'm going back to bed!"
[we laugh]
ME: "Seriously, this is fucked up, even for Zumbro."

The vibe at a race start is always excited and nervous. But between the weather, the reported trail conditions, and the midnight start, it's amplified tenfold above normal tonight. I see so many friends, wearing waterproof layers and headlamps, all exchanging nervous banter and looks as if we're about to go do something exciting and possibly illegal.

Unprecedentedly, John Storkamp gives the pre-race briefing under the shelter instead of from a stepladder at the start.

"We thought long and hard about whether to let you guys loose on this course.

"Not so much because of the course, but because of the road conditions in and out of here. We can't use even 4-wheel drive vehicles on the minimally-maintained dirt road to Aid Station 1/4 right now, because it's in such bad shape. We've got ATVs that can evacuate people in an emergency, but it's going to be difficult."

"By the time you get the 3 miles to AS 1 in this race, you will have had a life-altering experience. You will have seen things out there.

"If you get there and you are not certain you can safely continue, or don't want to, there's a shortcut you can take from there back to the start/finish. It's about a mile. Use it."

[This is unprecedented. I have participated in at least 15 major races with John as RD, and I have *never* heard him this up-front about dropping. And dropping 3 miles in!]

"If you finish a loop and you're not certain you can safely complete a second loop, please hand in your bib number. Do not go back out on the course if you don't feel you can finish another loop safely."

John: "As of 11 pm, 50% of our 100 milers have dropped."

[The normal drop rate for the 100 is about 30%, total.]

"And if you don't want to start the race, that's okay too. Just hang back at the start, and we'll put you to work volunteering."

[Holy shit, we're all thinking. Did John just tell us to consider not STARTING?]

We all walk out to the starting line. It's snowing heavily and the wind is in our faces. John counts down 3... 2... 1... and we're finally starting.

On the trail: Mud, solitude, relief

After the months of training, the weeks of tapering, the days of following the weather, and the hours of waiting at the start, the only thing I'm feeling at the race start is relief. Relief to finally, *finally* be starting this thing.

The 175 runners begin our climb up the first bluff. Snow and mud have mixed into something resembling brownie batter under our feet. It's slippery, clinging, and wet.

We climb the singletrack, mostly in silence. The air is clean smelling away from the bonfire smoke. The snow is swirling. The trail is piebald brown and white, and the trees are laden with snow.


By the top of the first bluff, I'm warm and shedding layers. With temperatures hovering just the wrong side of freezing, it's actually very comfortable out here in a few layers.
(photo: Valentina Cuervo Barrientz)
The first, 3+ mile section is very muddy but very beautiful. My heel pulls out of my shoe three, then four times as the mud tries to hold on, and I finally stop to tighten the laces. The going is definitely slower than usual, but I've known for a week or more that it would be, and I'm prepared to take my time where I need to.

The crowd rapidly thins, or at least it seems that way in the dark. I'm moving in my own little bubble of light, through a landscape transformed and hushed by snow.
(photo: Janet Gray)
The first aid station is here before I know it, and I stop to eat something and chat with friends working there.

Brian Klug tells me that the 17 mile race, scheduled to start at 8 am, has been canceled. Given that it would have brought 400 more runners, some on their first trail run, into an area with no cell service via dirt roads in a blizzard (and at this point, snow's worse in the Twin Cities than where we are), it's hard to fault this decision. It is the first time John has ever canceled a race, ever.

I'm nothing but happy, and off on the next section. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that it's much better footing, with nearly no mud. The snow seems to be filling in mud puddles, and the dropping temperature is partly freezing what's left.

This is a longer (4.3 mi) section without any major features to distinguish it, and, having been on this course many times, I know that it can feel very long. But tonight, in my little island of light, time flows and the the trail flows under my feet at exactly the right rate. I'm at AS 2/3 before I know it.

I usually volunteer at AS 2/3, the most remote aid station, and I'm thrilled to see the overnight crew there, keeping warm as best as they can and supporting all the runners. "This is some EXTREME Zumbro!" I yell as they cowbell me into the aid station. John Taylor offers words of encouragement as I drink hot coffee, and I'm off on the short loop up a ridge and through the sand coulee.

The descent from Picnic Rock is as challenging as anything I've done so far. I squat, slide down packed ice in my trail shoes, grab trees that are heavily glazed with ice. I'm wearing glasses rather than contacts, and am grateful for their protection as I hit branches bowed by ice that I don't see in time to duck them.

The sandiest section appears to have actually been re-routed, because there's a full-bore river running through the coulee. I'm filled with gratitude as I run along packed snow and note how much *better* the footing is than usual.

