Monday, April 14, 2014

Race report: Zumbro Midnight 50 Miler, 2014

Executive summary: 
I dropped at 33 miles, and about 9:55 in, with hypothermia after traversing a ridge in a thunderstorm, unprepared for the weather. I know I made the right call. But I'm still on a lingering high from an incredible weekend. So many people did great things, so many acts of generosity and selflessness, so much joy and pain and emotion... Wow. Wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Still smiling at mile 31? Must have been Julio's witty banter
and hot chicken soup. Photo credit: Julio Salazar
I was late to the 50 miler party, having signed up for the race about five weeks ago.  My training cycle wasn't perfect, but I had the taper nailed. I headed into race week as well trained as I could be (last weekend of long runs got cut short due to some knee pain and completed on the elliptical, but I got my 8 hours of training, and the pain now seemed to be resolved thanks to the work of my excellent ART guy), pretty well rested, and even got a sports massage the week of the race. I figured I was in great shape for a 50K, and beyond that, well, I felt like I was ready to suffer. Packed up every item on my two-page list and I didn't forget anything critical. I got up at 4 am Friday morning and headed toward Zumbro.
Start/finish, campsite and Zumbro race headquarters.
 Aid Station 2/3:
After I pitched my tent an hour before the 100 mile race start, the first order of business was volunteering. I was really excited to work at an aid station for the first time. We were lucky the race came at the end of a week of dry, sunny weather so the minimally maintained gravel roads to AS 1/4 were accessible by car.  From there, AS 2/3 was a mile or so up the trail, and accessible only on foot or by ATV. I met up with John Gustafson, the aid station captain, and we walked in together, reaching the site an hour before the first runners arrived.

The next 8 hours were busy: Mixing drinks, unpacking the dozen big Rubbermaid containers full of food, tools, tarps, Christmas lights, first-aid kit, cowbell, and motivational signs ("Never Surrender"). Greeting hundred-milers with "Hi! What do you need?", filling water bottles and bladders, making PB&J sandwiches and quesadillas, stashing sweaty layers in drop bags. Lin and Jackie and Peter showed up to help in the aid station, and other folks, crewing for friends, visited and pitched in at times as well. It was great to see the speedy front-runners, the steady midpackers, and the determined people at the back, all moving through and getting it done.

The initial cloud cover cleared and the day warmed up -- a lot. The sun shone and runners came in on the second 17-mile loop looking hot and a little sunburned. We broke out bags of ice and watched a few people pour pitchers of water over their heads. I began to think about sunburn myself, and tried to drink more water. A runner came in looking queasy and demoralized, and I watched Joe, who was crewing his wife, revive him with ice packs, peanut butter, and deep breathing. John kept us entertained and taught me important lessons about the care and feeding of hundred milers.
Brilliant early spring sunshine. Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Soon, it was 4 o'clock, the end of my shift. The aid station was well staffed and I was resolved to follow my plan to nap before the 50 miler midnight start. I said goodbye to the aid station crew and hiked back to my car, and then to my campsite.
Trails at Zumbro are a mix of wide horse/ATV trails... 
... and rocky singletrack. Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Midnight 50 Miler:
I packed my drop bag and hydration pack (2-page list strikes again!) and crawled into my sleeping bag. It wasn't easy going to sleep in bright sunlight at 5 pm, but after an early morning start and a busy day, it wasn't that hard either. I slept deeper once the sun went down, occasionally waking up just enough to hear cowbells and cries of "Good job, runner!" as hundred-milers ran past on their way to the start/finish/aid station 5.

My watch alarm sounded at 10:45 (and 10:48, and 10:50... leaving nothing to chance), and I felt reasonably refreshed as I got up and tried to persuade my body it was just a really early morning run. I dressed, brushed my teeth, and ate a sweet potato, a piece of roasted chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. Got to the start line and had a cup of coffee and picked up my number.

As a side note, how genius is it to have a coffee company sponsor your ultramarathons? Thanks, Peet's Coffee (and Matt Patten)! You rock.

The sky had clouded over but it was still surprisingly warm, probably close to 50 degrees. Over 100 50-milers lined up, race director John Storkamp counted us down, and we were off on the stroke of midnight.

