Zumbro 50 Mile
Race Day: Saturday, April 9, 2016 – 12:01am
50 miles is a lot of ground to cover. 2016 is the year for long backpacking trips, hiking, walking, slow-walking, and so on. However, I love racing and just can’t give it up. With a few forays into ultramarathons, I realized that they’re really fun and challenging, and I’m pretty good at them. For better or worse, I think that based on my physiology and genetic abilities, trail ultras suit me best compared to other types of endurance racing like bike racing and tris and road running. The real test is to register for a really competitive trail ultra like Superior Spring 50k and Voyager 50 mile and see where I place…
Anyways, I figured that throwing a few trail ultramarathons in the mix for the year would be great training, a lot of fun, and a perfect compliment to backpacking. I registered for Zumbro 50 mile and Superior Spring 50k simultaneously, actually, but Zumbro is the one that I was thinking about every single day a month prior. I was having thoughts of fear, nervousness, dread, excitement.
Training leading up to Zumbro was interesting. I’d been running very, very consistently at about 60-70 miles per week from into February and all of March. This is pretty big miles for me, but I think the big key was running every day, doing a lot of doubles, and back-to-back longer runs on the weekends. I was staying free from injury (maybe riding the line of frinjury… but that’s where you wanna be!), and running was feeling VERY easy. An hour run, for instance, would feel as taxing as a lunch break walk around downtown Duluth. My hamstrings get more sore watching an hour of TV on the couch. This is a good sign. However, 90% of my running was roads. February was really warm, and once the snow starts to melt, it’s game over for the trails until it either snows more and is consistently cold, or it all melts and the trails completely dry out. And in Duluth, that’s usually mid-May. This year is no exception, and the daily highs were above freezing in the day and below freezing at night. Rain, snow, mix, sleet, and all of the above at the same time… yeah it’s not meteorologically possible but I’m pretty sure it happened. So roads it is. 7:30 pace was feeling EASY to maintain, breathing through my nose or carrying on an intellectual conversation even for two hours. I was feeling very confident in my running, especially for, say, a road marathon. If I keep this up, I’m a shoe-in for a PR at Grandma’s! But a technical, challenging trail ultramarathon is what I was actually training for…
Two weeks prior to Zumbro, I started getting really nervous. First it was about training. Roads are different than trails. Will that fitness translate or am I going to break both my ankles on mile 1? Also, I hadn’t done any really long runs. I anticipated doing some 4 hour runs, but push comes to shove and my biggest weekend was 2 hours for 17 miles a Friday morning and then 3 hours for 21 miles the next morning. Both on roads, 3 hours felt so easy, and this was maybe 5 weeks out. Then, a few days before the race… when do I sleep? How do I eat? Naps? Two dinners? How do I pace this thing? Am I going to fall apart on the third lap? Is this like a 50k or is it a different beast? Pretty standard pre-race nerves, but maybe a little amplified because of the scope of the race itself.
Zumbro is made up of three races along a 16.7 mile loop in bluff country near Winona, MN. The 100 mile is six loops and starts Friday morning. The 50 is three loops and starts at midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. The 16.7 mile (17 miles for all intents and purposes) starts Saturday morning at 9. The cutoff for every race is Saturday at 6pm. So my plan was to take work off on Friday, drive to Maple Grove and then drive to the race site on Friday evening to catch packet pickup at 10pm. As far as race plans, my goal was to go under 9 hours. To achieve this, I figured I could pace off 10 minute miles. If I keep a 10 minute pace right off the bat, I don’t think I’d overexert myself but that leaves a 40 minute buffer for the inevitable slowdown. If I can hit 10 minutes for every mile, it puts me at 8:20. Lastly, I want to win. I mean, really, what’s the point of racing besides to beat people and stroke one’s own ego? Otherwise, it’s just a timed training run with a bunch of other weirdos…
So I relaxed, ate and slept as much as I could on Friday. I started driving south and arrived at the race site right after 10pm. Nick’s advice to me was to be full at the start line. I got my packet, rushed back to the warm car, and hung out for an hour. I ate half a Subway sandwich and was munching on trail mix and Combos and candy and various other munchies. I set my alarm for 38 minutes and tried to get some quick shut-eye. I definitely wasn’t tired but figured it’d benefit me. I didn’t really sleep. And when my alarm rang, I gathered some food and a backup headlamp and socks into my little drop bag and set out to the start line.