I've got nothing but joy and gratitude in my heart in this section. The trail is moving along under me, the night is beautiful, and all is well.

Back to AS 2/3, now on the 3 side. My feet are definitely very wet, and the plastic bags I'd put over them, while initially keeping them warm and dry, are now trapping water inside instead.

I execute a sock change by the bonfire, while drinking hot soup and bantering with the volunteers. My feet instantly feel better, and I can't wait to climb the ridge and see what the next section has in store.

The next leg features a long climb, a ridge section, a technical descent (Ant Hill!), and a long perfectly flat gravel road section beside the river.

The climb goes by quicker because I can't see it in the dark.

The ridge has 40+ mph winds and the snow is drifting. In places the trail's covered by 18" or more of snow. Later on Saturday, I hear that the gusts increase to 60+ mph and the drifts to 3 feet. It's possible to stay warm, but you've got to keep moving to do it.

Ant Hill, much like the sand coulee, is much *less* difficult than usual! Snow covers the normally loose rockfill. It's a bit icy, but mostly runnable (as my trashed quads are still telling me). I'm whooping and laughing in surprise and elation as I run down it.

I'm still feeling good and run nearly all of the mentally difficult river road section. Near the end, my right hip flexor starts to ache — an injury that's flared off and on for me since December, but that has been quiescent for the last few weeks. I'm through the 4 side of AS 1/4 and heading back toward the start/finish. It's muddy again, but there's less wind and I'm getting excited about being done with a loop.

I'd been thinking that I'll certainly do one more 17-mile loop and make it a 50k at least, but in this section, my hip flexor's getting worse, and my left peroneal tendon is now joining in. It's a chronic problem that I manage effectively with RockTape, but in the continued wet, the tape's come loose.

Nevertheless, I'm coming in across the campground before I know it, and the clock ticks to 5:28 as I cross the line for the first loop.

[5:28 is not a personal worst, since I did a 7-hour loop once, pacing a 100 miler. But it's pretty damn slow. To put it in perspective, I ran the loop under icy conditions in 2013 in 4:35... WITH A BROKEN ELBOW.]

Making choices, finding meaning

I cross the line and Jamison, the AS captain, says, "Great job! Do you want to drop?"

[He's saying this to everyone — it's a reflection of the course conditions and the roads, not how I look.]

"I want to look at my feet and think about my life," I reply. I'm pretty sure at this point that I'm not going to get 50 miles, especially not under the 18 hour cutoff. I think I could probably get another loop, but have questions about whether I would do lasting damage to my hip flexor. I want to consider it again after making my wet feet happy.

The woman right behind me comes across the line, grinning ear to ear.

"That was amazing! That was beautiful! Take my fucking number NOW!" she exclaims. That's what most people are doing.

I head into the heated tent (set up for medical support and warming) with my drop bags, and start changing out socks and shoes, and refilling my pack. Lisa is running medical support, as usual, and we reminisce about the year she saved me from hypothermia at this race. 

"People are making good choices this year," she says. "I've had less to do than usual!"

I'm changed out and deciding what to do. I'm not sure whether another 17 mile loop is a good idea, but I've decided to go to AS 1/4 and see how I feel, when John comes in to confer with Lisa.

He mentions that he's been in contact with the county to plow the road out, and that he's also paid a private snowplow operator to clear the road to ensure that runners can get out. He continues,

"I think we can continue to operate the race for the remaining 50 and 100 mile racers and allow the people on course to finish. But I'm concerned about volunteer morale, especially at the aid stations."

Saturday's wave of volunteers can't get in, and the people at the aid stations have been there since yesterday. The race cutoff isn't till 6 pm.

I see an opportunity to do something more meaningful than go back out into a race I don't think I can finish just so I can feel accomplished.

"John, I'm not going to be able to finish the 50. I was going to take a shot at another loop, but how about I hike out to AS 2/3 and work there instead?"

John is definitely down with that. I emerge from the tent — it's daylight now — and hand in my number without any regret at all.

An unexpected aid-station party

I put on my heaviest coat, right over my racing gear, throw more clothes, food, and boots in my backpack, and start the 2+ mile hike out to AS 2/3.

I can't believe I might have dropped and not seen the course in daylight. It is astonishing. Trees are laced in snow and ice. The ground is covered, above my shoe tops in places.

The trail, muddy at midnight, is now mostly frozen and firm. It's getting better by the minute.

I reach the top of the ridge and take in the view out across the valley. It's a weird, beautiful sight.

A half-mile from the AS, I meet Brian, the overnight AS captain, hiking back to civilization. I tell him I'm coming to relieve the AS. He's glad to hear it. Everyone working there has been there since at least 6 pm, some since yesterday afternoon, and none were planning to spend the whole day.

