Sunday, May 20, 2012

Zumbro 100 race report: Just. Finish.

I collapsed at the finish, all of the tension of the last 100.2 miles released. I had tried to sit but failed. I went into child’s pose, and then rolled over to my side and back.

Emotional crescendos unfold at the end of 100 mile races.
I cried as I laid there on my back. A couple of tears rolled from each eye. I felt like I had disappointed myself and my wife for failing to meet my time goals and for wasting our time in pursuit of the same. Her pep talk to me at mile 97.5 got me thinking about the race and reflecting on it, and at the time I wasn’t too pleased with my performance. Disappointment describes it best, and crossing the finish line under the new time goal we had collectively set permitted that release.

But there’s a lot more before we get to that.


Many of us had gathered Thursday evening as a collection of tents and RVs dotted the horse camp. Jacci and I milled around, chatting with runners and family and picked up my race packet. Adam Schwartz-Lowe and Bill Pomerenke gave me crap for being up at 9:30 at night and still moving around. Get off your feet, get hydrated, and put your feet up they said. Little did they know that if had gone to bed any earlier, I would have been up at 4 AM stark-raving awake and all the worse from it.

The next morning was uneventful – I awoke far too early, heated water for tea and ate my nutella-and-peanut-butter tortilla. And a banana for good measure, too. Joe Boler had an energy drink and a cigar. I changed into warm-ups – sweats and fleece on top and bottom, with my torso guarded with my Sawtooth 100 finsher’s jacket.

Ready for 100 miles of awesome.
On occasion, Storkamp came over the intercom to address the gathered. “This is god,” he said at about 6:30 AM. “Wake up.” And so on. Soon the milling persons coalesced and Storkamp stood on a picnic table to speak to the amassed.

“Two cannibals and having lunch with a clown,” he says, “And one looks to the other and says ‘Does this clown taste funny to you?’” We try to laugh off what we were about to begin. A short countdown, and we lurched forward with a collective beep of watches.

Ready to run with the other crazies.
When I went into this race, I thought there were a handful of people who could and should be running at 24-hour race or something reasonably similar to what I was capable of: Matt Aro; Joe Boler; and Ed Sandor, and others. The race plan was to run about a 3:30-3:45 first lap and then move to 4-hour or so laps for as long as I could hold on. Run hard through the overnight with the finish line as the third star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

I had never been on the Zumbro course before, but looking at the elevation profile, I wasn’t spooked. There was a big climb and descent (~400 vertical feet) in four of the five segments (all but the last) and the terrain wasn’t too technical. A conversation with a fellow runner in the weeks before said it was like a Sawtooth-light. Easier than Sawtooth, yes, but in no means easy. The 100 mile distance must be respected. You bend to it, not the other way around.

As expected, each section had its own character. Section One had some single track that gave way to forest roads that went up and over a large hill. The descent led to the aid station. It was the fourth-hardest section. Section Two was characterized by its ups and down, mostly on single track but some on wide, rock-strewn paths. It was also by far the hardest section as it had more climbs and descents than any other section and was also the longest.

Section Three was a two-headed beast. The first head is a lengthy section of single track that gradually (and then steeply) rises to the top of a named rock and then descended down a bush-wacked trail that didn’t exist prior to the race. From there, we were dumped into a sandy creek bed and lead back to the aid station. Because of the gradual rise, bush-wacking off-trail character, and the sand, it was the second-hardest section.

Section Four came in three parts. We immediately ascended to the top of the bluff after leaving aid three, and ran along the bluff until we met a field. From the field, we ran adjacent to it (all still single-track) until the rocky half-mile descent known as Ant Hill. At the bottom of Ant Hill, we ran 1.2 miles of flat road that curved slowly back to Aid 1/4. I would run the entire length of the road on every lap, stopping only once on the last lap. This was the third-hardest section as its only difficult features were Ant Hill and the long road. Even the climb up its bluff was nice.