The overnight low was supposed to be in the 20’s, even into the teens depending on the location. I definitely noticed that the river bottoms were cooler. I chose to wear a long sleeve tech tee and a thin running jacket, running tights, a buff and thin poly liner gloves. A voice came over the loudspeaker and we lined up in the pitch dark midnight. I got up the front row, and saw Bennett Isabella to my right. We raced against each other at Capitol City Tri, I noticed his USA Triathlon shirt and put two and two together. We were chatting a bit… he’s doing an ultramarathon year as well, just had a baby, and didn’t have a target time in mind at all. He said this is pure training, and didn’t really say much about my 9 hour goal.
Then “GO!” and we set off. I started slow and wanted to have some dudes in front of me to lead the way. I was really nervous to run in the dark and potentially get off course, so my initial plan was to latch onto a group going exactly 10 minute pace. High hopes… beggars can’t be choosers! Looking at the start list, I figured Kurt Keiser would win. I want to win, but Kurt set the course record for Zumbro 50 the previous year (8:10), and he’d won Surf the Murph 50 mile the past October, too. So, he’s got consistent 50 mile experience, a just fricken’ fast dude. Another guy who looked like a contender is Jeff Vander Kooi out of Michigan, who popped a 24 hour at Sawtooth 100 the previous fall. And Bennett is a beast triathlete, so you can never discount him. Plus, I’m not too versed in the who’s who in ultras, and unlike the MN triathlon scene, there are lot more ringers out there. Just super fast no-name dudes who decide to race an ultramarathon and kill it.
Within a quarter mile, we popped onto some singletrack. Up, up, up, and it got really technical really quick. Rocks, uneven ground, roots up this big hill. I quickly realized that the course was probably going to be really well marked… it was super easy to see the reflective taping, and it was obvious where to go for every turn. It didn’t take long for Kurt to take the lead and sprint up this hill that everyone else was walking up. Another guy went with Kurt and they were quickly out of sight. The nice part about the darkness is that you could see headlamps from a far ways away… and the two guys slipped into the darkness with 49 miles to go, never to be seen again.
Bennett and I were running together, and we latched on with another guy, who I realized after the race was Jeff. We did maybe 5 miles together, and were in second place at that point. There were four aid stations on the course, and the big one at the start/finish/lap area. After the second or third aid station, I lost Bennett and Jeff, never to be seen again. I was running by myself and feeling pretty good. I made a point to walk up hills that were really steep, half for energy conservation, half for efficiency. I mean, running up these scrambles was maybe slower because of the sheer steepness. Steep up, steep down, but also a lot of flat running on horse trails.
At another aid station, I departed with another guy. I wanted to latch right onto him, and once he sensed my light behind him, he jumped to the side and let me take the lead. And he latched right on to me! Eh, whatever, it’s nice to kind of zone out on someone’s heels, but this allowed me to go my own pace and I get some bonus light from the back. We ran a good few miles together without much conversation, and then bumped out to a nice flat road. He came on my side and we started chatting a bit. His name was Nate and he was from Bemidji. Two first time 50 milers, and we were probably in 3rd and 4th place. He didn’t really have a goal time, but mentioned his wife was running the 17 mile and his kids were at an aid station. We came through the fourth aid station on the course, I lost Nate, and few miles later I completed my first lap. My watch said 2:45 or so… really good time considering 10 minute pace for 16.7 miles comes out to 2:47. Literally right on track. Perfect! I had set the auto lap for 6 miles and was trying to catch my mileage on the hour… so at 1:00, I should be at 6 miles, 2:00 is 12 miles, 3:00 is 18 miles, etc… I fueled up, feeling good, feeling confident, and set off on the second lap.
