When I started trail running at the start of 2015 the Zumbro 17 mile race was the first big trail race I attempted. It was an amazing introduction, not only to trail running, but to the incredible community that surrounds all of these crazy people. Since I had bagged my first 50K last fall, I decided that Zumbro would be my foray into the craziness that is 50 miles on the trail.
Because of the timing of Zumbro in early April there are two truths that are always certain. First, you need to start training early, and train through the brutal cold winter months. If you want to get in a full 50 mile training plan, you have no choice but to run through January and February.
Second, the weather at Zumbro is just as big a factor in the race as the actual trail difficulty. Zumbro veterans are quick to regal folks with tales of Zumbro races past, and how the unpredictable weather conditions can wreak total havoc on even the most experienced ultra runner.
This year was no exception to either of these truths. To ensure that I was trained enough I decided to follow a plan from the book Relentless Forward Progress. Because I’m rather injury prone, I chose a lower mileage plan from the book that allowed me to train on just four days a week of running. I know what my body is capable of, and too often when I run more than four days a week consistently, I end up hurting myself. However, this plan’s schedule meant that I was already a couple weeks behind when the end of December rolled around.
Thankfully, I still had a bit of fitness left in me from my 50K race in the fall, and I was able to jump into the plan without too many problems. As expected, it did mean that most of my training was occurring during the brutal January and February winters of Minnesota. In fact, January was my highest training mileage month EVER. All of us who hit the trails over the winter got very good at layering our clothing, and putting our water bottles under our jackets to prevent freezing. I’ve put in countless hours in the dark with temps barely in the single digits, just to get in the miles I needed.
Yet, all of this cold weather training actually prepared me better than I could have hoped for when that second truth about Zumbro reared its ugly head. Leading up to the race, the long range forecasts were predicting rather mild weather, with temps only getting down into the 30s overnight, and daytime highs in the 50s. For a while it seemed like this could be one of the warmest and driest Zumbro races on record. Then everything started to change as the days ticked by.
At first it didn’t seem too bad, the predicted temps getting down into the upper 20s overnight, but it didn’t stop there. By the time race day arrived we were all looking at an overnight run with air temps in the low-to-mid teens, and the highs on Saturday never getting above 40ish. Suddenly, all of the winter running gear in the closet was given one more shot for the season. But alas, this wasn’t even the whole story of what Zumbro had planned for us.
As my running buddy Mike and I prepared to leave on Friday, the snow started to fall. It was actually more of a weird sleet than snow, but it caused some white-out conditions for a period of time as we drove south. As we approached the race site we were pleased to see that, for the most part, the course only got a minor dusting of snow that was already almost completely melted. Yet snow turned out the be the least of our worries.
We found a campsite and started to pitch our tent. It was then that we discovered how windy it was with gusts over 20mph. We managed to get the tent up, and I crawled in for a hour to nap. We then headed over to another campsite to hang out with some friends, only to look back and see our tent wrapped around a tree. We hurried back and discovered that the huge winds had not only loosed our tent from its stakes, but also bent some of the poles, rendering it unusable. Thankfully, our other friend Mark had extra space in his tent, so we migrated over to his campsite and partook of his hospitality while I waited for the midnight start of the 50 mile race.
I attempted to nap a couple more times, but never got more than a half-hour of light dozing. By 10pm I was ready to just get on with it, and so I headed over to the race village and picked up my bib and started to get dressed in many, many layers of running clothes. Our friend Jeff came to the start with me and offered to take my big winter coat back to the campsite, so I could leave it on as long as possible before starting.
Soon enough midnight arrived and we lined up for the start. John Storkamp gave his usual directions about running the course, and before we knew it we were off. This is the first time I’ve run a race in the dark, and despite having been on the course before, I was a bit nervous about making sure I could keep track of where I needed to go. To top it off there was almost no moon that night, making it a very dark and cold environment.
