Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Year The Trail Won: 2018 Zumbro 50 Mile and Volunteer Report

Prologue: Zumbro out-Zumbro'd itself

Weather and trail conditions are always the story of this race, and we've had some doozies in the 6 years I've done Zumbro, but this year Zumbro out-Zumbro'd itself.

In the week leading up to the race: Heavy snow, then it all melted, then rain. (So, trail best described as "highly juicy.")

Forecast for the weekend: Temps hovering around freezing, heavy rain changing to snow, with 25 mph winds gusting to 40 mph.

I'd signed up for the midnight 50 mile race. No training cycle is perfect, but I'd had some good long runs and some good intensity. I'd trained in wind, snow, -20F windchill, and ice. I was by no means ready for a 50 miler, but I figured I had a good 50K in me, and beyond that, well, I was ready to suffer, if conditions and timing would permit me to.

In light of the forecast, packing was surprisingly easy: Did I wear it some time this winter? Throw it in the car.

For the run: 3 jackets, 4 pairs of mittens and gloves, 7 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of shoes (one with screws in the soles for better grip on ice), tights in 3 different weights, and so. many. buffs.

Also, camping gear, after-race clothes, heavy winter coat, raincoat, waterproof winter boots.

Also, a snow shovel.

Let the record show that I in fact did use 80% of these things, including the snow shovel.

Watching the skies: Friday afternoon to midnight

I arrived at the start/finish Friday around 3 pm. Temperatures in the mid 30s and windy, iron gray skies, no snow on the ground, no precipitation in the air, though it had been pouring rain with standing puddles at the race start.
Campground, Friday afternoon (photo: Lisa Kaspner-Swift)
Campground, Saturday morning (photo: Lisa Kaspner-Swift)
The 100 milers had been on course for 7 hours and the fastest of them were finishing their second (of 6) 17-mile loop. They were coming in mud-spattered and with wet, gritty feet. Foot care was a major theme, and nearly everyone was changing out socks and shoes, every loop.

Rob comes in and heads to the aid station for food.

ME: "Is it as wet out there as it looks?"
HIM: "Yeah, some sections of the trail are now a river. Lots of mud."
ME: "I bet the sand coulee section isn't too sandy, though?"
HIM: "The sand coulee section is under shin-deep water."
ME: "..."

The bonfire is going and won't go out until tomorrow night. The wind whips across the campground and blows the smoke in every direction. Randy, Jim, and Larry are by the fire. Jamison's captaining the aid station, other friends are crewing runners.

Randy tells tall tales. I laugh at Jim's ridiculously warm, but appropriate, mittens.

"You know it's a good Zumbro year when you get to haul out all the Arrowhead gear again."

Jim, Randy, Larry. That's a lot of awesome packed into one picture.
Although many runners are wearing shorts or half-tights, it's cold standing still in the wind. I walk around, catch up with friends, get news of the trail.

"How are trail conditions?"
"Favorable to the trail winning."

At 5, I eat some food I've packed, and set my car up for camping.

At 6, I lay down in the back of the car to get some sleep ahead of the midnight start.
After shivering in my sleeping bag for a while, I sleep surprisingly well. 

I'm briefly awoken around 8 pm by the clatter of ice hitting my car windows. But the coating of ice seems to dim the outside light and muffle the noises of the start/finish area, and I go back to sleep.

50-mile start: This is, in fact, a blizzard

I awaken again in full darkness. Glance at my watch. Yikes! It's 11:10 pm, and I've overslept my alarm.

The car windows are completely covered with... ice? snow? I don't know until I open a door and HUGE fluffy snow flakes swirl into the car in clusters.

The term "blizzard" is often misused to describe any large amount of snow. That's not what a blizzard is. The meteorlogical definition of a blizzard is a storm with large amounts of snow (falling or blowing), with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile.

This is, in fact, a blizzard. Visibility's near-zero, the wind is whipping, and the air is full of snow.

I'm up, dressed, brushing teeth, and off to the start/finish aid station to find coffee and try to eat some of the breakfast I've packed.

The picnic shelter that houses the aid station and race headquarters is packed with 50 mile runners, pinning on bibs, shuffling nervously, and trying to stay warm.