Finally, Section Five – the easiest by far – was a forest road to some single track that ran along a hillside and dumped onto a service road. From the road, it was no more than a half mile of road to the start/finish camp area.

I packed up with Aro, Boler, Sandor and company on loop one until sometime between miles 10 and 14. We ran in a collective third place, as Mike Polland and one other runner were ahead of us. Matt Aro and I broke away sometime before the long, rocky descent that is Ant Hill and we hit the long road to aid four. Matt dropped off after aid station four when we passed second place and I ran alone.  It was here that I made the first of two mistakes of the race. I kept running, and ran faster than my internal effort-meter should have permitted me to. I ran again faster when I was caught from behind by another, faster runner – the eventual winter, I later found out. He and I entered the horse camp start/finish area together, and he broke off. I was in second place after loop one. I looked down at my watch: 3:06. Shit, too fast, and I knew it. I skipped the aid station and started the second loop, resolute to take the next loop slower. 

And slower I did. I went from running approximately 12 minutes/mile on the first loop to intentionally running 14 minutes/mile on my second and third loops. Life was slowing down and it needed to. Loop three was similar and unremarkable. I came in at 11:08 for 50 miles, which would have been good enough for a 9th place finish in the Midnight 50. (Nevermind their race started immediately post-thunderstorm.)

Loop 3, Aid 1. Approximately 35 miles in and I feel great.
Kurt (right) was waiting his turn to pace my crewing throughout the day.
We could use pacers starting on loop four. Josh, a friend of Kurt’s volunteered to take the first shirt. Josh is a quick fellow and he won the first and only trail marathon ever held at Surf the Murph. He’s taller than I and thin and lanky.

We met up at the start/finish with a fist pound. He and I have met before, sometime in October 2010 when I volunteered to pace Kurt at the Wild Duluth 50K. He and his wife/fiancé/girlfriend were running the half marathon or 50K that day. But we remembered little about each other and had only exchanged a few emails and chatted on the phone once.

We quickly fell into line when we started running. I relayed the past 50 miles, my erroneously quick opening salvo, and my more measured pace in the last two laps. The plan was to run as much as possible in this first foray into the night, time be damned, and try like crazy to get as many miles in before sunrise.

It wasn’t quick dark enough to need headlamps when Josh and I got to running, but it dipped into darkness as we approached aid station 1/4. There I donned my headlamp and wet set out into the darkness.

Josh and I enter aid 1, loop 4. Approx. 8:20 PM Friday.
 Thunderstorms are no fun to run an ultra in.

I went into the weekend knowing that there was a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms on Friday and a 40 percent chance of rain Saturday. I planned for the worst – six shirts, three short sleeves and three long sleeves; four pairs of socks; a wind jacket; my normal ball cap and a fleece cap and gloves. What I didn’t consider taking was a lightweight waterproof/breathable rain jacket for the race. I had mine, but it was with my wife and she wore it. Kurt, who would pace on loop five, wore my heavy rain coat that my wife was going to wear.

While Josh and I tackled the sand on section three, loop four at around 10:30 PM, I looked up at the trail ahead and saw a flash. Lightning? I listened for thunder. Five seconds went by. Then ten, twenty, etc., and I heard nothing. I had to have been, but it was a long way off. I told Josh about it. He saw light, but thought it was my headlamp. A few minutes later, it happened again.

“I saw that one,” Josh said. Still no sound. It was coming at us, but still a ways off.

There was nothing to do but keep running. In my initial planning, I thought about what would happen if a severe thunderstorm hit the course. Would runners take shelter and sit it out? Would Storkamp have everyone halt when they came into an aid station and wait for the storm to pass? There was no discussion of it at anytime.

We asked the volunteers at aid station 2/3. They last heard that a thunderstorm was 45 minutes away from Rochester. Now Rochester is probably 30 miles southwest as Google tells me, but we did not have such technology out there (see section III), so what the volunteers told us was all-but useless. What they didn’t know or tell us would have been useful – where was the storm, which way was it moving, would it hit us, and how powerful it was.

