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.


  1. Wow!!! Robin, I love your writing! What a terrific account of our excellent adventure. I already told John Id like to volunteer with you all again next year. Until then, happy trails!
    'd like to

  2. Great seeing you out there (again)! I have no idea why I was smiling. I think it was nerves that were causing my facial muscles to contract or something.