I get to the packet pickup table. John, who I met at my very first ultra five years ago, is manning the table.

ME: "Hey John, I don't know my race number. Can I still check in?"

HIM: "Absolutely not."
ME: "AWESOME. I'm going back to bed!"
[we laugh]
ME: "Seriously, this is fucked up, even for Zumbro."

The vibe at a race start is always excited and nervous. But between the weather, the reported trail conditions, and the midnight start, it's amplified tenfold above normal tonight. I see so many friends, wearing waterproof layers and headlamps, all exchanging nervous banter and looks as if we're about to go do something exciting and possibly illegal.

Unprecedentedly, John Storkamp gives the pre-race briefing under the shelter instead of from a stepladder at the start.

"We thought long and hard about whether to let you guys loose on this course.

"Not so much because of the course, but because of the road conditions in and out of here. We can't use even 4-wheel drive vehicles on the minimally-maintained dirt road to Aid Station 1/4 right now, because it's in such bad shape. We've got ATVs that can evacuate people in an emergency, but it's going to be difficult."

"By the time you get the 3 miles to AS 1 in this race, you will have had a life-altering experience. You will have seen things out there.

"If you get there and you are not certain you can safely continue, or don't want to, there's a shortcut you can take from there back to the start/finish. It's about a mile. Use it."

[This is unprecedented. I have participated in at least 15 major races with John as RD, and I have *never* heard him this up-front about dropping. And dropping 3 miles in!]

"If you finish a loop and you're not certain you can safely complete a second loop, please hand in your bib number. Do not go back out on the course if you don't feel you can finish another loop safely."

John: "As of 11 pm, 50% of our 100 milers have dropped."

[The normal drop rate for the 100 is about 30%, total.]

"And if you don't want to start the race, that's okay too. Just hang back at the start, and we'll put you to work volunteering."

[Holy shit, we're all thinking. Did John just tell us to consider not STARTING?]

We all walk out to the starting line. It's snowing heavily and the wind is in our faces. John counts down 3... 2... 1... and we're finally starting.

On the trail: Mud, solitude, relief

After the months of training, the weeks of tapering, the days of following the weather, and the hours of waiting at the start, the only thing I'm feeling at the race start is relief. Relief to finally, *finally* be starting this thing.

The 175 runners begin our climb up the first bluff. Snow and mud have mixed into something resembling brownie batter under our feet. It's slippery, clinging, and wet.

We climb the singletrack, mostly in silence. The air is clean smelling away from the bonfire smoke. The snow is swirling. The trail is piebald brown and white, and the trees are laden with snow.

By the top of the first bluff, I'm warm and shedding layers. With temperatures hovering just the wrong side of freezing, it's actually very comfortable out here in a few layers.
(photo: Valentina Cuervo Barrientz)
The first, 3+ mile section is very muddy but very beautiful. My heel pulls out of my shoe three, then four times as the mud tries to hold on, and I finally stop to tighten the laces. The going is definitely slower than usual, but I've known for a week or more that it would be, and I'm prepared to take my time where I need to.

The crowd rapidly thins, or at least it seems that way in the dark. I'm moving in my own little bubble of light, through a landscape transformed and hushed by snow.
(photo: Janet Gray)
The first aid station is here before I know it, and I stop to eat something and chat with friends working there.

Brian Klug tells me that the 17 mile race, scheduled to start at 8 am, has been canceled. Given that it would have brought 400 more runners, some on their first trail run, into an area with no cell service via dirt roads in a blizzard (and at this point, snow's worse in the Twin Cities than where we are), it's hard to fault this decision. It is the first time John has ever canceled a race, ever.

I'm nothing but happy, and off on the next section. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that it's much better footing, with nearly no mud. The snow seems to be filling in mud puddles, and the dropping temperature is partly freezing what's left.

This is a longer (4.3 mi) section without any major features to distinguish it, and, having been on this course many times, I know that it can feel very long. But tonight, in my little island of light, time flows and the the trail flows under my feet at exactly the right rate. I'm at AS 2/3 before I know it.