Because of all of this uncertainty, I decided to stick with another running friend, Janet. Her and I have run together in other long races, and I figured that I could stick with her for the first of the three loops, and by then it should be getting closer to sunrise. We also had chatted about a pacing plan, and she had set a goal of beating 16 hours. I had set myself an “A” goal of beating 15 hours, but since this was my first 50 I would be content with whatever I got.
Running in the woods of Zumbro at night is interesting. The course is a mix of horse trail and deer trail. The horse trail is easy to follow, but the deer trail can sometimes require some concentration. Thanks to the incredible work of the marking crew, I never once felt lost or confused. The reflective markers blazed bright whenever my headlamp shone near them, and guided my way around the course with ease. I managed to finish my first loop in 4:45, but it wasn’t without struggles.
I’ve never run overnight before, and I know that the time between 3am and 5am is always tough for me to maintain a wakeful state. As I was completing my first loop I was at my lowest of low points of the entire race. In my head I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go lay down in a nice warm bed. Thankfully no one was running near me at those points because I would have probably would have sounded like a whiny brat.
I entered the start/finish area after loop 1, and encountered what would end up being my biggest problem of the race when it came to time management. I had a drop box all packed and ready to put at the start/finish line, but because our campsite was right next to the trail exit, I decided I could just stop off at my car to deal with my between-loop needs, and then run over to the start/finish line to check in before quickly heading back out for the next loop on the other side of the campground.
Although this might have seemed like a good plan, it completely failed me. On both of my loops I made errors in figuring out what I needed to grab, and I ended up forgetting things. I would usually remember while eating the food at the start/finish aid station, so I had to run all the way back to my car to correct my mistakes. I ended up adding a solid mile to my course distance because of the running around. In hindsight, putting my drop box at the start/finish would have made my life a lot easier, and I would have shaved close to 20 minutes off my final time due to wasted back and forth. Putting yourself in a situation where you need to make critical decisions in the middle of the night, during a 50 mile run, is NEVER a good idea. This is a mistake I won’t ever make again.
By this point in the race I had lost sight of Janet so I headed out on loop 2 to try and get my wits about me again. One of the most beautiful things about the Zumbro 50 is getting to see the course in three different states; darkness, dawn and full daylight. As I left aid station 1 the sky started to lighten in the distance. Soon a beautiful dawn was upon me, and everything in the world seemed right again.
All of the night running with a headlamp had started to really bug me to the point where I even switched over to the alternate red light, that headlamps have, when I got to the road section. I just couldn’t stand staring at that white light anymore. But then came the dawn, and everything suddenly took on shapes and forms that I couldn’t see the night before. I felt my mood improve, and all of the sleepiness and crabbiness passed into an amazing sunrise.
Despite feeling much better, my loop 2 was pretty slow. I had given up on my sub-15 hour goal by that point, and just kept moving forward as best as I could. I came across another running friend, Radek, and he and I hung together for a large portion of the end of loop 2. We ran when we could, but otherwise it was a lot of solid hiking back to the start/finish. I was very careful to make sure I was taking in enough nutrition, and I think I ate close to 600 calories at aid station 2 alone. I was really pleased with my nutrition management in this race, and never once had any type of stomach issues.
As we continued to move around the course we commented on how dry the course was this year, as we hadn’t encountered any mud at all on our first two loops. Being a spring race, having a dry course was really a surprise. I recall last year that I was trouncing through ankle deep mud on more than one occasion. This year seemed to give us a little blessing of a dry course, maybe in exchange for the intense cold. Yet, even that was soon to change.
As I arrived at my car to change for loop 3 I got some encouragement from Bob, who is a seasoned ultra runner. I put on a fresh pair of socks and grabbed my trekking poles to head out for the big finale. I decided that I was feeling pretty good from a food perspective, and I would focus on really moving through aid stations quickly on this loop. Overall, I was happy with my time in and out of aid stations (as opposed to start/finish), but for the final loop I wanted to really force myself to not fall into the trap of getting comfy.
