On April 13, I ran the Zumbro 50 miler. This was my second 50 mile race, however both races have been completed in the time I’ve taken away from blogging. My first, the Superior Sawtooth 50, was in September 2012. Completing ultramarathons is an incredibly satisfying experience for me, since I’ve never really considered myself a talented athlete. It’s proof that if you put your mind to something, and you put in the work, you can achieve just about anything.
I was at work on Friday when the 100 mile racers began their quest. The weather was awful. It was sleeting, windy and cold. I pleaded with Mother Nature to please give us some better weather, even if it was only for a day. Her relentless anger had already extended winter by more than a month. A significant snowstorm hit the region earlier in the week dumping several inches of snow and ice to top off the straggling snow we’ve had since December. To make matter worse, the sun was on an extended hiatus, leaving Minnesota in a state of damp melancholy. Friday arrived. After an afternoon nap, some nervous housecleaning and at least six obsessive gear checks, I began getting ready to make my way to Theilman. I left at 9 p.m. with plenty of time to arrive in for the midnight start time. It was snowing. It was snowing substantially. It was snowing December snow – the kind that pelts at you with smug abrasiveness. It assaulted every possible inroad to flesh. It wedged through the loops in my knit mittens and snuck into the collar of my jacket, only to shuffle down my bare back when I adjusted my posture.
I was not deterred. I was mad. I squinted my eyes with concentrated rage, silently screaming at the snow and wind. We were in a standoff, and I was determined to be the one who prevailed.
The drive was difficult at times. Several sections of highway were caked with snow and slush. My focused fury grew as I drove forward. I arrived at the race starting line at 11 p.m., just about the time I would normally go to bed. I ran into Mark, an acquaintance from Medtronic. He and his friend Nelson were also running the race. They had been camping nearby for a few days. I inquired about how the trail was looking. “Gnarly!” was the response. Trail people are notoriously optimistic; when the trail report is “gnarly” you know you’re in for a beating.
After some pre-race instructions from the race director John, we trotted out to trail right on time. Headlamps bounced on the fresh snow
as more than 100 runners began the first of the three loop course. The 100 mile runners had already been on the trail for 16-hours and had reported the trails to be extremely slippery and difficult in the dark. Within the first 10 minutes of running, we hit a steep, muddy hill. A big hill. A swearable hill. I mentally conjured the image of the race elevation map I’d seen earlier. This hill barely even registered on the elevation map. This was going to be a long and painful day. Thankfully, the first aid station came up quickly. They were blasting Gangnam Style. I scored some style points by doing the Gangnam Style dance and singing the words flawlessly while also managing to chew a double stuffed oreo. In retrospect, I probably should have conserved that energy. The beauty of ultra races it’s basically just dozens of little buffets located a few miles apart. I was going to take full advantage of all the delicious snacks provided. I spotted Mark and Nelson. They were on their way out of the aid station. I caught them on the trail a few minutes later. They were running a good pace and invited me to join them. I ended up running the entire race with them (less the first three miles). I was the self-appointed caboose. Mark spent most of overnight hours leading our pack. He had sure footing and Nelson and I followed his steps like baby ducklings. When you’re running by headlamp, it can be difficult and mentally exhausting to strategically place every footstep. The heavy surge of runners began to slowly spread apart on the trail. By 3 a.m., the steady row of ants climbing and descending the never-ending hills had separated into sporadic groups. Our trio trudged along through freshly packed snow, deep mud, fine sand and sections of glare ice. Several downhill sections looked eerily similar to a bobsledding course. Every step was a gamble. If you took one miscalculated step, you could easily slip and break a bone or tumble into another runner. One hill was so icy I resorted to sliding down on my butt. There were about three hours of very tough conditions. It was very cold and very slippery. There were several close calls and many controlled tumbles, but we survived intact.Just before aid station four, we had a long flat section of gravel. The guys stretched out their stride, breaking into a jog. I was convinced this was the end of our trio. Keeping up was a struggle. These are 3:10 marathon runners; I was not matched to run with them on flats. Thankfully they were gracious enough to slow the pace to keep me aboard.
This section also contained two large sections of standing water. Despite my best effort, I could not escape without completely submerging my feet.