The Zumbro course has a little of everything. The first leg climbs 300 feet up a bluff on singletrack and doubletrack trail, then traverses through pine woods (the site of last year's elbow fracture) before it drops down the back and winds along to the first aid station. The second leg crosses a bridge, then parallels the river with a long series of mostly gradual climbs, before a steep descent down what may or may not actually be a trail. It's the longest leg, at 4.3 miles, and feels longer than that. The third section loops up to Picnic Rock, back down, then through a half mile or so of ankle-deep, soft sand. I had gaiters that kept the sand out of the tops of my shoes, but a fair bit sifted in through my shoes and I could feel it between my toes. The fourth leg climbs and traverses a ridge, drops down the long technical descent called Ant Hill, then returns to Aid Station 1/4 via a mile or so of long, flat, straight gravel road -- surprisingly difficult to run. The final leg back to the start/finish area is runnable double and singletrack, a short stretch of road, then the last quarter mile through the grassy campground and into the finishing chute.

Very few things freak me out. It's not bravery, it's willful lack of imagination. But I didn't want to let myself think of 50 miles.  I tried to keep my vision of the next 12 to 15 hours very much like my vision of the trail: only what I could see in my little cone of headlamp light. And most of the time, it worked. The trail kept me in the here and now. Here is a rocky climb; oops, that was a log hidden under those leaves and now my toe hurts; look, there's two runners ahead, moving so slow it must be a hundred miler and his pacer. "Great job. You're moving well," I told them as I moved past.  I walked the uphills, and ran the flats and downhills, trying to run lightly and without hurry.

Friends came and went on the trail, as our paces coincided, then diverged. I ran a lot of the trail with Mike Barton and Julie Berg. For a lot of the run, especially the second loop, I was alone, and that was nice too. The air was warm -- soon I was in just a T-shirt and shorts -- the wind was light, and it was still, aside from some early morning turkey calls.

I came through loop 1 just a few minutes after my goal time of 4:30, feeling pretty good, though perhaps a bit behind on nutrition. I stopped at the start/finish long enough to change socks and remove all the sand from between my toes. It was nearing 5 a.m. and the sun would be up soon. I left my wool shirt and hat behind, and grabbed my running hat and sunglasses, thinking it might get a little warm when the sun came up. I held onto my wool armwarmers, figuring they would keep me warm if there was some rain. Everything felt pretty good as I headed back out onto loop 2.

I passed Arika and Jeremy, who were running the 100 mile, at the end of my first loop.  They had been running together all day and night, and Travis, who had come to pace Arika for a loop along with his wife Steph, had now decided to pace Jeremy for a second loop, his fifth. Todd was pacing Arika on her fifth loop, and I once again overtook the four of them heading out on my second loop.  They were all in good spirits and moving well.  I enjoyed their company for a little while before running ahead.

Around 5:45 am, it started to rain -- lightly, then moderately. I put my wool armwarmers on and felt fine. Hey, if this keeps up, the sandy section won't be quite as... sandy, right? The sun rose and the trail lightened up enough I could turn off my headlamp. The sky was pretty gloomy, but day had come.  As I climbed yet another hill heading to AS 2/3, I felt a little dissociated or light headed. Was it an electrolyte problem? Not enough calories? Or just my internal clock getting wise to the fact that we'd started running at midnight? I wasn't sure, but I felt better after some more food and a little coffee at the aid station. It was great to see Friday's daytime AS 2/3 crew back in action. Hello, John and Lin!
Cloudy view from the first ridge, down to the campsite/start/finish.
Photo credit: Janet Gray
As I ran the Picnic Rock/sand coulee section for the second time, I noticed the beginning of a little pain in my left knee. Oddly, not my medial knee, where it had been hurting for the last five weeks, but the lateral side. What the heck?! I never have IT band problems. I began to plot a stop at my car to use the foam roller before my next lap. Back at AS 2/3, I stopped and stretched, which helped a bit.

The rain was definitely picking up now, and was harder to ignore. I heard a distant roll of thunder as I prepared to head out to the ridge climb, and asked John, "What's the official party line on climbing the ridge during a thunderstorm?" He replied, helpfully, "Stand next to someone taller than you."