I usually volunteer at AS 2/3, the most remote aid station, and I'm thrilled to see the overnight crew there, keeping warm as best as they can and supporting all the runners. "This is some EXTREME Zumbro!" I yell as they cowbell me into the aid station. John Taylor offers words of encouragement as I drink hot coffee, and I'm off on the short loop up a ridge and through the sand coulee.

The descent from Picnic Rock is as challenging as anything I've done so far. I squat, slide down packed ice in my trail shoes, grab trees that are heavily glazed with ice. I'm wearing glasses rather than contacts, and am grateful for their protection as I hit branches bowed by ice that I don't see in time to duck them.

The sandiest section appears to have actually been re-routed, because there's a full-bore river running through the coulee. I'm filled with gratitude as I run along packed snow and note how much *better* the footing is than usual.

I've got nothing but joy and gratitude in my heart in this section. The trail is moving along under me, the night is beautiful, and all is well.

Back to AS 2/3, now on the 3 side. My feet are definitely very wet, and the plastic bags I'd put over them, while initially keeping them warm and dry, are now trapping water inside instead.

I execute a sock change by the bonfire, while drinking hot soup and bantering with the volunteers. My feet instantly feel better, and I can't wait to climb the ridge and see what the next section has in store.

The next leg features a long climb, a ridge section, a technical descent (Ant Hill!), and a long perfectly flat gravel road section beside the river.

The climb goes by quicker because I can't see it in the dark.

The ridge has 40+ mph winds and the snow is drifting. In places the trail's covered by 18" or more of snow. Later on Saturday, I hear that the gusts increase to 60+ mph and the drifts to 3 feet. It's possible to stay warm, but you've got to keep moving to do it.

Ant Hill, much like the sand coulee, is much *less* difficult than usual! Snow covers the normally loose rockfill. It's a bit icy, but mostly runnable (as my trashed quads are still telling me). I'm whooping and laughing in surprise and elation as I run down it.

I'm still feeling good and run nearly all of the mentally difficult river road section. Near the end, my right hip flexor starts to ache — an injury that's flared off and on for me since December, but that has been quiescent for the last few weeks. I'm through the 4 side of AS 1/4 and heading back toward the start/finish. It's muddy again, but there's less wind and I'm getting excited about being done with a loop.

I'd been thinking that I'll certainly do one more 17-mile loop and make it a 50k at least, but in this section, my hip flexor's getting worse, and my left peroneal tendon is now joining in. It's a chronic problem that I manage effectively with RockTape, but in the continued wet, the tape's come loose.

Nevertheless, I'm coming in across the campground before I know it, and the clock ticks to 5:28 as I cross the line for the first loop.

[5:28 is not a personal worst, since I did a 7-hour loop once, pacing a 100 miler. But it's pretty damn slow. To put it in perspective, I ran the loop under icy conditions in 2013 in 4:35... WITH A BROKEN ELBOW.]

Making choices, finding meaning

I cross the line and Jamison, the AS captain, says, "Great job! Do you want to drop?"

[He's saying this to everyone — it's a reflection of the course conditions and the roads, not how I look.]

"I want to look at my feet and think about my life," I reply. I'm pretty sure at this point that I'm not going to get 50 miles, especially not under the 18 hour cutoff. I think I could probably get another loop, but have questions about whether I would do lasting damage to my hip flexor. I want to consider it again after making my wet feet happy.

The woman right behind me comes across the line, grinning ear to ear.

"That was amazing! That was beautiful! Take my fucking number NOW!" she exclaims. That's what most people are doing.

I head into the heated tent (set up for medical support and warming) with my drop bags, and start changing out socks and shoes, and refilling my pack. Lisa is running medical support, as usual, and we reminisce about the year she saved me from hypothermia at this race. 

"People are making good choices this year," she says. "I've had less to do than usual!"

I'm changed out and deciding what to do. I'm not sure whether another 17 mile loop is a good idea, but I've decided to go to AS 1/4 and see how I feel, when John comes in to confer with Lisa.

