Friday, April 28, 2017

Unstuck in Time: 2017 Zumbro Volunteer Report

Back to Zumbro

For the fifth year in a row, I spent an April weekend at the Zumbro 17/50/100 Mile Endurance Run. It's the site of a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my very first "big" trail race, back in 2013 (when I broke my elbow at mile 2), my first 50 mile attempt (and DNF) in 2014, my first encounter with a 100 mile race. It's been a place of struggle, and beauty, and wonder, and accomplishment. It's also an annual trail family reunion, the first time in 6 months that many of us come together to celebrate a winter of training or recovery, and the year to come.

This year, instead of running Zumbro and Spring Superior, I'm planning Chippewa 50k at the end of April and Western States Training Weekend at the end of May, so I didn't sign up for any of the Zumbro races. I decided instead to volunteer Friday and Saturday, and run the race loop myself on Friday, during the day, when things weren't too busy at the aid station.


After an abnormally warm February and dry March, the weather forecast for race weekend was... warm? sunny? I packed rain gear, merino wool, gloves, and spare shoes anyway, because, well, Zumbro is defined by its wildly unpredictable weather and trail conditions. But in deference to the forecast, I also included a sun hat, sunblock, and sandals. Unlike every other year I've been there, there turned out to be no rain, no snow, and mostly clear blue skies.

I drove down to the start/finish early Friday morning and arrived an hour ahead of the 100 mile start.
I have never seen Rob K without this smile. I'm not sure I'd recognize him!

Bob came down early and ran the 17 the next day.

Alicia and Cheri, radiant and caffeinated
The merch table was jamming!
To our everlasting disappointment, Rob
took off the hat before the race started.

9 of our 11 Gnarly Bandit contenders!
Rob, wondering why everyone else is so overdressed
Susan and Erik, two returning Gnarly Bandits

Radek's first 100 mile start!

Kevin and Wendi, spreading joy
As the sun streamed down in a cloudless sky, John gave some words of guidance from his traditional stepladder, made a few jokes so terrible I won't repeat them here, counted down from five, and the race started. It was a perfect day to run. With runners on their way, I headed out to AS 2/3.

Friday volunteering and running

At AS 2/3, Matt Patten was in charge and the setup was well underway. It was my fourth year volunteering here, and though the cast of characters shifts a bit from year to year, the drill is much the same: mix the HEED, put out the gels, organize the drop bags, figure out what one item didn't make it into the (exceedingly well-organized) bins this year. (It was the salt.)

One big difference from last year and other prior years? No mad rush to light the bonfire or set up the camp stoves for hot food. We'd do all that a bit later, but meanwhile, it was already beginning to warm up in the sunshine.

With the trails unusually dry and lacking in mud, ice, and snow, we expected the first runners through in near-record time, and they didn't disappoint. The 100 mile had 74 starters this year, and after the front-runners came by with barely a pause for more water, or just a wave hello, a steady stream of mid-pack runners came through in ones, twos, and threes. We rang cowbells as they appeared around the bend and came in through a sand coulee, and again as they departed, bound for Picnic Rock. It was fun to see so many familiar faces among the runners, from Doug Kleemeier, who led from wire to wire, to Kevin Langton, who had been injured and was happy to even be on the course, to Allan Holtz, the oldest 100 mile starter and determined to get some great mileage.

By the time the front of the pack wound back around to the AS 3 side of our tent, we had music playing, a fire was burning, and the first wave of snacks was out and ready. I renewed my acquaintance with Brian the HAM radio operator, who's been at AS 2/3 every year for a long time. Matt handed out bags of Peet's coffee as a thank-you gift to the volunteers. We broke open the box of race T-shirts, this year an alarming shade of pink.

Once the last of the 100 milers came through AS 3, I changed into my running shoes and headed out for a loop of the course.

It was sunny, breezy, dry, and in the low 50's. The trails were dry and firm. It was a perfect day for a long run.
The sandy parts were... very... sandy, however.
 I plowed through the deep sand coulees, waved at my AS 2/3 compadres, and headed up the ridge.
Is it crazy that this climb and this ridge
are my very favorite parts of the course? 
I never get tired of the view from the top!

 It was a smooth run along the ridge, and before I knew it, I was at the rocky, steep Ant Hill descent.
When you hit this only 5 miles into your run, you can actually run it! Fun!
I'd been running alone for an hour now. (I only saw two runners the whole time I was out.) As I came down Ant Hill, my mind began to wander back to other times I'd been on this course. Last year, at the bottom of Ant Hill, Mike Madden and Dave Shannon were out hiking and seeing Mike there filled me with joy. Two years ago, Jordan and I had made two slow descents down the rocky slope -- but on the second one, we were celebrating, because all the major climbs were over. Three years ago, a sudden thunderstorm turned it into a river course, and I was as cold and wet as I've ever been.