Well, I hoped I could get across the ridge before anything really bad hit. I headed out, probably around 8 am. Heading up to the ridge, the rain was picking up more and more, and by the time it leveled out, it was pouring rain. I could see lightning flashes now, and the thunder was rolling and clapping. I counted seconds between lightning and thunder: seven, then five, then three. There was tree cover along the ridge but it was definitely the highest point for several miles around. I decided there was nothing better to do than to keep on running. I didn't think it was very likely I would get struck by lightning, but it wasn't entirely out of the question.

Much of the trail along this section is singletrack that's worn into the ground, forming a trench. It quickly filled with water. I heard later that there was a hailstorm at the start/finish area. I abandoned any hope of keeping my feet wet and splashed on, booking surprisingly good time across the ridge as the wind picked up and the rain pounded down.

Ant Hill was transformed into a lively creek bed/waterfall and I slid and skidded down the mud, trying to avoid the big rocks. The rain had saturated my hat and I could feel cold water seeping into my hair. It was still pouring down rain and I couldn't help but laugh at just how rainy and wet and ridiculous things had gotten.
Pretty representative of the trail after the rainstorm.
Photo credit: Janet Gray
I breathed a sigh of relief at the bottom of Ant Hill, then laughed again as the water came over the tops of my shoes and up my ankles, heading onto the gravel road. The rain was still pounding down hard enough that you couldn't see very far down the road. My left knee was hurting more now; I'm sure my fast ridge run and descent didn't help whatever was going on there.  No matter; I was going to run as much of it as I could, because I was getting cold.

I shambled down the gravel road, with visions of Aid Station 1/4, shelter and hot food drawing me along. I overtook Jeff, another 50 miler, as I went. "I think I'm dropping," I told him. I'd been thinking it over since the bottom of Ant Hill. The combination of worsening knee pain and increasing hypothermia was not looking like a winner. "I am too," he told me. We walked, then ran together into the aid station.

I stopped long enough for a few cups of hot broth and a conversation with the irrepressible Julio, who had volunteered all day Friday and all day Saturday and was fixing a steady stream of cold, wet, underdressed runners. I was shivering pretty hard and just wanted to get to the finish line where my dry clothes were. It's only 2.7 miles to the finish, on easy runnable trails, I told myself. Let's go.

It was a long, long 2.7 miles. I was shivering hard and my right hip flexor went into painful spasm, I think from the shivering. I've been that cold before, but never for that long. My hands were very cold and surprisingly swollen. I tried to think of what to do. Move as fast as I could, but that wasn't particularly fast. Eat more. I could do that. I downed two gels and and a couple of date rolls. Keep moving. Try not to get worried.

I kept going and going, through ankle-deep puddles when I had to, through mud when possible. Am I still on the trail? I backtracked and, yup, there was a marker. Keep going. Onto the singletrack. Keep going. Onto the road. Must be close now. Finally, the turn into the campground and the finish line. Run it in. I completed loop 2, 33.4 miles total, in 9:56.
I look good for someone who was freezing.
Photo credit: Jake Haugen
Lisa and Christie met me just past the timing mat. "How are you feeling?" "Really cold," I answered, heading straight for my drop bag. I pulled on a wool hat and fumbled my drenched armwarmers off, then was stymied trying to get my fleece coat on. My wet arms and swollen hands were stuck in the sleeves. Oh well, it was partly on. At some point, I said, "I'm dropping." I must have looked bad, because Lisa immediately said, "I'll take your number over." I think she was worried I'd change my mind and try to go back out! Christie got me a cup of soup, then gathered my drop bag (I'd kind of scattered the contents) and walked me to my tent and car, where my dry clothes were.

After an extremely shivery clothing change, I gradually started feeling human again. I was very grateful that although my tent had leaked a bit in the storm, my pants and shoes were still dry and I had spare socks and a several dry wool shirts (including the one I had left in my drop bag instead of carrying on the second loop. Would it have saved my race? I don't think so, but it would have helped. Lesson learned). Suddenly, I was starving.  I drove the 300 yards back to the start/finish with the heat blasting, and stood by the bonfire for a long time, leaving only long enough to retrieve successive cups of coffee and a massive bacon-and-egg quesadilla.  BJ, who volunteered at the finish line, cooked 100 pounds of bacon that morning, and may have saved a few people with his bacon-and-egg quesadillas. Thanks!

