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


  1. What an awesome description! You almost made me feel like I was there!

  2. Congrats on your improvement and for returning after suffering a broken elbow. That horrific scene would have definitely been playing in the back of my mind for the entire 17 miles. And, If anyone at your work questions your "stairsforbreakfast" routine, just tell them that you are afraid of elevators so you take steps to avoid them. Har-ha.

  3. Thanks for writing this wonderful race report. Fun read!

  4. Thanks for writing this wonderful race report. Fun read!

  5. Congrats on a great race Robyn! That breakfast sounds perfect. I might have to try it. It was nice to hear that John the 100 miler made it. What perseverance! As always, thanks for the well-written report.