“The course consists of a mix of rugged single and double track trail with rubble, loose rock and sand along with minimum maintenance gravel roads. The race is primarily concentrated in two large valleys within the expansive Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. There are four significant, short, steep climbs (approx 300FT) per loop with smaller hills in-between along with some significant stretches of flat valley floor running.” –John Storkamp, Zumbro Endurance Run Race Director, 2016 Zumbro Recap (4/13/2016)
At 4 p.m. a week ago Saturday I crossed the finish line of my first official ultra marathon, the Zumbro Endurance Run 50 mile. A mere 16 hours hours after 174 other anxious runners and I crossed the start line *first thing* Saturday at midnight. I can’t speak for the other runners, but even at that moment the magnitude of the distance and the difficultly of the terrain we were about to run hadn’t quite sunk in yet. Trying to stay warm in the Minnesota-spring 15 degree temps and the exhaustion of standing around hours after I typically fall asleep were at the forefront, for now.
The race director gave a brief pep talk… “Make sure you have on enough layers!” “…You 50 milers are somewhere between a crazy 100 miler and a rational 17 miler!” “If you plan to drop out, do it at the Start/Finish area!” And with that, and some sort of starting buzzer, we moved slowly (for a race) as one mass toward the expansive (and tall!) dark figure ahead. For the first couple miles we walked and jogged, led in the dark through the woods of the bluff only by our headlamps. The “hills” started early in the race and didn’t let up as the 16.7 mile looped course twisted and turned through the Zumbro River Bottoms Management Unit and the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest.
Loop 1 (miles 1-16.7)
The first loop was exciting! It was dark and late and I was staying upright! The volunteers at the aid stations were peppy! The course was incredibly well marked with reflective ribbons! But those hills–BURNED! I felt the steep climbs in my quads and in my calves, notably where my strongest muscles reside, but not nearly prepared enough for the 18,588-foot net elevation change.
The longest stretch of this loop was aid station #4 back to the start/finish area/aid station #5. I made the mistake of tracking the distance on a Garmin. Fortunately, I know discrepancies can easily happen between the measured course distance and a GPS watch. The “added” miles made the distance feel even longer, but finally, I made it back to the start/finish area around 4:30 am, greeted with smiles, a hug, and all the snacks I asked Jen to carry for me (yep, I’m one lucky spouse). After a quick switch of headlamp batteries (just in case), gorging on a homemade banana/date/walnut muffin and a cup of chicken broth from the aid station, I headed back out for loop 2.
Loop 2 (miles 16.7-33.4)
Back onto the bluff I crossed paths with another 50 miler. She was looking through her pockets for a missing hand warmer. Knowing my fingers chill easily even at 40 degrees, I had two hand warmers waiting in my pants pockets, in addition to the warmers in my mittens. So I offered up a hand warmer and made a new trail friend. We chatted and ran and jogged and walked up hills for the next several miles together. It felt so strange as the sun came up and gradually the trees, dirt, rocks, inclines and declines became visible without a headlamp. The midnight start added difficulty and an awesomely surreal experience.
At some point as we approached a trio of 100 milers, I passed them after they offered to move aside–it’s worth noting that courtesy was plentiful among all us (exhausted) trail runners–and I was running on my own again. The hills felt steeper, the downhills more intimidating, and thoughts racing through my head were still only about running (future races, “come on go faster!”, “my feet are starting to hurt…”, “my hip feels surprisingly good…”). Each aid station (four total on the course, one at the start/finish area), was a moral booster, a marker proving progress along the course, plus the volunteers were beyond helpful.
Around 10 a.m. I was back at the start/finish! Exhausted, sore, feeling like I had run a marathon (I had, technically) and knowing there was another loop to cover. On the bright side, the sun was out and our good friend Kyle had driven down from the Cities to join the crewing fun. I was so happy to see Jen and Kyle, plus they had coffee and snacks ready for me. I offered them my bib to finish out the race (hey, kidding, mostly), but after a few minutes off I went back across the field and up into the bluff for Loop 3.