A glance around tells the story of the last 24 hours. Despite the folding canopies, the tables are covered in a half-inch of ice (and in some cases, frozen Coke or coffee), and snow and ice have collected in open food containers. Water pitchers are slushy. Snow collects in chair seats. Luckily, it's cold enough that it doesn't melt, and wet isn't a problem so much as continued cold. 

The three remaining volunteers are mostly well prepared and keeping warm, though I do loan my warm Sorel boots to aid station captain Karen, who's wearing uninsulated rain boots.
#aidstationlife (Photo: John Taylor)
I work AS 2/3 from whenever I arrive (7:30 am? 8? not sure) until the very last runner has come through and the sweeps have removed all the markers from the trail, around 3:30 pm. Here are some things that happen during that time:

1. I drink about 4 cups of coffee and eat about 6 grilled-cheese sandwiches and some Gummi Bears. It's all delicious. 

2. I unfasten ice-crusted gaiters and untie frozen shoelaces.

3. After conferring with John and deciding to strip the AS down to a skeleton operation to facilitate reduced volunteer numbers, I do a lot of work packing up the AS to a bare minimum. I pack bins, collapse tables, and drag extra water containers out to where an ATV can pick them up.

4. I give serious side-eye to groups of crew who show up and try to put the whole woodpile at once onto the bonfire. Then I fix it. Don't they know that you need air as well as fuel?
The way in and the way out (Photo: John Taylor)
Most runners who aren't feeling well have done the smart thing and dropped. There's surprisingly little "fixing" to be done, even late in the race. 

A 50-miler comes in, sits by the fire and buries his face in his hands.

ME: "What's going on?"
HIM: "Is there an ATV coming by? I want to drop."
ME: "No, but there's a two-and-a-half mile walk-out. But, hey, is this your last loop?"
HIM: "Yeah..."
ME: "Well, it's only 7 miles to the finish. You should just finish."

HIM: "No, I want to drop. I pushed really hard, and I got lost and did that last section twice, and I don't have anything left."
ME: "Aha! In that case, you should eat something!"
HIM: "No, I can't eat anything. I'm spent."
ME: "Aha! In that case, you should drink some ginger ale!"
HIM: "No, I can't drink anything."

[I now elide another 5 minutes' worth of me trying to motivate this runner, who tells me he came here to win the 50 and now that he can't, doesn't want to finish. I consider my ability to get runners out of my aid station and back onto the course to be one of my superpowers, so I'm really working him. He is just not interested. Finally, I throw up my hands, take his number, and point him to the walk-out.]

We are continuing to pack up and consolidate down as the number of runners on the course dwindles. But we keep out the cowbell, because when a runner comes in or heads back out, we are cheering like crazy.

And when they head out to finish their final loop, we cheer our damn faces off for them. Because finishing a 50 or a 100 mile in these conditions is just amazing.

[The 100 mile finish rate was 17%. Of 120 starters, we had TWENTY finishers. That's all. 50 mile had 28% finish rate.]

Zumbro continues to Zumbro. The snow switches over to pea-sized ice pellets, which fall in profusion, making an incredible racket. They bounce around on the tables and into the food dishes.
Firepit and drop bags (Photo: John Taylor)
The wind continues to whip the bonfire smoke in every direction. It's impossible to avoid the smoke plume.

My gloves have gotten soaked over the course of the day, though I don't notice it till later. But with the lifting, carrying, and staying busy, the rest of me is warm and comfortable.

Eventually, we're down to two tables. Then, with the last runners through and only the sweeps to come, we move a few snacks onto tree stumps and take those down. The tents are down, the drop bags are packed up, the ham radio operator's tent is down and fire's out.

Aside from the trampled snow and bare patches where tarps were laid down before the day's snowfall, you can't tell that there was a little oasis of hot food, light, and heat here for the last 30+ hours.

Rolling up the finish line

Everyone but one ATV driver and the AS captain head back to the start/finish. Riding in an ATV in the 12" mud ruts and snow is an adventure, but beats the 2+ mile walk back any day. Connie and I enjoy the cold breeze in our faces.

Back at the start/finish, runners are finishing their races, but everyone who can has already left. Word is that the roads are scary. Not just the dirt roads into the race site, either. US Highway 52, one of the main routes between here and the Twin Cities, is closed due to white-out conditions, drifting, and multiple accidents.

I eat a quesadilla wrapped around a few pieces of bacon (the grill is the last piece of equipment to get packed), and try to figure out whether I'm going to be able to drive home in my Prius.

John and a few other of the core volunteers reassure me that they'll make certain that I can get out, one way or another.

