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.