At this point, I was by myself. I was feeling pretty sore and tight. Nothing really in particular, but I could feel my legs were fatigued for sure. I wasn’t really mentally tired, like “I need sleep”, but physical exhaustion was definitely setting in. I thought it was too early for that and got kind of nervous. Oh, well, I thought to keep running smart, hit this 10 minute pace, and if I can do another 2:45, I have a 40 minute buffer to slow down on the last lap to hit sub-9 hours. I climbed the first big hill out of the River Bottoms start/finish/lap area, looked down and saw the lights from the mini village I’d just departed way down there. “See ya later,” I thought to myself, and started down into the dark wilderness alone.
I was passing a lot of 100 milers, who were going on 21 hours of continuous forward progress with no sleep. Most had pacers, and it was a 50/50 split of good spirits and bad spirits. I tried to be energetic and positive towards all of them that I passed, and half were with it, half didn’t respond! Who knows what’s going in their minds. Not just at that moment but in general…
At the second aid station, I ran up to get drink a little Coke and heard my name. It was Dan, my cousin-in-law! That was great to see him… he started as a triathlete but morphed into an ultramarathon enthusaist. He’d done pretty well at Zumbro 100 a few years back, and said that he’s been volunteering at the aid station the past few years. He thought I was in second place… sweet!! I didn’t really believe him, though. Maybe Kurt was way, way up there and the other guy that went with Kurt off the bat was who Dan thought was leading the race. Oh, well, I left the aid station in a great mindset and feeling good.
The whole second lap, I felt more and more tired; more and more sore. Also, I wasn’t hungry and was forcing a gel every now and again when I felt like I needed to. Nasty, but I knew the race hinged on staying on top of food intake. I was super gassy, and either burping or farting every step. Probably the Chubway sandwich. The second lap felt much more flat than the first. Yes, the hills were extreme, but the course, for whatever reason, seemed to be mostly flat and runnable terrain the second time around. Maybe it was because I was by myself.
Halfway through the second loop, I came back upon Nate. He was going really slow down a super steep section, and again jumped out of the way to let me pass, then latched onto me. I wasn’t really cookin’ at the time, and maybe Nate was going through a little rough patch, but I made some time on him, and his headlamp became more and more dim until it was unseen in the early morning darkness. “Old man can’t hang,” I thought. My stomach was feeling a little off… I was eating ShotBloks intermittently and a gel every 1.5 hours or so. At the aid stations, I definitely went for Coke, but it was freezing! So I’d melt the icy slush in my mouth. I suppose the stuff that doesn’t freeze is like Coke concentrate. Just gimme the sugar and the caffeine! I knew I should be eating food with substance… savory items like grilled cheese and soup and pb&j and stuff, but all that looked appetizing was candy, pretzels and maybe some trail mix. I wondered if this would sustain me?
Running by myself in a sandy river bottom that had been gorged out by thousands of years of water flow, it hit me. The gels and the Scrubway, and nature calls. I had to poop, BAD. I tried to walk it off (cue the Unk song), looking behind me for Nate to pass me in my time of peril, but it was getting worse. I stopped dead in my tracks, half by necessity as not to poop my tights, half in hopes it would subside. “C’mon body, I’m sure you can use some of this!” I thought. “Recycle it for energy!!” I don’t think it works like that and I knew I had one choice, to poop in the woods and keep running. So I trudged off, handful of brown and crunchy leaves, a few feet off the trail. Squat, hope it doesn’t hit my shoes, and get this over with. Sure enough, I looked up and saw a headlamp bobbing in the distance. As not to expose myself to my new buddy Nate (that is not something one can erase from one’s memory), I turned off my headlamp. Ok, now I’m just being creepy, I thought. He can obviously hear me rustling… so I yelled out.
“Yo, Nate! Is that you?”
I saw his headlamp swivel.
“It’s Mike. I had to take an emergency dump over here.”
“Ummmmm. Ok. Uh, the trail’s over here when you’re done.”
“Yeah thanks,” I replied, as he ran off into the darkness. What an unpleasant experience. Not the Nate conversation, but just the whole situation with the crunchy leaves, and, well, I’ll spare the comprehensive details. Let’s just say…. I had leaves in my butt. On the flip side, it would have been a long 8 miles turtle-walking to the next porta-pottie.