[John and I had a similar conversation early in the morning, before I went to AS 2/3. His and Cheri's attention to detail and their commitment to taking care of volunteers was a HUGE reason I stayed on to help out. I have no idea how or when I'm going to get out, but I am absolutely certain that he's got my back.]

Overheard in the warming tent:
"Your first hundred mile? Congratulations! And now you've done a winter ultra too. You should probably do Arrowhead next year!"

After 45 minutes in the warming tent and some food, I'm feeling pretty good and I've got nothing to do until I have an exit strategy. I'm back out and helping load the giant box truck with all the race gear.

I roll up banners with another volunteer, laughing as the sleep and calorie deprivation catch up with us and we fail, over and over again, to roll in sync.

I literally roll up the finish line after the last finisher comes through.

I untie tarps that were hastily hung to block some of the wind, laughing and cursing at the terrible knots someone tied to get them up.

I haul ridiculously heavy picnic tables back into place under the shelter.

The entire start/finish is packed and everything's back from the aid stations. We walk around the campground to tell everyone still there that the drop bags are finally back.

Exit strategy, and choices again

It's 6:45 pm. There are just six of us left: John the RD; Larry the former RD; Scott, driving the truck; my friend Todd; Lisa; and myself. We stand in a little circle and shake hands with each other.

It's been memorable, even for Zumbro. It's been hard and cold and wet and difficult, even for Zumbro. John's had to make extraordinary efforts and some difficult calls, but with them he's averted the chance of a serious car crash or medical emergency on the trail, which would have haunted him and all of us.

It's been remarkable and memorable and special. Even for Zumbro.

I in my Prius, and Lisa in her Honda Fit, caravan out behind Todd in his 4WD car. The roads are snow-covered but passable. I'm home an hour slower than usual, but I'm home.

The lingering woodsmoke smell and my aching quads remind me that this all happened just a few days ago.

Zumbro's always a mess of complicated joyful Big Feelings. I wish I'd felt good enough to charge out on a second loop. But I'm glad I could work at the aid station — and I couldn't have done both. Either choice would have brought joy and meaning. 

The best thing, though? In just a year, I get to choose my Zumbro adventure all over again and see it through, with all its unexpected ups and downs.

I can't wait.

THE END.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happiest Place on Earth: Fall Superior 2017 Volunteering and Pacing Report

It's September, and the Big Dance of Minnesota trail running, Fall Superior 100, 50, and 26.2, has come and gone. Once again, I was there to volunteer and pace. I wouldn't miss this one for anything. Sit back and enjoy some stories from 30 hours at Superior.

Getting to Finland

There are Car Logistics, so I drop my car at the (not yet set up) Sugarloaf aid station and walk the 1+ mile down the gravel road to Highway 61 so Samantha can pick me up and give me a ride to Finland, where we're both working. I bring along early dinner.

The next day, someone asks me, "Did I see you standing on the side of Highway 61 last night, eating a giant salad?"
"Yes. Yes, you did."


Jump around

Mile 51 aid station is at Finland Recreation Center, and it's jumping. Dawn is running a great aid station. The first dozen runners have come through and more are trickling in, but lots of crew members and pacers are already hanging out, the food's hot, and the music is playing.
Samantha: "You know what the difference
between ultrarunners and normal people is?
When 'Jump Around' comes on, normal
people jump around for, like, 15 seconds.
Ultrarunners jump around FOR THE WHOLE SONG."
A runner's mom comes over and asks Joy, Chalayne, and I whether one of us is a medical person. Without copping to the fact that we are, respectively, a nurse, an EMT, and a doctor, I ask, "What for?"
"My son is trying to decide whether to drop."
Joy: "If he has to ask, the answer is no."

Joy and I eventually 'fess up to being medical and go over to talk to the runner. We agree that he looks WAY too good to drop, even if he is throwing up.
ME: "Hey, Eric Nordgren once finished a 100 without eating anything for the last 40 miles."
HIM: "I know Eric. And, yeah, but once it took him 8 hours to get through Manitou Gorge and he dropped at mile 75."
ME: "Curses! Your logic is too strong for me. But now it's time for you to leave."
HIM: [gets up and leaves the aid station to continue his race]

We're handing out hot hashbrowns, quesadillas, and bacon. The temperature's dropping on its way to the high 30s and we're putting on more layers. Someone lights the bonfire and turns on the strings of lights as the sun sets.
Credit: Fall Superior Races
Lots of friends are coming through. Susan is running her 100th 100 miler today. She's characteristically focused as she throws down three cups of hashbrowns, and acknowledges my congratulations with a little smile. Bekah is looking a little wide-eyed but overall great in her first 100 miler. Andrea's running her first 100 too, and Samantha is ready to pace her when she comes in a bit before 10 pm. It's busy and exciting. 