So we left and ascended the bluff south of the aid station. A quarter of the way up, you hit a road and then a sign that says “Scenic Lookout.” Of course we didn’t see it at night, but later would realize it was there.

The rain started as soon as we hit the top off the bluff and on that exposed “Scenic Lookout.” Then came the wind, angling the rain to its will and pea-sized hail followed. I could only think of the several stories of cross-country teams being stuck out in a rural area without shelter during a thunderstorm and returning bruised from the falling ice that struck their exposed skin.

Josh said he had a rain coat, and he gave it to me. He would be fine, wearing two shirts, gloves, a water-resistant wind vest and a stocking hat. All I had was two shirts and my ball cap. The raincoat saved my race.

We now had two choices: we were exposed, on a ridge, in a thunderstorm. Behind us was a 400-foot watery, muddy descent that only got worse as the rain went on. But it had some semblance of shelter. In front of us was wooded trail that would eventually take us off this rock. We didn’t even think – we just chose the second option and moved forward.

I ran with all of the strength I could as my shoes filled with water and squished liquid in and out of the mesh. Some areas of trail were dry because of their tree cover, but the fallen leaves that covered the trail absorbed the rain would keep my feet wet for some time.

The lightning provided an odd perspective. For a moment, however brief, we could see beyond our headlamps and into the beyond. We saw opposing bluffs, vast forests, and the farmfield. And we kept moving. We got to Ant Hill and walked down it gingerly. I was getting cold, mildly hypothermic – a condition brought on by many things, namely exhaustion, low fuel reserves, and the cold jacket against my clothes. I was dry, but not necessarily warm. And there was nothing to do about it but keep moving and get warm through motion. I would return to warmth on the road.

Back at and station 1/4, my wife had a freak-out whilst the rain and thunder rolled by. She had moved all of my gear under the awning of the Twin Cities Running Company’s RV. Carrie, the wife of one my pacers and an awesome person, showed up in the middle of the storm for the express purpose of relieving my wife if her crewing duties. From there, it rained off and on but never strong enough to kill the fire. They also never got hail.

When we hit aid station 4, my wife was ecstatic that we were there. Josh wanted to tell my wife how things were out there in the storm. He wanted to tell her about the mud, lightning, rain and the hail, and my wife would have none of it. That information was for me to know and to deal with and for her not to. It would make her too worried.

Carrie (yellow sleeve, off-frame) helps with desperately-needed foot repair at Aid 4, Loop 4.
Approximately 12:20 AM, Saturday morning.
It was in this section that I truly learned the value of a pacer. In those dark hours whilst rain and death poured down upon us, I let Josh take control of my race to the extent he could. He ran in front of me. He handled the terrain and picked the line. I simply stared at his feet and pushed on. I was not distracted by things external to the trail and nothing outside my headlamp beam mattered. I had total focus of the task at hand. 

Loop 5: Through the night

Kurt took up pacing duties for loop 5 when I came around to the start/finish at about 1 AM. At this point, I was now just over an hour off my 24-hour time goal and I just let that benchmark go. Right now, it was all about moving forward.

Loop 5 was more or less a blur, and my mind has very few specific memories of the loop.

Somewhere in section 1, I was lapped by the top runner and then Matt Aro a few minutes later. Joe Boler, his fiancé in tow, lapped me on an uphill in section 2 right before Walnut Coulee. I stopped at the picnic/shelter area in section 2 to remove my shoes and brush out the sand and grit in my sock, and then tip-toed my way down the windy single track toward aid 2. I was incredibly disappointed that the section took two hours, but hey, it was three or four AM.

