Minimizing running tech

This past weekend I got to help some amazing people as they attempted the crazy Zumbro 100 in a blizzard. One of those people was Susan Donnelly, who is a beast in this sport, completing over one hundred, 100 mile races. She recently posted a blog about running and turning off your technology to listen to your body. This was actually very timely for me, as I had just recently made some changes to the way that I use some of my running technology.

I’ve been GPS tracking my runs since very early on in my running career. In the early days of 2010 I used a phone with a GPS app on it to keep track of my runs, as this was the easiest and cheapest way to do GPS tracking. As a quick aside, tech people will get a kick out of the fact that my first GPS tracking phone was a Palm Pre, completely with sliding physical keyboard. Eventually though, I decided to move up to something that had better tracking capabilities, and didn’t require physically handling a phone mid-run to see where I was at.

I purchased a Garmin GPS watch and from that point on started using it to keep track of every (outdoor) run that I went on. As the years have gone by I’ve upgraded a couple times, and each time has given me a more advanced device on my wrist. Every new watch has all kinds of fields, trackers, HR monitors, and calculated measurements by which to analyze my run, on the fly.

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself looking at my wrist, mid-run to see what my current pace is. Sometimes it pushes me to work harder, but many times it doesn’t do more than just annoy me. Therefore, I’ve decided to take advantage of all of the customization options on new watches that allow you to change what your seeing on every screen.

My current running setting is now set up with only one field on the main screen… total distance. I can press some buttons to go down to different screens and see other data, but by default, all I see is how far I’ve gone. That means that I’m less tempted to look down at my watch to tell me what to do, and instead simply listen to my body. There’s no current pace, or lap pace, to cloud my judgement. I just go with what my body feels like it’s capable of, and only worry about how far I’ve gone.

I could also create another screen that is just total elapsed time if I wanted to do more duration training, but for now the distance field is all I need. None of this means I’m less of a data geek. When I return home I upload my runs and dive in to the data as quickly as I can. I still like to see everything, but I find that I run better when I’m not distracted.

The beauty of modern watches is that I can very easily switch over to some screens that give me more data if I’m doing a very specific training routine that requires it. Overall though, I’ve found that running by feel is the best for me to keep me running strong and injury free.

The risks of trail running

One of the things that is different when you look at trail running (vs. road running) is that there is a second enemy in the mix. When you go out and run on roads or bike trails, the main enemy you face is yourself. Your body wants to rebel and make you stop. Your mind tells you that you should just give up and go home. You fight against it almost every time you hit the pavement.

However, when you hit the trails, you end up facing one more enemy… mother nature. Weather can always cause issues when you’re running. In general, when we’re running on roads, the weather is just an irritant. On the roads rain is annoying, and cold means we just wear more stuff. On trails, the weather can physically change the surface that you’re running on into something completely different, and then change it back, all within the space of a single run. It’s what makes trail running an adventure.

I want to be clear that what follows are my thoughts alone. When I speak below, it’s not as a board member of Upper Midwest Trail Runners, or a volunteer with Rocksteady Running. These are my opinions, and I’m sharing them as such.

This past weekend I volunteered at the Zumbro 100 Mile trail run. The weather was epic, and the conditions led to the highest drop rates of any race I’ve been at. At one point the race director decided to cancel the shorter 17 mile race before it began. The hope was that people would avoid trying to get to the area, in blizzard and white-out conditions. From what I’ve seen on social media not many people have complained about this, however, there are always those who will. To those people, I need to simply say… please chill out.

I spent my entire weekend at Zumbro helping to make the race happen. I was there, on the ground, and saw the carnage that was coming back off the trail, and the conditions of the roads around the area. Zumbro is in a remote and lightly traveled area of southern Minnesota. It’s only accessible by dirt roads that are minimally maintained, and once you get out of the immediate area, it’s all two lane country highways. This is NOT a place where you want hundreds of extra people to come and visit in the middle of a blizzard. I honestly don’t even know where anyone with a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have parked, and had any level of success getting out.