Pacing: Finland to Crosby-Manitou (11.6 miles)

I'm pacing Joel and Kyle from here to Sugarloaf, mile 72. They've sent me a spreadsheet with their expected times in and out of each aid station, indexed to their splits from 2015, when they last ran the race. It's a model of precision and prediction. They arrive only 45 minutes after their best-case time.

Joel has told me he doesn't want to waste time at Finland. As soon as I hear they've arrived, I rip off my outer layers, change shoes, shoulder my pack, and bound over to where they've sat down (wisely, nowhere near the fire). "YOUR PACER IS READY! LET'S ROLL!"

(It's possible I've had a few cups of coffee.)

I ferry bacon, soup, and coffee to them. Jeff will also be pacing the next few sections. After only a small amount of fussing with technology, food, shoes, and lube, we're on our way across the soccer field and into the woods.

It's 11 pm. Finland to Sonju is 7.4 miles and we're power-hiking at a good clip. Quickly, we warm back up and are shedding hats and jackets, despite the cool temperatures.

The trail is pretty dry, the sky's clear, and the waning, three-quarters moon has risen. When I step off the trail to pee and turn off my headlamp, everything is outlined in dappled silver shadows.

Sound carries differently in the dense woods. Everything sounds very close and intimate. Conversation is easy among the four of us as we walk single-file.

 In the dark, we can't see how long the hills are or how steeply they climb. We're in a little bubble of light, specks of warmth moving through the night.

We reach Sonju in a little under two hours. It's a "minor" aid station, with no crew access, and in the past it's been a quiet, mellow place.

 This year, however, Maria is captaining Sonju and she's not one for doing things halfway. The theme is "Woodstock," and there's music, decoration, and costumes. Oh, my, the costumes.
GROOVY.
Travis, who I paced last year, is there:
"Where'd you get the wig?"
"What wig?"
We laugh about how much better we're both feeling at Sonju this year. Last year we made a long stop here, in the rain, trying to get Travis's mojo back. This year, Joel and Kyle are hours ahead of where Travis had been, and we're all feeling great.

We reload on coffee and bacon (seriously, my runners were POWERED by bacon) and we're off again, this time just a 4.2 mile segment to Crosby-Manitou. Our stop has gotten us chilly and it's harder to warm back up. My hands are freezing and I pull my buff back on.

We're still power hiking, and we're still booking just-over-20-min miles. Solid for the middle of the night and ahead of the spreadsheet projections. Conversation meanders. Joel and I have a lengthy, likely-tedious-to-everyone-around-us discussion about Christian theology. I recite poetry and make bad jokes.

Right around 3 a.m. and we're arriving at Crosby-Manitou. The last half-mile is up a gravel road and we've got our first clear views of the night sky in a while. The moon is high and washing out the Milky Way, but thousands of stars still hang high above us. We spot Orion on the horizon, and Cassiopeia overhead, and collectively bemoan our lack of constellation knowledge.

100 yards out from the aid station and I hear Matt, the aid station captain, booming, "Welcome to Crosby-Manitou, fueled by Peet's coffee!!!" He's clearly been sampling his own wares -- it might be 3 in the morning, but he's WIRED.

We've planned a longer stop here. Joel and Kyle plunk into chairs by the fire and surround themselves with an explosion of drop-bag crap -- electronics, charging cables, batteries, food, socks, I don't even know what some of it is.

I've brought them coffee and bacon, eaten some fried potatoes and bananas, and I'm getting antsy. Matt and I sing along to "Lawyers, Guns, and Money." I joke around with other runners and pacers. I stage a one-person dance party to "Gangnam Style." Finally, I tell my runners, "Let's roll." Eventually, we do.


Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf, 9.4 miles 

At 3:20, we head into the Manitou Gorge. It's 9.4 miles that includes some of the gnarliest terrain of the course. The spreadsheet says it'll take 4 hours.

The spreadsheet's pretty good. It takes right around 4:05.

 The trail makes a bouldery descent and crosses the Manitou River in the first half-mile, and then we begin a long, steep climb out. This is the part everyone talks about, so I'm prepared for the preposterously steep, bouldery trail and its multiple false summits. Pumped on coffee and Zevon, I exclaim, "We're doing this thing!" Joel, Kyle, and Jeff agree that we are, in fact, doing this thing. We're in great spirits.

What people forget to mention about this section is that after you've climbed out of the gorge, you've still got 6+ miles of trail ahead of you. It's long, but we're buoyed by being through the hard part, and by the prospect of sunrise in an hour or so.