So I was back on track here, feeling much better from an internal organ standpoint anyways. I caught back up to Nate pretty quickly, and we got to the third aid station shortly thereafter. I didn’t need food or slushy coke, but I asked a volunteer if there was a porta-pottie there. “Uh, no,” he replied. Whatever, I just ran off. I thought it was kind of a snarky response, but then realized that this volunteer had probably been out here pooping in the woods for almost 24 hours. How are they going to get a porta-pottie into this remote location?? We were literally in the middle of a million acre tract of state forest. Duh!!
I left in front of Nate and he quickly drifted back, never to be seen again. I ran the flat road by myself this time, and before long, I was done with lap two. It was a tough lap. With the poop debacle, feeling sore, feeling tired, and I’d slowed down quite substantially. I had song stuck in my head for hours, and I was timing my running cadence to the guitar line of REM “Everybody Hurts”.
At my little drop bag, I switched out some garbage for another round of gels and a new pack of orange ShotBloks (with caffeine!). I stopped at the porta-pottie there to take care of some unfinished business, and my watch read 5:50 or so. Eh… a solid 3 hours for the second lap, but I still had a buffer of about 3 hours and 15 minutes to get under 9. That’s a pretty even slowdown, and to be expected. On one hand, I have 33.3 miles in my legs and every single mile after 35 is a new record for the longest I’ve ever ran. It is expected that I get more and more exhausted, and the harder and harder it will be to maintain a pace of 10 minutes per mile. On the other hand, I could see it was getting bright out. The sunshine will surely be a source of energy and positivity. Before I left for lap three, I yelled out and asked what place I was in. Third.
So I set off by myself, a deep violet hue on one horizon… what a beautiful sign of things to come. On the other horizon was pitch darkness. I figured that since I was in third, when I’d seen Dan and he said I was in second place, my Bemidji pal Nate was in front of me and that’s who Dan thought was in first place at the time. Well, I’d passed Nate and it was probably Kurt and this other guy crankin’ out in front. I wondered if they were together and how far up. Who is this other guy? Is he the real deal? I know Kurt is the real deal and maybe this guy is exploding himself by going with Kurt from mile 1 on. Oh, well, my focus was to stick 3 hours. If I can run an even lap, I’d finish right before 9am and get my sub-9 hour race. My watch read 6 hours as I crested the top of the first big ridge right out of the start/finish area. It had become really light really fast, and I finally got a lay of the land. Straight up bluff country. The start/finish area definitely looked like a village now, and I saw hundreds of cars parked. I couldn’t help but yell “MORNIN’!!!!” at the top of my lungs.
“Mornin’ cars! Mornin’ rocks! Mornin’ trail! Mornin’ birds! Mornin’ leaves! Mornin’ wood!”
I had a second wind and knew I had to leave it all out here. My body was becoming really fatigued. The urge to stop was almost overwhelming, but unlike many other races I’ve done, I could actually keep my pace up. But the pain was imminent. It was becoming a mental game here.
I was passing a few 100 milers, and it was easy to give some positive notes of encouragement regarding the dawn of their second day. The light was well received by everyone. I noticed that I was running fast. I was hauling ass. The third lap seemed even more flat and runnable in the light. However, I would become fatigued very easily. For instance, I could stick a 9 minute pace for a mile on the relatively flat horse trails, and would be so happy to get to an uphill where I had to hike up, just when I thought I couldn’t run another step I’d get relief from the hill. It worked different muscles. By the top of the hill, I would be using my hands to scramble, breath heaving, and so thankful to run again. When the downhill came, it felt so nice to rest the calf muscles and let my quads do the work. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, by toes were so jammed up, knees in pain and would be extremely happy to get back into a groove at 9 minute pace on the flats. The variability in terrain was a huge advantage at this point in the race where all of my muscles were pretty much toast, but I could switch up what muscle groups I was using every other half hour.