This was not a safe place, and as such, it was completely appropriate to cancel the 17 mile race. If even a quarter of the registered participants had attempted the drive it would have been too much. The infrastructure support systems are simply not there to support that many people during a weather event such as this. Even during perfect times, this is still a difficult place to get to. Cancelling this part of the event was the absolute right decision to make. Many of us were there as John struggled with this decision, and saw the anxiety and stress as he had to make the call to do the best thing he could for everyone’s safety.

Additionally, this entire event put a tremendous strain on the volunteer resources of the event. Many volunteers simply couldn’t show up because of the weather, and those that did, often had to work longer shifts to keep things going. As the storm got worse, many had to leave because they were ill-equipped to get out with their low profile vehicles. Simply getting around the course was difficult. ATVs were getting stuck, and some of the access roads were impassible.

We started encouraging people to DNF if they had any question that they might be struggling. There were simply no easy ways to get people evacuated from deep in the woods. If you fall and break your leg, getting you out will take a monumental effort. Subjecting the support systems of the race to this goes above and beyond what volunteers should ever have to deal with. Yet, we did the best that we could with what we had, and put on the best event that we could.

I realize people might be upset with not getting a refund as well, and although I understand that, every race you participate in can face similar challenges. Trail racing just happens to have a lot more complexity to all the variables that make up putting it on. There are things that simply can’t be controlled, like mother nature, and what she does to the trails and the surrounding areas. Putting on these events are not cheap, and race directors don’t get filthy rich off of these. Many races don’t even turn a profit, and so giving refunds, when equipment has already been procured, is impossible. All of the “stuff” of the race has already been paid for. There’s simply no money to give back.

I know people are upset, as they’ve trained hard for every race they do. However, in trail racing, sometimes we all have to DNF and let mother nature take the win. It’s not the way we want it to go, but it’s just how our sport functions. It’s what makes us unique and makes us love trail running. If we weren’t OK with dealing with this, then we would all just go back to running roads. We love this though, and sometimes, we just have to take the hit on the chin and look to come back bigger and better next time.

Zumbro 2018 Volunteering Report

For the first time in four years, I had decided to forgo running any of the Zumbro Trail Race this year and simply volunteer the entire time. My wife had decided to make her first 50 mile race attempt this year at Zumbro, and I wasn’t sure what my goals for 2018 were going to be, so I opt’d to just sit by the sidelines and take care of runners.

Because I’m someone who is good at “running things”, the Rocksteady Running race director John Storkamp has asked me to run aid stations at a few different races. Last year I was the captain for part of the time, and this year John asked me to run it the entire race. Little did I know that this would not be as simple a matter as I expected. This year turned out to be the Zumbro of all Zumbros. This race is known to challenge everyone with it’s unpredictability but this year it was dialed up to 11.

We arrived on Thursday night, driving down with our friend Mark. We got the camper set up and headed over for the pre-race dinner and hanging out. It was a beautiful evening, and I wished the entire weekend could be as good as this. My wife headed to a hotel for the night to get in a good sleep before her big race, and I eventually excused myself and tried to get some sleep. I can’t say I slept great, but I did manage to get a few hours of decent rest. I awoke in the early morning to the sound of rain, and from what we had learned in the latest weather forecasts, this was going to be a wet year.

I headed over to the start to watch the 100’s head out, and start my planning for the start/finish Aid Station 5. Zumbro is a looped course, and the 100 milers would be back to visit us in a little over two hours. Thankfully, I had a good crew of people with me, and after a couple last minute layout changes, we had everything ready to go with time to spare. Soon the runners started trickling in, wet, muddy and getting cold. Normally, I’m pretty tough on runners in my stations when it’s so early in a race, but I decided to be a bit nicer this year and let my volunteers start some soup by mid-day.

IMG_2483.jpgSoon, I had runners coming up to me to drop after a single loop. Zumbro is NOT an easy course, and this year was a wet, muddy, and cold adventure. I knew that the rain, which had lightened, was going to pick up again, but I really didn’t want to see people drop so early. I pulled out every trick in the book to try and get people to keep going for at least a solid 50K training loop. Only a couple folks actually took me up on the challenge and continued on.