He mentions that he's been in contact with the county to plow the road out, and that he's also paid a private snowplow operator to clear the road to ensure that runners can get out. He continues,

"I think we can continue to operate the race for the remaining 50 and 100 mile racers and allow the people on course to finish. But I'm concerned about volunteer morale, especially at the aid stations."

Saturday's wave of volunteers can't get in, and the people at the aid stations have been there since yesterday. The race cutoff isn't till 6 pm.

I see an opportunity to do something more meaningful than go back out into a race I don't think I can finish just so I can feel accomplished.

"John, I'm not going to be able to finish the 50. I was going to take a shot at another loop, but how about I hike out to AS 2/3 and work there instead?"

John is definitely down with that. I emerge from the tent — it's daylight now — and hand in my number without any regret at all.

An unexpected aid-station party

I put on my heaviest coat, right over my racing gear, throw more clothes, food, and boots in my backpack, and start the 2+ mile hike out to AS 2/3.

I can't believe I might have dropped and not seen the course in daylight. It is astonishing. Trees are laced in snow and ice. The ground is covered, above my shoe tops in places.

The trail, muddy at midnight, is now mostly frozen and firm. It's getting better by the minute.

I reach the top of the ridge and take in the view out across the valley. It's a weird, beautiful sight.

A half-mile from the AS, I meet Brian, the overnight AS captain, hiking back to civilization. I tell him I'm coming to relieve the AS. He's glad to hear it. Everyone working there has been there since at least 6 pm, some since yesterday afternoon, and none were planning to spend the whole day.

A glance around tells the story of the last 24 hours. Despite the folding canopies, the tables are covered in a half-inch of ice (and in some cases, frozen Coke or coffee), and snow and ice have collected in open food containers. Water pitchers are slushy. Snow collects in chair seats. Luckily, it's cold enough that it doesn't melt, and wet isn't a problem so much as continued cold. 

The three remaining volunteers are mostly well prepared and keeping warm, though I do loan my warm Sorel boots to aid station captain Karen, who's wearing uninsulated rain boots.
#aidstationlife (Photo: John Taylor)
I work AS 2/3 from whenever I arrive (7:30 am? 8? not sure) until the very last runner has come through and the sweeps have removed all the markers from the trail, around 3:30 pm. Here are some things that happen during that time:

1. I drink about 4 cups of coffee and eat about 6 grilled-cheese sandwiches and some Gummi Bears. It's all delicious. 

2. I unfasten ice-crusted gaiters and untie frozen shoelaces.

3. After conferring with John and deciding to strip the AS down to a skeleton operation to facilitate reduced volunteer numbers, I do a lot of work packing up the AS to a bare minimum. I pack bins, collapse tables, and drag extra water containers out to where an ATV can pick them up.

4. I give serious side-eye to groups of crew who show up and try to put the whole woodpile at once onto the bonfire. Then I fix it. Don't they know that you need air as well as fuel?
The way in and the way out (Photo: John Taylor)
Most runners who aren't feeling well have done the smart thing and dropped. There's surprisingly little "fixing" to be done, even late in the race. 

A 50-miler comes in, sits by the fire and buries his face in his hands.

ME: "What's going on?"
HIM: "Is there an ATV coming by? I want to drop."
ME: "No, but there's a two-and-a-half mile walk-out. But, hey, is this your last loop?"
HIM: "Yeah..."
ME: "Well, it's only 7 miles to the finish. You should just finish."

HIM: "No, I want to drop. I pushed really hard, and I got lost and did that last section twice, and I don't have anything left."
ME: "Aha! In that case, you should eat something!"
HIM: "No, I can't eat anything. I'm spent."
ME: "Aha! In that case, you should drink some ginger ale!"
HIM: "No, I can't drink anything."

[I now elide another 5 minutes' worth of me trying to motivate this runner, who tells me he came here to win the 50 and now that he can't, doesn't want to finish. I consider my ability to get runners out of my aid station and back onto the course to be one of my superpowers, so I'm really working him. He is just not interested. Finally, I throw up my hands, take his number, and point him to the walk-out.]

We are continuing to pack up and consolidate down as the number of runners on the course dwindles. But we keep out the cowbell, because when a runner comes in or heads back out, we are cheering like crazy.