Remembering these years past, I began to feel a little unstuck in time. My present self and my past selves were all running together, existing now, existing then. I thought about what my future self might be thinking, next year, coming down Ant Hill.

I reached the gravel road.
It went on
and on
and on

 ... but again, not so bad on a perfect spring day early in a run. It seemed like no time before I reached AS 1/4. I spent a little too long there shooting the breeze with Bill Pomerenke and getting my forgotten run nutrition out of my parked car, then headed off to the start/finish.

Turns out, when you take the trail to the start/finish at the midpoint of your 17 mile run, it's much easier than when it's at the end of the loop! I ran easily and steadily, listening to birds and breeze, and spotting early green growth on the forest floor.

Near the turnout to the field, Doug Kleemeier caught up to me at the end of his second loop. Every single time I saw him at Zumbro, he looked happy. He was having an incredible race. I waved him on, and made sure I ran wide of the flags as I came into the start/finish area behind him.

The start/finish had the laid-back vibe of the other aid stations: the race was underway, the music was playing, and people were around, but with the runners spread out, there was plenty of time to talk, laugh, and catch up on the winter's doing. I talked for a while with Lisa and a few others, then looked at my watch and said, "Gotta go!"

Up the hill, take in a view of the camp below, and into the "Hobbit woods."
It was my fifth year doing the Zumbro loop, and parts of it are sharp in my memory. Start to AS 1/4 was known territory, and after the initial climb, a fun runnable jaunt. Back through AS 1/4, and I began the longest, final section of my circuit.

It's taken me a long time to learn the rhythm of this section. There are lots of minor features, but no big defining ones. There's a long wooded ATV track, a gentle descent to the river, a U-bend around a field, some crazy steep climbing and a washed-out final descent through the woods back to AS 2/3. Running the decline to the river, I passed Don Clark and Lorien, maker of owl hats. They were walking the loop, and when I paused, they showed me the earliest spring flowers, and little white snails, and tomato-red fungus growing on the bank.
Spring ephemeral
 Again, I had the sensation of being unstuck in time. I'd seen this section in misty sunrise, and the dark of night, and in brilliant sunshine. I'd run it joyfully, walked it painfully, and all my past selves ran alongside me, encouraging me to finish the loop strongly.

As I finally got back to AS 2/3, 4.5 hours after leaving, it took a few minutes to bring myself back to the here and now. But I felt refreshed, renewed, and ready to take on the care and feeding of 100 milers once again.
It was a good thing I was fully right in my mind
the T. rex walked into camp. He'd come all the
way from AS 1/4 in that getup!
 Most runners still looked strong coming through loop 3.
Wendi and Jeremy showing off their
matchy-matchy SHARK ATTACK gaiters!
As director of the Gnarly Bandit Ultra Trail Series this year, I paid close attention to my 11 Gnarly contenders, and was pleased to see that they were all still in the running, and all still looking happy and well. Tina Johnson and Jeff Leuwerke were crushing it up in front; Erik Raivo a crazy, blissful grin every time I saw him; Susan Donnelly was -- as ever -- unstoppable; Allan Holtz was a steady presence.

A few runners were struggling. After a strong start, Rob Henderson was having one weird problem after another. He dropped onto a blanket near the fire and we watched his calf muscles twitch involuntarily, like small animals burrowed under his skin. He wasn't feeling it today. His gut wasn't cooperating. He said, "I think I want to drop." After 20 minutes of resting, eating, and both of us working on his eerily twitching, cramping legs, he still wanted to drop. As soon as he'd turned in his chip, making it official, he looked substantially happier. When I saw him a week later, he told me, "Best decision I ever made."

Kevin had come through on his first loop in a train of 6 runners, all looking delighted to be with such a happy runner, all echoing his joyful "WOO!" But by now, his IT band injury was catching up to him. Without a word, he headed for a chair by the fire and curled in on himself, negotiating silently with pain and injury.

As evening began to set in, we continued to greet runners with cowbells, cheese quesadillas, and Matt's incredible homemade pizza. Between waves of runners, we told stories, complained about the quality of the music, stirred up the fire. It felt a bit like an all-day cookout, a bit like the end of a laid-back fatass or a long day in the woods.

The night crew of volunteers arrived, headed by the capable Dan Harke, and we handed the aid station over to them, explaining which soup was vegan, where we'd put the cheese, which cutting board we were using for which foods. By 7 pm or so, things were in the capable hands of the night shift. Dave Koch gave me a ride to AS 1/4 in his ATV (that was fun!), and I headed out for the evening.

Saturday volunteering

The sunrise was achingly beautiful as I headed back down to Zumbro.
Just, wow.
I imagined seeing it from the perspective of runners and pacers, out all night, and remembered how the rising sun was a source of energy and renewal the years I'd been out on the trail at night into the day.