At the top of a ridge, we pass a runner who's off the side of the trail, sitting on a boulder. 
"Come along with us!"
"No, I'm going to rest a little here. But would you tell my wife that I'm still coming, just much slower than I thought?"
We get his name (John), his number (49), his wife's name (Angel), and promise we'll look for her at Sugarloaf.

[18 HOURS LATER, AT THE FINISH LINE:
Race cut-off is 38 hours. A 100 mile runner finishes at 37:59, to thunderous applause and cheering.
10 minutes later, he finds me.
HIM: "You probably don't remember, but you passed me in the Crosby-Manitou section."
ME: "John! Number 49! We tried to find Angel!"
HIM: "Here she is!" [I shake hands with his beaming wife.]
HIM: "I spent SIX HOURS in that section. Got into Sugarloaf and told Angel I wanted to drop. She wouldn't let me."
ANGEL: "He finished and said, 'Can you believe I wanted to drop?!'"
HIM: "I finished! My first 100! In 37 hours, 59 minutes!"
ME: "This is the awesomest thing I have heard ALL DAY."]

The sky lightens, the stars fade, the sun rises. The mud is deep and wet in this section. We're hopping from log to rock to board to avoid it.
ME: "This is like playing 'The Floor Is Lava!' Woohoo!"

Eventually, we hit an unavoidable mudpit, and we're all in shin or knee-deep mud. So it goes.

After a long time in woods and upland bogs, we cross the final stream, climb gently, and up ahead we hear the unmistakable sounds of Sugarloaf aid station. It's 7:30 a.m., the air is growing warm, and the night is over.

My pacing section is done. I'm sending them off with a fresh pacer, Kelli, but first, Joel wants bacon. Of course. I raid the table and return with good news and bad news.

ME: "Joel, they're making more but there was only one piece. The good news is, it's huge!" [I brandish a giant piece of bacon.]
JOEL: "This looks great. Now, I need about four more like this one."
ME: "Did you hear literally anything I just said?"

They take off with their new pacer. I peel off my mud-crusted gaiters, shoes, and socks and enjoy the sensation of dry feet while eating a few aid station burgers with bacon.
Kyle (front) and Joel, crushing it in daylight.
Credit: Zach Pierce


Sugarloaf Volunteering


Joe and Jan are running the aid station again, and as usual it's a well-organized, well-staffed, laid-back oasis in the woods. This is my fourth year at Sugarloaf, and every year it gets another accoutrement or two: this year, there's an actual porta-potty! How civilized!


I chase my bacon burgers with a cup of coffee and I'm ready for some aid-station action. I butcher a watermelon, fill runners' water bottles, chat with crew and pacers who await their runners.

A cure for nausea

Scott comes in. He's in pretty good spirits, a little queasy but otherwise feeling great. Last year he'd come in right at the cutoff and with a bad ankle sprain, so this is great. His crew sprays him down with sunblock as he sits down for a short rest.

 I bring him a ginger candy.
ME: "This is good for nausea. Just tuck it into your cheek and let it dissolve."
HIM: "Thanks." [sticks the wrapper in his vest]
ME: "Hey, I can throw that away. Do you have other trash you need to get rid of?"
HIM: "Actually, yeah. I've been picking up trash along the trail."

He begins pulling trash out of his vest pocket: a gel wrapper, a piece of foil, and then... a ziplock sandwich bag with some dried green leaves in it.

ME: "What's that?"
HIM: "No idea. It's not mine, I picked it up off the trail."
[My friend Jim, waiting for his runner, has joined us.]
JIM: "It looks like... weed."
ME [starting to giggle]: "Uh, yeah, it actually does."
SCOTT [also laughing]: "I've never smoked pot. Is this what they call a dime bag?" [He holds it up in the air and looks around.] "Ten bucks! Anyone?"
 JIM: "You totally picked up someone's stash!"
ME: "I'm gonna throw it away. It's probably crappy weed anyway. Though, hey, it might be good for your nausea!"
[I take the bag and the rest of Scott's trash and throw them in the trash bag.]
JIM: "Are you sure you actually threw it away?"
[We all giggle like little kids. Other people are giving us weird looks.]

Scott heads out, in good spirits. 

Duct tape and determination

Jim waves me over. Angela has just come into the aid station and needs some advice.

Angela is one of the "Gnarly Bandits," a group of runners attempting to run a series of 4 100-mile Upper Midwest races and a 100k, all in one season. I'm the series director this year. I know that Angela did the Gnarly Bandit two years ago (and then ran a 150 mile trail race a few weeks after completing it). Her sweet, smiling, petite, blonde appearance masks the legs of an endurance athlete, the heart of a champion, and the determination of a crazed badger.