We completed the first loop sometime around 5 a.m. I ate some snacks, drank some hot soup and chatted with the amazing race volunteers for a few minutes before our troop of three was ready to take on the second lap. (read my thank you note to the volunteers.)
I was ecstatic when light started peeking through the trees. Finally I would warm up! Unfortunately the sun was tucked snuggly behind a dense blanket of clouds. The wind returned with an abrasive huff, hastily greeting the gray day. The realization that I would likely be cold for the remaining eight hours of the race was a punch to the stomach. Nothing about this race was going to be easy.
The second lap was a grind. I stuck at the back of our trio, only taking short sporadic shifts leading. I was the weakest uphill hiker, and often had to do some quick jogging steps on the last section of the climb to catch up to the others. I kept my mindset positive by picturing the friendly volunteers and hot food that I would soon encounter. I’m fairly new to trail running, so it’s I’m still absolutely astonished how many amazing people are willing to give up their entire weekend to volunteer at an ultra-marathon. Many will work 16 hours straight being bossed around by hungry, tired, crabby runners. They do this with joy. Their “great jobs” and “you’re amazing” comments are heartfelt and genuine. It’s a far different feel then the obligatory catcall-inspired positive affirmations thrown at you during a street marathon. Many of them even made their own special food offerings: grilled cheese, PB&J on a grilled tortilla, Boy Scout bars – YUM! I love to eat and food never tastes better than it does after running for hours on end. The extra homemade snacks were an absolute treat.
Keep in mind, it was effing cold! Running in cold weather is bad enough; standing around in it for hours on end is absolute torture. Every volunteer I saw was smiling and cheering under vast layers of snow pants, thick winter jackets and (presumably) long underwear. Ultra-marathons would not be possible without the caring and selfless people who volunteer.
Since the weather remained below freezing, the trails hardened up a bit, making some sections easier. This was timely since our legs were getting worse.
Mark’s knee began bothering him a bit. While I certainly did not wish to see my new friend in pain, it afforded me the opportunity to take some extra walking breaks, which were helpful for me at this point. Nelson wordlessly took over the role of leader at this point. Because most of the trail was single track, the lead runner is not only in charge of finding footing, but also setting the pace and keeping the group moving forward – all without words or prompting. It’s an important job and groups of runners usually switch and swap this role instinctually throughout runs. I wasn’t strong enough to lead much in this race, and am extremely grateful to have been fortunate enough to leech onto a group that allowed me to take and not give.
We finished the second lap with a running time around 9.5 hours. My sister and mom were there to cheer me on. Seeing them gave me a surge of energy. They ignored my crabbiness. I complained about the cold, the hills and the lack of marching bands on course (a staple of road races). They fed me and hugged me and sent me out for my third and final lap.
Our group toiled away, relentlessly moving forward. It was comforting to know that every time we climbed a treacherous hill that it would be the last time. It was hard. Uphill hurt, downhill hurt, flat ground hurt. I was tired and my internal clock was totally busted. I had run throughout the night into the early afternoon. I had no concept of what time it was. When I saw a fellow runner slamming a beer at one of the last aid stations, I was in shock and horror as to how he could drink a beer at 7 a.m. – it was actually 2:30 p.m.
Our trio persevered. As we approached the trail head where we would finish the last 200 yards across a long flat field we decided to finish together. We were one team, not three individuals. We stomped on the timing mats in unison, sealing our trail friendship.
The trail and conditions made the race extremely challenging, but thanks to the “trail people” I completed the race with a smile on my face.
While the race was very personally challenging and demanding, it is the support and positive influence of your peers that become the heart and soul of the race. I’m doubtful that many people run more than one ultra race if they were treated as a marathon or road race. I love marathons, and I will continue to do them, but they are solitary endeavors. You grab some cups of water along the way from cheerful volunteers, but you generally don’t get pep talks or personal attention. Nor do you walk away with new friends.
For me – Road racing is about running to the finish line as fast as you can. There is one goal, and while people may help you along the way, it’s a solitary endeavor.
Trail running is about sharing an experience, appreciating the kindness of strangers, acknowledging the amazing tasks your body can accomplish and thanking the earth for the opportunity to do so. It’s a community activity, not just a course to complete.
The race director, the volunteers, the fellow runners, even the camp dogs were there in a shared passion; to enjoy nature and challenge ourselves mentally and physically be more than we thought we could.