Eventually, the rain and wind started to pick up even more, and we could tell we were in for a rough night. Eric showed up to help give me some rest, and went back to my trailer for a few hours to try and get a little sleep before the 50 milers showed up and launched. While I rested, everything changed. By the time I came out of my camper around 9-ish the ground was starting to get covered in snow. The initial weather forecast had suggested the snow wouldn’t start until morning, but Zumbro had other ideas.

I altered my clothing strategy a little bit and headed back to the start. Things were running smoothly, and I made sure that new volunteers knew what to do. With a few experienced people, these things run themselves, but often new volunteers need some encouragement and guidance to learn the ropes. As the snow started falling heavier and heavier, things started to get more ominous. The winds had picked up and it looked like the overnight was going to be a near blizzard. Thankfully, the temps stayed in the 28-31 degree Farenhiet range, which helped a lot. Conditions were getting bad though.

Race Director John made some announcements, and they were the most unique pre-race announcements I’ve ever seen. He said that things were getting rough, and that if anyone gets to Aid Station 1, and doesn’t feel like they have what it takes to continue, to please turn around and take the shortcut back to the start/finish. No shame will come on anyone who drops this year. On top of all the mud and water, the ice, sleet, and snow were creating a tremendously difficult trails. When you toss in 40mph wind gusts, things get hairy.

The 50 milers launched, and we hunkered down for a long night. Since we were in a valley, we were shielded by the wind a bit, and so despite still getting major wind burn on my face, it wasn’t nearly as bad as out on some of the ridgelines. As things got worst, a decision had to be made about how to handle it. John had a long few hours trying to decide what to do, but eventually make the 100% correct call to cancel the 17 mile race that was scheduled to start at 9am the next morning. The course was brutal, and getting to the Zumbro River Bottems area involved dirt roads, large hills, and pure white-out conditions.

As the early morning wore on I stopped pushing people to continue if they came in and wanted to quit. In fact we started telling people who were on the fence to call it a day. I don’t think I’ve ever worked a race where encouraging people to DNF is the correct thing to do, but in this case, it’s totally warrented. I’ll talk more about this decision to cancel part of the race in another post, but briefly, with conditions as bad as they were, and the ability of race volunteers to rescue stranded runners diminishing by the hour, the less people on course the better. If you came in and said your ankle was bugging you and you weren’t sure if you should do another loop, I’m telling you to stop. Even the ATVs were getting stuck.

As the day wore on we approached some cutoffs and pulled some runners before they could begin their final two loops. We got a respite from the snow on and off through the morning, which allowed us to get control of the situation again. We made some more adjustments to aid station arrangement to help control wind and started cooking lots of hot food to keep people warm.

Throughout the day I found myself turning in DNF numbers by the handful. Many runners, including my wife, would cross the line of one of their loops and say something to the affect that this was an amazing experience, and they can’t believe they succeeded that far, but that they were done and not going to head out for another 17 mile loop. We gladly took their numbers, and told them to start driving home, very, VERY carefully. The roads were in horrendous shape.

By mid-day the snow started to pick up again and it looked like things were not going to get any better. We explained to runners that they needed to get moving, and couldn’t stay at the aid station long if they wanted any chance to get this done. We had no idea if we were going to have to stop the race early and evacuate people, and so dawdling was not an option. From a DNF perspective, this race was carnage.

In the 100 mile, 120 of 131 registered runners started the race with only 20 hanging on to the finish – that is a 17% finish rate (last year was 65%) . In the 50 mile, 175 of 254 registered runners started with 49 finishing – that is a 28% finishers rate (last year was 79%). – Zumbro 100 Mile race FB post

Once everyone was on their final lap, we started to compress the aid station down to keep it simple, and out of the wind as much as possible. Things started to get packed up, since we didn’t need very many supplies for only 70 runners. Many volunteers headed out to try and start the long drive home, and for the most part everything got quieter. As the finishers started to trickle in, every one of them was greeted with hugs and words of encouragement about how amazing they were for finishing in these conditions.