She's fallen somewhere in the last section and slammed her dominant right hand on a rock. "It's a little swollen," she says. 

It is indeed swollen, and painful to move or manipulate. Her question is not "Is it broken?" It isn't "Should I drop?" No, this is Angela. Her question to me is, "Can I wait till Monday to get this looked at?"

 I could examine her hand further to get a sense of whether this is a bruise, a sprain, or a fracture. But as I think about it, this doesn't seem like the most important issue at the moment.

"Let's just talk about getting through the race for now. The worst-case scenario is that something is broken," I tell her. She nods. "If it's a simple fracture, then yeah, you can wait till after the race to get it looked at. But the worst-case scenario for a fracture is that it's damaged the blood supply to your hand. If that's the case, you need to stop right away, 'cause not finishing is sad, but gangrene is much worse."

 I examine her hand. Her fingertips are pink, warm, and have rapid capillary refill. She's got normal sensation in them. She can move her fingers and thumb, though it's painful to do so.

"Right now, it looks like you've got good circulation to your hand. I want you to check your fingers at every aid station. If they start to get blue, or cold, or numb, you need to stop and go to the emergency room." She agrees. (I think I use the phrase "or your fingers might turn black and fall off" at some point in this discussion.)

We decide to gently wrap her hand, both to protect it and to remind her not to try to use it. We roll up one of her buffs and put it in her hand. Another runner has an Ace bandage and brings it over, and I gently wrap it around her hand and wrist.

I realize I don't have safety pins handy and I've cut off the velcro edge. But just then, someone brings up a roll of duct tape. Perfect! We tear off a couple of long strips and secure the Ace wrap.
I didn't get a picture, but Zach Pierce did at Temperance
 "Try not to fall on it if you can," I tell her, unnecessarily. "When I broke my elbow at Zumbro, I think I re-fractured it going down Ant Hill and it hurt just as much as the first time." Angela shudders in sympathy (but she's still smiling as I'm taping her up, and asking how other runners are doing).

She's ready to get moving, and takes off as soon as I give the all-clear.

Rick is crewing for Lisa, who hasn't arrived yet. During this interlude, he's disappeared off to his car and returned in running gear. "I'll pace her for a little ways," he tells me, and takes off after her. 

12-plus hours later, Angela finishes the Superior 100, 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Her hand's still duct-taped together, still hurts, but she's beaming.

On Monday, she confirms that, yeah, it's broken.

Just a flesh wound

A woman running the 50 mile comes in, covered in mud and with blood running down her face from an abrasion at her temple.
"Would you like me to clean up that head wound?"
She's busy filling her water bottle and barely looks up. "No thanks."
"Did you lose consciousness when you fell?"
"No."
She's out of the aid station 
before I can ask any more tricky questions. 


Skin deep

My friend Kevin comes in, maybe an hour ahead of cutoff. He's been fighting injuries all season and went into the race undertrained but hopeful. But the Manitou Gorge has taken a lot out of him and his feet feel terrible. He's looking pretty demoralized.
Luckily, his wife Lisa is there and she is the greatest force for positivity that I know. She and I gang up on him.
"Kevin, you look awesome! And you got a new tattoo! It looks just like mud splatters but I can tell." He smiles wanly and drops into a chair.

We cautiously peel away his mud-soaked gaiters, shoes, and socks. His feet are white and streaked with mud. "I think I want to wash my feet," he says.
Lisa brings a towel and a pitcher of water. He pours, then realizes he's so stiff he can barely reach them.
What the hell, my hands are dirty anyway. I help out. Lisa gets out her camera, which strikes me as incredibly funny, and the moment is immortalized:
 
Not the worst feet I saw that weekend.
"Your feet are macerated, but the skin's intact. Your problem is literally skin-deep," I tell him.

I let Lisa manage putting socks back on, telling her, "I'm cool washing nasty feet, but my personal idea of hell is putting toe socks onto wet ultrarunner feet."
He eats and sits a bit longer. When I come back by, he's in dry socks and good spirits. Shortly afterward, he gets up and continues. 


Sparring with the master 

Jim, Ron, and Rick have been hanging out at Sugarloaf for hours, waiting for Lisa. She's been having a tough time overnight, fighting cutoffs, and they're a little worried. She's someone who has given so much to the trail community, working medical support, pacing, crewing, and volunteering, and we all want to see her have a good race for herself.

Lisa makes it in, less than an hour ahead of the cutoff. She's tired, demoralized, slumped in a chair, and announcing that she wants to drop.