After aid station 1 I started to feel a bit more of a spring in my step. Then as I approached the second big hill of the course before aid station 2, I really started to feel good, and began to push myself a bit more. I hiked for a while with another lady (Stephanie I think?) and we discovered that the slight warming of the day, along with hundreds of 17 milers had began to cause the course to develop a thin muddy layer that was just enough to make you slip and slide. Zumbro finally had some mud, but thankfully my trekking poles made it a lot easier to navigate, and I never fell once. Getting down the hill to aid station 2 with all the slippery mud was one of the harder tasks of the day, but we made it work.
We climbed our way out of aid station 2, and when I reached the top of Picnic Rock I looked at my watch, and realized that I might actually still have a chance to pull off a sub-16 finish, but I would need to dig deep and push to make it happen. I bid my comrade farewell as I started moving as quickly as I could down Picnic Rock back to aid station 3. At aid station 3 I stopped briefly to grab a quick bit of food and then began the long arduous process of climbing up to Ant Hill. I made the decision that I would end this race with nothing left in the tank. Every last ounce of me would get left on the course, no matter how hard it would be.
As I climbed the ridge, I started picking people off one at a time. Every 50 miler I passed commented on how fast I was moving and how they were just trying to finish. It sounds selfish, but passing people up, and feeling my body move with purpose felt SO good. Then, as I descended carefully down Ant Hill I caught up to Janet again! When I checked the data later on, I discovered that she was over 30 minutes ahead of me at the start of loop 3. That made me feel even better that I was able to push hard enough to make up that much time.
She was shocked I managed to catch her and we started talking strategy for how we were both going to beat 16 hours. Her watch had died shortly before I caught up with her, so I started doing the math. We were doing a quick hike with little bits of running, struggling to make up time on the long gravel road to aid station 4. Janet blew through the aid station while I grabbed a quick drink, and then I power hiked up the hill to catch up with her.
I knew I was going to struggle on the final path before the gate to the finish, I always have a hard time mentally running that section. I picked a nice downhill on the deer trail section before it and bolted ahead to gain a bunch of time. Janet eventually caught up to me right before the gate, but I told her I was going to attempt a sprint and go out in as much of a blaze of glory that a 42 year old first time 50 miler trying to beat 16 hours could manage!
We crested the small rise to the campground and I tossed my poles off to the side near my campsite. I then did my best impersonation of a runner as I struggled to hit a sub-10 minute pace for a few hundred yards. I blew across the finish line as best I could into the cheers of everyone who had stuck around to see the final hours of the race. I was given my medal and congratulated by Mr. Storkamp as I found the nearest chair to collapse into.
Very quickly I was mobbed by friends congratulating me on getting my first 50 mile finish. Even friends who had been doing twice as many miles as I had attempted were genuinely excited about what I had accomplished. I sat there reflecting on what had just happened, seeing Janet had crossed moments after me, and kindly asked my friend Mark to fetch me a beer. My final time was 15:47:29, over an hour longer than I had wanted to take, but I got it done.
In the year since I had first done Zumbro the memory of how difficult of a course it was, had faded. Zumbro is a VERY tough course, made even harder by repeating the loop multiple times. The weather is always a factor, and sometimes there’s lots of mud. People will talk of the cold of 2016 much like people talk of the hail in a previous year. Yet, every year we all gather to kick off the spring trail running season for an insane couple of days in the middle of nowhere.
I have no idea if another Zumbro 50 is in my future, but I know I want to continue to be a part of this weekend. Maybe some volunteering, maybe some pacing, perhaps doing the 17 mile race (and using it to introduce others to Zumbro!). This community has been amazing to me over the course of my journey. Without all the hard work of the people who put on this race, I wouldn’t have had the amazing experience I did this weekend. We all suffered, danced, ate, survived without internet access, and even did some damn nice running over those 48 hours. The aches and pains will fade, but the memories and feelings will last much, much longer.
Thank you Zumbro… See you next year!