Soon many of our friends who had continued, made it back and finished their race. As I looked at the weather I decided that I would have to get ourselves packed up and on the road sooner than I wanted to. I apologized to John and Cheri for bailing a couple hours early, but I knew that with almost no sleep in close to 40 hours, I needed to start making the drive before there was any chance of darkness.

The drive home is a story in itself, with almost constant white-out conditions. I drove for as long as I could and then my wife took over, once we were on main highways. We saw close to 50 cars in the ditches as we drove back, and what should have been a nice easy 2 hour drive turned in to 3+ hours. We arrived home and had to dig out our driveway before we could even pull our car and trailer in.

Once all the nervous energy wore off I ended up falling asleep hard. I slept solidly all night, and have already taken at least one nap today. My body is sore and worn out, and I actually dropped 3 full pounds of weight over the weekend. I also learned that PVC boots are horribly uncomfortable when you wear them for 10 hours straight.

Despite all of this, this was an incredibly fulfilling weekend. Despite hating that our Spring will never seem to arrive, the snow was beautiful and lovely. If I had energy and time, I would have loved to have gone out for a loop to check out the course myself. However, this is going to go down as one of the most epic and difficult Zumbros in history. Everyone who toed the line and even attempted any distance did something amazing. All of the volunteers went above and beyond by leaps and bounds to keep things running, in impossible situations. I know at my aid station alone I had a half dozen volunteers who couldn’t even make it out of the cities to come help volunteer, because of the road conditions.

This was a phenomenally difficult race this year. I’m thankful that we all came out of it unscathed, and grateful that I once again got so spend time in the presence of amazing trail people. I’m placing bets now that next year will end up being the hottest Zumbro on record and we’ll be facing yet another whole set of challenges.

(featured photo credit above, Lisa K-S.)

Part 2 of an impromptu Decorah trip

After we visited Pulpit Rock we spent a leisurely night in the hotel, recovering from a long day of running and frivolity. Sunday morning meant one more run for both of us before a day off on Monday. Our hotel was right next to the Trout Run Trail, which is a paved bike path that goes along the Upper Iowa River. I only needed 5.25 miles so it was OK that I was still a bit stiff and sore from the day before. We came across some construction on the trail, but it looked open enough, and soon I was running along the flood plain on a crisp Iowa morning.


After our run it was time for the return trip. Our plan was to stop for lunch in Rochester at a brewery that I had never been to, but had heard amazing things about, called Forager Brewing. As it turns out, they are a brewpub, and serve food. I saw pizza in their photos, so we assumed that was the type of place it was. When we arrived we realized that it was a lot more.

IMG_2467.jpgForager is known for it’s sour beers. I got a bunch of little samples and sure enough, I was pleased by a solid resume of pucker beers. One of them, called Todd Plump, was one of the most amazing sours I’ve ever had. It was opaque and purple (plum), and had this rich head on it that made you think about adding ice cream to it. It was sweet, slightly tart, and incredibly smooth. It’s a limited edition beer, so I doubt I’ll ever get to have it again, but I’m happy I got to have it at least once.

IMG_2468.jpgHowever Forager also has amazing food. It turns out that pizza is just one little part of their menu. They also have incredible, made-from-scratch, food that comes sourced from local farms. I ordered up a breakfast skillet and it was filled with perfectly cooked potatoes, a little hint of bacon, and topped with two of the most perfectly poached eggs I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, we were both blown away by the food. I’ve decided that we’re kidnapping a couple of our friends and making them come here with us sometime.

IMG_2469.jpgWith our bellies filled with amazing food we proceeded to our final stop of the trip, LTS Brewing. I’ve been to LTS before and really enjoyed it. I brought my half-growler with me and just had to decide what to get. I tried a couple tasters, and everything was really high quality. One of them was a bit unique, their Go Big Rouge which is a Flander’s Red Ale style beer. This style of beer is slightly sour, yet more malty than a Gose. The yeast strain is very unique, and they are often blended with younger versions as they are aged. It was a very interesting beer, but I decided to just go with their Karma Kolsh for my growler. I figured that with such a cold Spring that we’ve been having, I better get a Summer-ish beer called Karma to try and tip the scales back to warm weather.