Jim, Ron, and I prepare the full-court press.
HER: "I couldn't eat anything for 20 miles. I only just started feeling better."
ME: "That's awesome! You're eating again!"
HER: "My legs are shot. I want to stop."
ME: "They're going to feel so much better now that you can feed them!"
HER: "That last section was REALLY HARD."
ME: "Yep, that was the hardest section, and now it's done! No other section has as much vertical gain as what you just did!"
HER: "Bullshit. Carlton Peak? Moose and Mystery Mountain?"

I step away, laughing, to confer with her crew. "You guys," I say, "you know the problem here? It's that fully half the lies that I tell ultrarunners, I learned from Lisa. She's the MASTER."

JIM [to ME]: "Try and get her to laugh."
ME: "Lisa, you wouldn't believe the stuff going on at this aid station. One of the guys filling water bottles suggested using Coke to clean out wounds!" (True!)
LISA (chuckles): "That's a TERRIBLE idea!"
ME: "And then Scott brought in someone's pot stash off the trail!" (We all laugh at that one.)

 Ron and Jim are fixing her shoes, helping her change out of tights, filling her pack. I'm still working on her.

"Hey, I'll make you my super-special snack I only make for runners I really, really like: a peanut-butter banana."
"I'm allergic to peanut butter." 
"Lisa, you're killing me."

"This is just temporary pain, like childbirth. You got through that, you can do this."
"Robyn, I had short, painless, precipitous labor with both my kids."
"Lisa, I hate you for that, but I love you anyway. Now get going."

(At some point in the morning, I overhear an aid station worker saying, "Everyone has a super power. Robyn's is pep talks.")

Grudgingly, she gets up and shoulders her pack. I turn around to help someone else, and when I look back, she and Ron are gone, down the trail.

Troubleshooting 101 

Andrea's in the aid station and has a case of what Marcus calls "Superior shin" -- her anterior tibial tendons are angry and inflamed, and every step is painful. But she's come 72 miles and she's not ready to quit.

"When I stop and stretch it, it feels better for a little while. And I can run a few steps at a time before I have to walk!" Dang, there's no quit in this one. Even though you can see how painful it is, I want to help her. We loosen her laces. Her crew rubs Bio-Freeze on her shins. We talk about rolling a cold can of soda over the tendon, we talk about icing it, we talk about using hiking poles. Eventually, she gets up and heads off, because never mind the pain, she wants to keep going.
  
Allan is in with 30 minutes to spare. A shoe had catastrophically failed 20 miles ago so he's in his backup pair, and they're rubbing his ankles. Luckily, he's got a plan.

"Take some duct tape, would you, and fold it over and over again to make a pad about /this/ big and three-eighths inch thick. I'm going to put it under the heel of my insole."

We banter about how much better he looks than last year, when he barely made it out of the aid station. He doesn't need much else -- he makes his own homemade energy gel, he's got a laminated pace chart rubber-banded to his vest, he's self-reliant. He's in great spirits and his eyes are twinkling.

"Al, what's your line of work?" I ask him.
"Before I retired, I was an engineer," he answers.
"Let me tell you, that surprises me NOT AT ALL," I laugh. "That was my first, second, and third guess."

As the cutoff time approaches, then passes, we get a couple of runners who are ready to drop with injuries and, in one case, peeing blood. We pack up the aid station, waiting for one last friend, Kevin C. His crew, Elizabeth, and I bemoan his missing the cutoff. "Now I can't use all my motivational lines on him! Dammit, Angela kept going after I literally TAPED HER ARM BACK ON!"

Kevin C. rolls in over an hour past cutoff, relieved to be done. He's gotten remarkably far on almost no training as a full-time student and part-time worker. He's tired, but we laugh a little about how he'd rather have been working at Sugarloaf like he did two years ago. The trail sweeps are with him, and with their arrival, Sugarloaf is finished for another year. It's time for a hot shower, a square meal, a nap, and some fellowship and joy at the finish line.


The happiest place on Earth

A short drive, a shower, and a square meal later, I'm at the Superior finish line. As night falls, the crowd, hundreds strong, bursts into cheers and cowbell ringing as headlamps appear heading into the finish line. A bonfire burns, music thumps, there are dogs and kids and spouses and runners all in various states of jubilation and fatigue. Runners sprint, dance, jog, and groove their way across the finish line, their exhaustion forgotten for the moment.

I've come to recognize that when something stirs strong emotions, it's worth paying attention to what it is, and why. The Fall Superior finish line is like that for me. It's a palpable feeling of achievement, of months or years of dreaming, of mud-bound painful lows and soaring highs.

Massive credit to all who undertake this journey -- runners, crew, pacers, volunteers. You all join together to make the magic happen. And for a few hours every year, there's no happier place on earth than the Superior finish line.

See you next year.
Photo: John Storkamp