It took 45 minutes to stop shivering. The rain had stopped, but it was still cool, probably in the low 40s, and breezy. Runners from the 100, 50, and 17 mile were finishing. Most of them were very wet, and some were very cold. Arika and Todd came in from her fifth loop and she was very cold, shivering and wet. Four of us converged on her, bundling her into a chair by the bonfire with a coat, a space blanket, a hot drink, and a dry hat. She got into her van, blasted the heat, and eventually warmed up, but had to drop, after running an incredible 84 miles. There were a lot of people dropping after the thunderstorm. I think the 100 mile had 15 finishers out of 56 starts -- a brutal attrition rate.

I wish we'd all had the race we set out to have. But for me, there's no question I made the right call dropping. Even in a change of dry clothes, after a meal and a hot drink, I think I would have been endangering myself (and maybe others) by going back out. By quitting when I did, I think I'm setting myself up to have a great remainder of the season, instead of incurring a season ending injury my first race of the year.

Even though I didn't complete my race, I loved this event. It's the first big local trail race of the year, and so many of my trail friends were there, either running, volunteering, crewing, or cheering. It's like Woodstock for trail runners -- complete with rain, and even better, with bacon! So many people went beyond their ordinary limits. The runners, of course, but the pacers too, like Travis, who ran 17 extra miles with Jeremy and helped him finish his first hundred, and Todd, who cleared and marked the course on Wednesday and Thursday, photographed the race all day Friday, then saw Arika through the thunderstorm and safely back to the finish. And volunteers, like Julio and John, who worked two full days. And Lisa and Shanon and Christie, who worked overtime in the medical tent, keeping everyone out of the hospital. And race directors John and Cherie, who worked for weeks to pull this off. John stood at the finish line and personally announced and gave finisher's medals to everyone who finished, and just radiated joy while doing it. You could tell, watching him, that everything leading up to this race was worth it for moments like that.

Thanks, everyone, for an amazing weekend. Thanks for the lessons of love, and selflessness, and humility, and joy, and going beyond what you think you can. I can't wait to do it all again. I can't wait to see what's to come.


  1. I'm the guy in the blue jacket standing behind you in that first picture. I ran the whole race (50M) with the other guy in the picture. We were on loop 3 there (AS1). In case it's not obvious, I was also freezing cold at that point. Wouldn't have made it without that jacket and the chicken broth. Sorry about your race, but glad you were still able to have a good time!

  2. Sounds like you had a great time. Loved all the details about the race and people.

  3. What a fantastic race report - so detailed and emotional. Thanks for sharing with us!!

  4. Thanks for the summary. Being stationed at the start/finish I saw only one aspect of each runners race.

    John assembled a kick ass medical crew including Joy Parker (Adventure EMT Services); Wabasha Ambulance; Brendan Johnson and all of the other HAM radio folks, as well as those of us with a medical background.

    As soon as the rain started we knew what our primary occupation would be for the remaining hours and everyone worked well together to ensure runner safety.

    I have the same issues with swelling when I get cold (or hot). It can make accomplishing any tasks very difficult.

    This is just the start of a great race season for you. See you on the trails!

  5. Congratulations! Even if it wasn't the race you wanted, I am still in awe of going 33 miles and doing it in some less than ideal conditions. I think it takes a strong person to do what is right, and that's what you did.

  6. You are so amazing! I'm proud to be your mom!!!

  7. What an awesome report and run. Filled with adventure, excitement, and a touch of danger. I felt like I was riding your ups and downs through the loops. Also I love how your medical background "flavors" your writing. Congrats on a great first run of 2014!

  8. Well it's now official since it has been written. 100 pounds of bacon! Great report Robyn. You really bring out the colors of the race!

  9. I finally got to sit down and read this. Great report! First of all, I can't believe you actually managed to go to sleep before it--that is impressive on its own. Not to mention standing around volunteering beforehand, which is always way more tiring than you'd imagine.

    It doesn't seem to have bothered you, but I think midnight starts are crazy hard. If you can deal with that then you will do great at this race when the weather is kinder!

    Congratulations on a very hard 34 miles (I ran one loop of that course once after volunteering...I felt like I had done a 50k) and happy training for the next one!