I was passing 100 milers power hiking up the unrelentingly steep bluffs, and on the flats, running past them like they were standing still. Well, most of them were standing still! I broke up the loop in my mind… keep it together for the first half, run a solid pace. Keep on the nutrition and eat ShotBloks. Don’t slow down, and power up the hills with a purpose! Once I’m at the biggest uphill section, it’s go-time. After that, a mile along the ridge, then the most challenging downhill part. This last big downhill was a boulder-strewn section right after we run adjacent to a farm. There’s no good path to take. But after that is the flat road for about a mile. Then, it’s 3 miles of relatively flat, relatively easy trails, the final aid station and other mile or so to the finish. Once I get to the flat road, it’s time to crank and bring it home.
The least taxing was the downhills, but I could feel the toll they were taking on my body. First off, my big toe on my right foot was completely jamming the end of my shoe. I figured I’d lose that whole toenail. And my knees were really gettin’ it. Old man status. But I was making really good time. I made it down the last big downhill, past skull-sized boulders everywhere, without twisting either ankle or blowing out my knees, and it’s on. I was running as fast as possible on the flat road, and dipped into the 6’s. Well, 6:55 pace for a minute or two anyways. I was feeling good, only because my brain was emitting chemicals that made me feel so. In reality, I was falling apart big time. My body was toast, hips, feet, knees especially, my shoulders and triceps… just general exhaustion.
I made it to the final aid station and ran right through. I looked at my watch and it read 8:07. Holy crap! I can make 8:20! I really kicked it down on this last bit of trail section in hopes I’d get a sub 10 minute pace. 100 milers were saying I was in second place. 8:20 came and went and it was just a matter of leaving it all on the course. At this point, the mantras kicked in. I was talking to myself, audibly grunting in pain, gritting my teeth, and saying to myself “leave it all out here, leave it all out here”. The urge to stop running was overwhelming.
Finally, the trail curved downwards, then bumped out onto the last little road into the campsite. I sprinted past some 100 milers, past the gate where some spectators were cheering, and saw the cars and the campfires, and the big group of 17 milers congregating for the start of their race. I ran through the finish and hit my watch at 8:32.
Photo Credit: Julie Ward
Photo Credit: Julie Ward
Photo Credit: Julie Ward
I did the celebration I’d been thinking of for five hours. “YEAH DOGGIE!”, I yelled, and then did a whip-crack motion. A volunteer jokingly told me that I was being too excited.
Photo Credit: Julie Ward
My mom was right there, which was nice, and she gave me a big hug. She then bombarded me with what I need. Water? PB and J? Chips? What do I need? She grabbed her phone for a pic with me and my finishers medallion.
“I don’t want anything, no pictures, no pictures, I fucked up my legs,” I mumbled in a disgruntled and disheveled blur.
I plowed past her and sat on a table to take my jacket off. I was really warm, and put my head in my shirt and closed my eyes for a second. A race coordinator came up with a picture frame with ‘First Place Male Open’. Neat! I asked him the scoop… I’d just come in second place and of course, Kurt won in record time. We took a picture and I mustered a big-ass smile.
I talked to mom a bit, but all I could really say that it was really fun but my legs hurt bad and I was in big pain. Throbbing pain in every muscle below the waist where you get no relief if you stand or sit or walk or just decide to blast your legs clean off. I changed clothes, chugged some water, refueled, and spent the rest of the morning around the campfire and watching other racers come in. I did talk to Kurt, he’s probably the most modest dude in the world… and he said that the other guy that went with him got too cold on the second lap and either dropped out or fell way off or something. Wait, HE got cold? Kurt, meanwhile, completed the race in short shorts and a singlet. Coca-Cola was freezing in the 2 liter bottle and Kurt was running with no sleeves??!? And his buddy from Mankato got too cold?
Zumbro was quite the experience. Pure fun, pure enjoyment and adventure. I think it was the best executed race I’ve ever done. In terms of going in with a plan of what is the limit of my abilities and sticking to the plan, it was the best I’d ever done and it paid off. The 50 mile format is certainly fun, and I’d be a fool to skip Voyager 50 mile this summer!
Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: 4 or 5 gels of various flavors (all caffienated!), nearly 2 packages of ShotBloks, one Honey Stinger Waffle, many handfuls of pretzels, trail mix, gummi candy, and M&Ms, one small slice of potato covered in salt (nasty), and maybe three electrolyte capsules, a few cups of Coke.
Approximate Loop Splits: 2:46, 3:06, 2:40