And when they head out to finish their final loop, we cheer our damn faces off for them. Because finishing a 50 or a 100 mile in these conditions is just amazing.

[The 100 mile finish rate was 17%. Of 120 starters, we had TWENTY finishers. That's all. 50 mile had 28% finish rate.]

Zumbro continues to Zumbro. The snow switches over to pea-sized ice pellets, which fall in profusion, making an incredible racket. They bounce around on the tables and into the food dishes.
Firepit and drop bags (Photo: John Taylor)
The wind continues to whip the bonfire smoke in every direction. It's impossible to avoid the smoke plume.

My gloves have gotten soaked over the course of the day, though I don't notice it till later. But with the lifting, carrying, and staying busy, the rest of me is warm and comfortable.

Eventually, we're down to two tables. Then, with the last runners through and only the sweeps to come, we move a few snacks onto tree stumps and take those down. The tents are down, the drop bags are packed up, the ham radio operator's tent is down and fire's out.

Aside from the trampled snow and bare patches where tarps were laid down before the day's snowfall, you can't tell that there was a little oasis of hot food, light, and heat here for the last 30+ hours.

Rolling up the finish line

Everyone but one ATV driver and the AS captain head back to the start/finish. Riding in an ATV in the 12" mud ruts and snow is an adventure, but beats the 2+ mile walk back any day. Connie and I enjoy the cold breeze in our faces.

Back at the start/finish, runners are finishing their races, but everyone who can has already left. Word is that the roads are scary. Not just the dirt roads into the race site, either. US Highway 52, one of the main routes between here and the Twin Cities, is closed due to white-out conditions, drifting, and multiple accidents.

I eat a quesadilla wrapped around a few pieces of bacon (the grill is the last piece of equipment to get packed), and try to figure out whether I'm going to be able to drive home in my Prius.

John and a few other of the core volunteers reassure me that they'll make certain that I can get out, one way or another.

[John and I had a similar conversation early in the morning, before I went to AS 2/3. His and Cheri's attention to detail and their commitment to taking care of volunteers was a HUGE reason I stayed on to help out. I have no idea how or when I'm going to get out, but I am absolutely certain that he's got my back.]

Overheard in the warming tent:
"Your first hundred mile? Congratulations! And now you've done a winter ultra too. You should probably do Arrowhead next year!"

After 45 minutes in the warming tent and some food, I'm feeling pretty good and I've got nothing to do until I have an exit strategy. I'm back out and helping load the giant box truck with all the race gear.

I roll up banners with another volunteer, laughing as the sleep and calorie deprivation catch up with us and we fail, over and over again, to roll in sync.

I literally roll up the finish line after the last finisher comes through.

I untie tarps that were hastily hung to block some of the wind, laughing and cursing at the terrible knots someone tied to get them up.

I haul ridiculously heavy picnic tables back into place under the shelter.

The entire start/finish is packed and everything's back from the aid stations. We walk around the campground to tell everyone still there that the drop bags are finally back.

Exit strategy, and choices again

It's 6:45 pm. There are just six of us left: John the RD; Larry the former RD; Scott, driving the truck; my friend Todd; Lisa; and myself. We stand in a little circle and shake hands with each other.

It's been memorable, even for Zumbro. It's been hard and cold and wet and difficult, even for Zumbro. John's had to make extraordinary efforts and some difficult calls, but with them he's averted the chance of a serious car crash or medical emergency on the trail, which would have haunted him and all of us.

It's been remarkable and memorable and special. Even for Zumbro.

I in my Prius, and Lisa in her Honda Fit, caravan out behind Todd in his 4WD car. The roads are snow-covered but passable. I'm home an hour slower than usual, but I'm home.

The lingering woodsmoke smell and my aching quads remind me that this all happened just a few days ago.

Zumbro's always a mess of complicated joyful Big Feelings. I wish I'd felt good enough to charge out on a second loop. But I'm glad I could work at the aid station — and I couldn't have done both. Either choice would have brought joy and meaning. 

The best thing, though? In just a year, I get to choose my Zumbro adventure all over again and see it through, with all its unexpected ups and downs.

I can't wait.