Loop 3 (miles 33.4-50)
Slow… painful in a really, really, fatigued way… seemingly never-ending… MUDDY! The trails were frozen in loop 1, probably to some degree in loop 2, but with the sun and slew of 17 milers pounding through Saturday morning, the trails turned treacherously muddy. Sliding down rocky/muddy hills in a snowboarding position was effective. The best part of this loop, aside it being the final one and making (slow) progress, was seeing my crew (Jen and Kyle) at every aid station. They were so patient waiting for me as I trudged through the final miles, offering up ample amounts of encouragement and snacks.
Every step was an effort. Every hill felt more monstrous than the last. Every mile seemed longer and longer. My body was feeling well enough after staying up all night and moving for hours on my feet, so quitting wasn’t even a hypothetical option.
My race turned for the better in the last mile or so as I sensed (and knew, considering I had just run this route twice in the past day) the finish was within reach. For most of the flatter stretches I told my feet and legs to move faster, but they kept up a mall-walker-esque trot. In the final mile I finally convinced my legs to get moving and passed a few 50 milers as I made my way through the final stretch of woods, down the service road, and through the field to the finish shoot. Crossing the finish was such a relief, 50 miles and 16 hours later.
Things I Learned
Honey stinger gels were a great choice, and the caffeinated ones boosted my sleepy state into a moderately alert one. Peanut butter-coated dehydrated bananas tasted amazing in the early morning hours with a few sips of coffee. Freezing temps mean wearing your hydration pack under your jacket, even if you have the insulated hose. 50 miles, on trails, is a long, hard run. Bringing my own snacks worked well, but I didn’t need to carry much water since the aid stations had plenty. I also could’ve consumed more calories on the run (may have helped fighting some fatigue). Refueling with coffee, Heed, broth, and Ginger Ale at the aid stations was perfect. Layers are always a good idea, especially in freezing temps and for a fatigued body, so I was happy to have packed an extra long sleeve that Jen handed me on the second loop.
Sitting for a couple minutes was OK at the start/finish after loop 1 and 2, but I’m happy Jen discouraged me from sitting at any point during loop 3–it would’ve felt good for a moment and then hurt to start again (as it did after the two-hour ride home…)
Train for it! I went out for long runs, tried out some alternative training to make up for not getting out on Minnesota trails, but admittedly the best training I had done for this race was a few years ago hiking in the Washington mountains… I think that’s why I came away from the race not feeling as accomplished as I had hoped, knowing in the back of my mind I likely could have run more often and a little faster had I made more of an effort with longer back to back long runs, actual trail running, more frequent hill repeats, etc.
I’m also learning to be proud of what I did accomplish and how to use the experience to make the next one even better.
Gear I wore/carried:
- Altra Lone Peak 2.5
- Fitsok merino wool blend trail socks
- C9 spandex shorts
- Compression calf sleeves
- Asics loose-fit run pants
- Sugoi moisture-wicking t-shirt
- Asics long sleeve quarter-zip with a hood (with a Fleet Feet Marathon Sports logo!)
- Brooks Drift 1/2 zip (added on the 2nd loop)
- Mizuno light weight wind/water resistant jacket
- Saucony mittens
- Favorite winter running hat (from high school)
- CamelBak OCTANE XCT
- 2 packs of hand warmers
- Petzl TIKKA head lamp (100 lumens)
- Garmin Forerunner 230
- iPhone (for photos!)
- External battery pack (to charge the Garmin)
Nutrition I carried:
- Honey stinger gels (caffeinated and non-caffeinated)
- Picky bar
- hard ginger candies
- Dehydrated organic bananas covered in a peanut butter shell
- Chicken and veggie broth
- Ginger Ale
There was MUCH MORE at the aid stations, but for me it was the liquids I craved.
- Hugs and high fives
- Patience and words of encouragement
- Extra long sleeve top layer
- Coconut water with a bit of lemon juice
- Sea salt and coconut oil kettle chips
- Homemade banana/date/walnut muffins (gluten-free)
- More coffee
HUGE shout out to Jen and Kyle, an all-star crew!