Strap in folks, this one has the potential to be a very long entry. Last year I ran the 50 mile race at Zumbro, but since I wasn’t ready (or willing) to deal with that type of pain again, I went back to my roots and put in a lot of volunteer time and just did the fun run (17 mile) on Saturday. The 100 milers kick off at 8am Friday, so I decided to get down there nice and early to be a part of the weekend.
I arrived at Zumbro River Bottoms on Thursday, around 3pm. I decided to pull our new camper down and just sleep at the staging area campground. I’ll write up a review of how the camper went in a different post, but suffice it to say, my sleeping was not a problem at all this year.
As I was arriving people were getting set up for the super low-key Thursday check-in and supper. Zumbro doesn’t have a pre-race meeting the night before, so the Thursday evening event is very subdued, and mostly ends up being a nice time to sit and chat with folks that you haven’t seen for a long time.
In fact, if there was one theme from Zumbro weekends, it’s how much people love this Spring gathering as a way to reconnect after a long winter. Many of us have been in hibernation, doing what we can to keep fit and not lose too much over the winter. Without any races (beyond some winter ultras), there are few opportunities to get together and hang out, and Zumbro makes all of that right again.
I wasn’t signed up to help on Thursday night, but asked Cherri Storkamp if she needed anything and ended up working the check-in table most of the evening. I love volunteering at these events, and at the check-in table you get to see everyone throughout the evening. Because it’s very low-key and only a few people, you can actually stop and talk with folks and contemplate the adventure ahead.
After some supper, and a beer, it was getting dark and I decided to head back to our campsite to bed down for the night. My tradition is to set up at the far end of the area, near where the runners emerge from the woods. It’s quiet, and it’s where most of my running group hunkers down as well.
I had little trouble falling asleep Thursday night, but as the night wore on I realized just how cold it was going to get. Thankfully, I had multiple blankets and sleeping bags, and as long as I kept myself covered I was nice and toasty. As soon as my head popped out of the covers, I was blasted with frigid air. When my alarm went off around 6 I quickly grabbed my clothes and crawled back under the blankets. As I shimmied into my jeans and shirt I noticed the inside of the camper covered in frost. When I emerged I took one look at my car, covered in a beautiful hard frost, and realized it was a bit colder than I expected.
The forecast brought with it the promise of more moderate temps, so I simply layered up with the intention that I would soon be shedding clothing with the rising sun. I started my day with one of our dehydrated camp meals, that ended up being a lot tastier than I expected. As I wandered over to the start/finish/AS5 area I met up with runners who were eating their “last meal” before kicking off in the 100 mile race at 8am. Many of them were chipper and excited, especially with the predicted weather. This had the possibility of being one of the most mild and dry Zumbro’s in history, and this made people antsy to get out and check out the course.
My job on Friday was to run Aid Station 5, which is also where the start/finish area is. As a looped course, Zumbro can function with only three aid stations over the entire 100 mile race. Start/finish is Aid Station 5, and out in the woods were two combo stations for Aid Station 1/4 and 2/3. This makes this race one of the best supported 100 mile races around, as supply crews only have to visit 2 locations beyond start/finish. Because AS5 wouldn’t be seeing any runners until after 10am, we were all able to take it easy and watch the 100 milers kick-off and start their adventure.
Once they departed we started moving things into place, locating all of our supplies and arranging tables. I had been given a wonderful crew for the day on Friday, which made my job incredibly easy. I spent a bunch of time helping getting the food and water coordinated, and by 10am we were ready to rock and roll for the lead runner. The first loop can be a bit bunched up still, so we wanted to be prepared for a few “rushes” of runners.
Our lead runner (Doug Kleemeier came in hot and never gave up the lead), showed up around 10:40 and needed very little from us. He grabbed a couple refills and was on his way quick as can be. One of the most difficult things for runners on a looped course is passing by your car multiple times, lulling you into wanting to just stop and quit. The best thing you can do is get out of AS5 as quick as possible and get those thoughts out of your mind.
There was a slow trickle of runners for the next hour, and then a bunch of large groups arrived. We got them all taken care of and sent on their way. Eventually, the groups stopped, and the final few runners came through the first loop. By this time even more great people had arrived to help out, and there was often a swarm of people, ready to help every runner that came through with the utmost personal attention. We tended to whatever folks needed, and brought in our awesome medical staff when required. As the day wore on, and the warmth arrived, it became one of the most enjoyable days to be out in the woods in April in a long time.
Ultra-running is a pretty low-key sport, and so are the aid stations. I had many volunteers who were there to cheer on a runner and asked if they could fill the time between loops with helping out. I handed them a nametag and they mucked right in, giving attention to some amazing century runners and they worked their way through the early loops of a long couple of days.
My wife wasn’t showing up until after work, and so I kept just working until she got there. My replacement station captain arrived, and I gave him the lay of the land as to where everything was and how we had been running. One thing that I am super proud of is that we had one of the most hygienic aid stations around, with everything separated into little cups, so that sweaty runner hands weren’t digging around in bowls of M&Ms. The team did a great job keeping everything neat and clean (or as much as you can at a campground).
Eventually, Lisa arrived and we headed over to the camper to get her settled. We made ourselves a nice little camp meal and then I wandered back to the aid station to hang out with folks for a bit longer. I was sad to see a couple friends like Rob had dropped, but with races like this, it doesn’t always work out the way you intend. Once it got dark I meandered back to the camper and we crawled into bed, nice and early, since we had a big day the next day.
I remember falling asleep quickly, but then waking up to hear the 50 milers launch at midnight. The rest of the night was a bit fitful in my sleeping with occasional voices or noises coming through, but I still work up pretty fresh. Friday night was 20 degrees warmer than Thursday night, so it was much more pleasant outdoor sleeping weather. I’m an early bird, and since I had gone to bed even earlier the night before, I was sneaking out of the camper a bit before 6am. I took care of my toiletry business and then headed over to the aid station to see how the racers were doing.
I was super happy that I found my friend John from Michigan there, crewing for his friend in the 50. We’ve been friends since 2002, and have both gone through divorces and remarriages together, supporting each other despite the distance. I grabbed some coffee and the two of us got a chance to catch up for a short bit before his runner came through on their second loop. I was one of a few people that pushed John into running back in 2010, and John took it to a whole new level, running ultras and trails years before me. Getting to connect at a trail race with him was very special and I hope it’s not another two years before we see each other in person again (which it shouldn’t be with Marquette coming up later this year for me).
Once it started to get light I headed back to the camper to make up another camp meal for my wife and I to start our day. I know some people find these meals a bit tasteless (or the opposite, over seasoned) but after a day of munching on aid station food, they tasted like gourmet meals. Slowly, we started to get ourselves ready for our adventure of the day, the 17 mile fun run. However, I think I will make that a story for tomorrow…