AS 1/4 was a subdued scene at 6:30 a.m. Music played softly, the fire was banked low, and a few runners and crew wrapped in blankets sat around it, not talking. On the walk to AS 2/3, a few 50 mile runners passed me, moving with the steady, unhurried gait of runners who were in the middle of something but not yet near the end.

The vibe was similar at AS 2/3 as we relieved the overnight crew. As 100 mile runners tricked in in ones and twos, I greeted them with "You're still here! Good morning!" Indeed, most were still here, though a few had dropped yesterday and overnight. 50 milers were coming through on their second and third laps. We fired up the music, fired up the quesadilla pan, drank coffee, and set to work.

I started my late-stage aid station patter: "You know what I'm making special for my 100 milers this morning? Peanut-butter bananas. Banana because it's super digestible, peanut butter to coat your stomach. Sound good?" It's not really about the PB bananas; it's how you sell it.

Susan Donnelly came in on her final loop, looked at the aid-station food offerings with distaste, told me, "This is hard work."  
The hard part of the race
After eating a peanut-butter banana, she headed out on the Table Rock loop. 40 minutes later, she was back on the AS 3 side, announcing, "I need another one of those peanut-butter bananas." Fuel in hand, she was off on the final part of her race. A few more 100 milers came in on their final loop. It was good to see so many people ready to finish a long, tough race.

Kevin Chem came by, taking race photos.
The presence behind the camera
Pretty sure he's smiling this much because
he's not running 100 miles this year
At 8:00, AS captain Matt called a brief all-hands meeting. "There are 500 people registered for the 17 mile race. They'll be here in less than an hour. We need a plan to deal with them all." We filled dozens of cups with water, HEED, and soda, moved the food back, and stationed volunteers in the coulee to spot and record race numbers. And none too soon -- the 17 milers started arriving, first in a fast-moving trickle, then a stream, then in droves.

For the next hour and a half, we worked all hand on deck, filling water bottles and cups, setting out more Coke, helping out the occasional runner who had gotten into trouble. I tried to make sure the 50- and 100-milers got the help they needed, offering them hot and cold food, ice (it was warming up!), and encouragement.

A few injured runners came through. After examining and troubleshooting, I helped get rides out for a woman with a bad quad pull, and one with a sharp foot pain that was getting worse, not better. ("Is this your goal race for the season?" "Oh, no. I have a half marathon in two weeks, then a marathon, then Ragnar..." "Hmm. It's up to you, but in that case, I don't think you need another 20 miles on that leg.") A runner was overheated, nauseated, and couldn't continue, even after sitting in the shade with ice on his neck. A 50 mile runner wanted to drop because she wasn't feeling well and wasn't enjoying the race. With so many runners on the course, our ATVs couldn't easily get around, so runners who dropped often had to wait quite a while for a ride out. Most of them took this with good humor and grace.

In the full sunshine, temperatures reached the 70's as the clock crept toward noon. Bob Coolidge arrived, hot but in good humor:
and dressed to SLAY
We cooled him down with cold drinks and a bag of ice on his neck, and he power-hiked out of the aid station, radiating determination.
James volunteered at AS 2/3 last year. This year, he
volunteered Friday, then ran the 17! WOOO!
Carl ran the 50. Katie ran the 17. He came into AS 2
just as she was leaving AS 3. We yelled, "COME
BACK!!!" She did. Best aid-station hug EVER.

Dawn and I matched! Oh, and check out my Unshoes
sandals! They were perfect for standing and walking all day.
Stephanie and Ava, killing the 17!

As the clock drew on toward noon, the stream of runners slowed. I fed and chatted with a hot 100 miler on his fifth loop, then kicked him out as politely as I could, but I don't think he made the loop 6 start cutoff. A few 50 and 100 milers came through on their final loop. I was especially excited to see Sally Hulbert still in the mix, and was thrilled to see her finish later that afternoon. In the early afternoon, we started packing up the aid station.

By 2:30, all the runners were accounted for. We packed up boxed, took down tents, consolidated tables. We stacked gear where ATVs could carry it out. Around 3, the sweep crew jogged in, looking like they were having the time of their lives. We shot the breeze with them and they headed out on the Picnic Rock loop, unhurried, unworried.

By 3:15, everything was packed up except one table with drinks and snacks for the sweeps. Volunteers took their leave, one by one. I gathered up all the layers I'd started the day with (gloves? hat? seemed ridiculous now!), the snacks I'd brought, the coffee Matt had given me. Thanked everyone and started the walk out. AS 2/3 was finished for the year.

Final Zumbro thoughts

I love habit and repetition. I love the ordinariness of things I do every day, every week, every year. The rhythms of Zumbro are part of my year now. I know when I arrive that I'll leave a little warmer, a little more saturated with campfire smoke, and with my heart a little more full than it was before. Whether I'm running, pacing, volunteering, or spectating, it's become my way to kick off the running season, and a link to friends and trail family.