Soon enough we were back home. We accomplished our task of getting through the entire 5 hour podcast, and we loved listening to it. We also got to have a quick, spur of the moment get-away that created memories. We got to try new food, run in a new place, and sample lots of great craft beer. A very successful weekend if you ask me.

An impromptu weekend in Decorah, IA, part 1

This past week a running podcast that I enjoy called Ten Junk Miles, released a long interview with two ladies that I know who completed a double Arrowhead 135. They started at the finish line, 4 days before the start, and did the race backwards on their own. Then they started the race with everyone else and headed back 135 miles to be the first women ever to complete a double on foot. It’s an amazing story, and the interview clocked in at 5 hours.

I pinged my wife and the conversation went like this:

Me: TJM posted the Kate and Kari interview. It’s 5 hours long lol. Do you want to listen to the podcast together over the weekend or just on our own?

Wife: We can listen together. We should pick a road trip 😁 LOL
Where has good food?

And so, our weekend plans were born. I have been wanting to visit Decorah, IA for a while, since they have a couple great breweries that I’ve heard good things about. On top of that there were breweries along the route that I had never been to either. Decorah is 2.5 hours away, which means it’s perfect for a 5 hour podcast.

I was scheduled for a ~22 mile run on Saturday morning, and my wife needed to get some car work done, but we decided that by lunchtime we’d hit the road. I had a great run, and was feeling excited to hear a long podcast about other runners doing amazing things. We headed out around lunchtime and enjoyed a lovely drive through southern Minnesota.

IMG_2458.jpgOur first stop of the trip actually came before we hit Iowa. We stopped in Fountain, MN at the tiny brewery (612 sq ft!), Karst Brewing. This is a delightful little place with a handful of beers on tap. I got a few samples and then a half-pour of their cream ale. Their beers were all decently done, and I enjoyed getting some well made beer in small-town Minnesota. With our short stop out of the way my wife took the wheel and we continued our trip.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and after dropping off our bags at the hotel, we headed to the famous Toppling Goliath brewery. They’ve made a name for themselves with their Morning Delight beer. You have to enter a lottery to buy it, and then you only get four bottles for $100. However, it’s an AMAZING beer. Unfortunately, our experience at their brand new taproom wasn’t nearly as amazing.

IMG_2460.jpgThey recently relocated to brand new digs about 5 miles outside of town. We found a parking space in a busy lot and proceeded to see what they had to offer. When we got inside there was a sign that said to “Seat Yourself”. The bar was full, and I didn’t see an obvious beer line, so we grabbed a table. I went to the bar and asked if people were service tables or if we order from the bar. I was told that we could just take a table and someone would be around. Then we waited… and waited… and waited.

IMG_2459.jpgFinally, I went to an area of the bar that looked like it was for growler sales and stood in line. It appeared that it was also for pints, and after a much longer wait than I should have had I finally had a flight of beers in front of me. It’s obvious that they have no idea what they’re doing in their brand new space yet, and hopefully their taproom manager will get things straightened out. From what I could see they need at least twice the number of servers that they had, as well as some clear signage about how to actually acquire beer.

On the bright side, my beers were all great, and especially a sour called Dragon Fandango. It was like a tart kool-aid and was amazing. Absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it in ready-to-go bombers, and I didn’t feel like wading through the line again for a growler.

From there we headed in to downtown Decorah for some yummy Mexican food at Don Jose. Every college town has a great Mexican place like this, and soon my gut was filled with enchiladas and tamales. We still had one more stop for the evening, Pulpit Rock Brewing company.

IMG_2462.jpgPulpit Rock is built in what appears to be an old car dealership, or garage of some type. It’s a quaint little building, and there are multiple rooms you can hang out in with your beer. I got a nice flight of english style brew and started in. Although the Heavy Lifter Lager left me a little disappointed, the Clarion ESB was great. All in all, a wonderful way to finish off the brewery tour for the night.

More in part two…