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 that 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 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 give me some rest, and I went back to my trailer for a few hours. I wanted 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 9pm-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 Storkamp made some announcements, and they were the most unique pre-race announcements I’ve ever heard. 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 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 little bit, Despite still getting major wind burn on my face, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was out on some of the ridge lines. As things got worst, a decision had to be made about how to handle the conditions. 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 warranted. I’ll talk more about this decision to cancel part of the race in another post, but briefly, with conditions are 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. 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 for 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. 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. This is going to go down as one of the most epic and difficult Zumbros in history. Everyone who toed the line and 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.)

Zumbro 17 Mile Race Report – 2017

In yesterday’s blog I shared my experiences at Zumbro 2017 as a volunteer. However, there was still a race to run, and as Saturday dawned I was both excited and nervous about hitting this course for what would be my 5th race loop. My training over this winter has been utter garbage. My highest mileage week in 2017 was 24 miles, and in I’ve only had two runs that reached double digits since early-December. Most of my 2017 has involved fighting off illness, and my fitness has taken a turn for the worse because of it. Plus, tack on an extra 10 lbs. that just won’t seem to shake itself off, and my goals for Zumbro were very muted.

However, the morning of the race, I was feeling quite good. Granted I had been very active, standing around and walking for most of the previous days, but when I lined up at the start, everything was feeling pretty good. John Storkamp gave his usual round race introductions, and before I knew it we were off. I moved to the back of the pack, since I knew how crowded it could be getting up the first hill. I jogged for a bit, and then fell into a nice hike to the top of phone booth. Once I crested the ridge I started running, and felt great all the way down into AS1. There, I quickly grabbed a couple items and headed back across the bridge.

17757199_714695161988591_201688565041931774_nThe journey from AS1 to AS2 takes you over a couple big hills with valleys in between, before subjecting you to a huge, sharp climb to the picnic pavilion with a beautiful view from 1000 ft in the air. From there I dropped down to AS2, stopping only long enough to fill my water bottle, before hitting one of my least favorite sections of the course. The portion between AS2 and AS3 contains a lot of deer trail and sand. Because of the really warm weather we’ve been having the sand was exceptionally soft, with no frozen ground below it. This meant that the journey to AS3 was a slow slog that actually required me emptying my shoes before continuing on.

When I arrived at AS3 I was feeling hungry and hot. I decided to grab whatever food I could before hiking up to the top of Ant Hill to replenish myself. I drank a bunch of water and piled food in my hands as I left. I started eating my way up the next huge climb, hoping that when I reached the top, the energy would kick in again and I could get in some running. However, with every step I felt my body getting more and more exhausted. When I finally reached the very runnable section along the top of Ant Hill I was drained and depleted, and I could tell that my lack of training had caught up with me.

17833947_10211516352577675_1107922671049498357_oI slogged my way across the ridge line, and down to the dreaded gravel road. The gravel was hard and unforgiving, causing my feet to protest almost as bad as during a road marathon. I walked my way into AS4 feeling bummed and annoyed that I had fallen apart so badly. I tried a few gentle runs between AS4 and the finish, but nothing really clicked. I managed to jog the entire distance from the trail exit gate to the finish chute, but had nothing left in the tank. I finished in just over 5 hours, sweaty, hot, and sunburned, wishing I could have done something different to have made the day go better.

Despite my under-training woes, I couldn’t have asked for a better race day. The weather was beautiful (albeit a bit hotter than I was used to which didn’t help), and the trail was drier than I had ever seen it before. This meant that the usual mud-fest was replaced with really fast times from runners coming close to breaking the course record. From a weather standpoint it was one of the most beautiful Zumbro races that people could remember.

17880289_10156152301568569_2239197271787689126_oOnce I finished the race I grabbed a little bit of food, and then decided to head back to my camper to clean up and wait for my wife to finish. For as bad a day as I was having, she was having a really great one, and before I could get changed she went blasting past the campsite, throwing down a 5:30 time in her first ever Zumbro. I quickly hobbled back to the finish line to congratulate her and tell her how proud I was of her. She was beaten and bruised, but she did an amazing job.

The rest of the day involved slowly breaking down out campsite, while watching our amazing friends finish their 100 mile races. My friend Troy got his first 100 mile finish after 10 different attempts, and Wendi managed her first 100 with an amazing smile on her face. There were so many incredible runners, achieving amazing things, that I couldn’t feel bad about my own race for long.

Watching 10 year old Ava cross the line in her first every big trail race was beautiful, and shows just how powerful this community is. No one REALLY cares that much what your time was. They were all happy and proud to see you come across that line and achieve something amazing and life-changing. So what, I didn’t make my sub-4 hour goal, but I still got it done when it counted, and gutted it out against one of the toughest courses in the midwest.

What really mattered this weekend was community, and Zumbro is the place where the local trail community comes out of hibernation for a two day party in the woods like no other. There’s no cell reception or internet access, so you have to actually talk with people face-to-face and ‘share’ and ‘like’ each other physically. It’s a place where you learn quickly what it means to be a part of a big trail running family; treating everyone with respect, no matter your political, religious, or philosophical differences. We’re all there for the same reason, to spend time doing something we love, in a place that we love, with the people we love.

Thank you once again Zumbro for an amazing year, and reminding us what it really means to be community.

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2017 Zumbro Report

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.

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Zumbro campground in the setting sun

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.

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Some shenanigans around the fire

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. IMG_0738

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.

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100 milers ready to start

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.

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The AWESOME Friday aid station 5 crew!

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.

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The PB&J assembly line

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.

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Getting Jeff ready to head out again

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.

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Old friends

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…

Returning to trail roots

As this blog is going live I will be preparing to run a race that was my first big introduction to the trail running community in 2015, the Zumbro 17 miler. I had been running since 2010, but in late 2014 my wife convinced me to give trails a try. We did a small short race in the fall of 2014, but in 2015 I committed fully to doing some races. I hooked up with a local trail running group, and signed up for Zumbro.

One of the things I learned right away from this running group was a lesson in community. As I ran with them, weekend after weekend through the winter, they told me about how the trail running community functions, and how important the community aspect of this was. It cemented in my mind that I wanted to be a part of this, and that I needed to put commit to being a good community member.

With this in mind I signed up to volunteer on the Friday before the 17 mile race, while the 100 milers were out on their loops. That first time volunteering gave me the most perfect introduction to what this community is all about. I met some amazing people in Robyn, Rob, Julie, Julio and many others. Everyone pitched in to make sure the 100 milers had what they needed, but did it with a laid back attitude and with a dose of fun. These folks were some of the best trail running ambassadors I’ve met, and they’re the example I’m striving to live up to.

This year I’m once again spending Friday volunteering, this time getting to captain the 5th aid station at start/finish. I’ve got a great crew working with me, making my job nice and easy, and hopefully we’ll be able to take care of all the runners needs and make them successful in their 100 mile attempts. One of the best things about Zumbro is that as a looped course you get to see everyone many times, and every time they hit AS5 it’s like stopping by home.

Zumbro is a special place because of this. The entire weekend feels like a big family gathering, with a bunch of people camped out in the woods and having a great time. The start/finish campground becomes a big party on Saturday afternoon with people cheering their runners home, and then hanging out for hours swapping war stories. The atmosphere exemplifies what it means to be a part of the trail running community. People gathered together in the woods, helping each other, cheering each other, and discovering the joy of life lived fully.