I remember Kurt commenting on the bush-wacked single track trail in section 3 that did not exist prior to the race, but do not recall what he said. Just like the hill into aid 2, Kurt and I gingerly navigated Ant Hill and stopped at when it hit the downhill road before the flat, curvy road. I took two gels there in the morning light – it was now somewhere near 6 AM – and then got moving. 

The sun had long been up when Kurt and I came into Aid 4, loop 5 at 7:30 AM on Saturday.
And that is all I remember about Loop Five – a few select memories her and there, but little to nothing else.

Loop 6: Memory empty?

I started loop 6 about where I hoped to finish: 24 hours into the run. It was just after 8 AM and Jonni, Josh’s wife, was taking up pacing duties. Again, I related the whole story for her and my time goal: 30 hours. We had just under six hours to do 16.67 miles.

Jonni was floored by the view at the top of the first ascent. From here, you could see everything – the entire river bottoms and the camp from wence we came. Down the hill we went and into my second and last mistake of the day.

My face perfectly reflects how I felt at mile 87.
I rushed through aid station 1/4 my first time through on loop 6 - Jacci wouldn't let me sit down. Mistake number two, and one which would rear its head 90 minutes later while I slogged through section two.

What I remembered about course elements varied as the weather changed. On the sixth loop, it was bright, sunny, and 70-plus degrees out. Trees were sparkling green and the forest floor had a sheen to it. A stark contrast to the gloomy gray of the prior loops.

In the past loops, I had been able to talk my pacers through each element of the course. For example, the first section has a short climb up some single track, a descent down to the gravel, a long climb up the bluff, and a long, gradual descent (with two memorable downhills) down to the aid station. I told this to each of my pacers, and then they knew what to expect. It also helped me center my mind on what was to come. It focused my energy on the specific elements of each section so I could push through them in isolation instead of focusing too much on the big picture. It this case, it helped to see the trees through the forest.

But my memory failed me on the last loop somewhere between aid stations one and two. This section – the most difficult on the course, without question – is the longest, hilliest, and likely the rockiest. Again, it’s the hardest. When I explained the section to Jonie, I listed off the elements I remembered: we run to the volunteer turn-off for aid station 2, do some single track, run a long road, go up a climb, around a field, up a second, longer, harder climb and go down the peak on a lengthy, sketchy descent and some single track to the aid station.

As I listed the parts off, I knew we did some single track after we left the road to aid station 2. But I couldn’t remember how much, or how long we should be on it. It was just there, and we had to get to it. Similarly, I couldn’t remember much of the details between those listed elements. So, somewhere in section 2 – I say somewhere because I can’t remember and can’t exactly put it on the elevation profile – we were in the river bottom and stood at the base of a hill.

“I have no memory of this climb or the surroundings,” I said. I looked around again. To the left was the river and a brown river bottom with occasional green vegetation and old trees shooting out of the floor. The uphill was windy, covered with small lime-stone covered rocks, but had no distinct features that stirred up a memory. Nothing. Regardless, it was the last time I was going to go up this particular hill, Jonni said, and up we went.

Section 2 got progressively difficult as we went on. I drained my water bottle somewhere in there. The hills kept coming and as noted above, I couldn’t keep track of them. It was a delicate, touch-and-go tip-toe down the sketchy downhill from the picnic/shelter area to the aid station.

Aid 2 sat at Mile 91, and I was ready to collapse. It had taken me almost two hours to get here from 4.6 miles ago. But I refused to quit. I spent the next half hour – or so it seemed – eating everything in sight and second helpings of most items. Runners passed and I did not care. Scott Mark once again saw me when I was at my lowest, and then would later see me come back from the grave. 

It was like I was having a Catch-22 thought process. I was crazy, sitting here 91 miles into a 100.2 mile footrace. All I had to do was say that I was crazy and I could stop. But if I did, I had a rational thought process – self-preservation – and that meant I wasn’t crazy and must continue. My rational thought process, my self-preservation, was to eat. Because I knew I needed to eat, and continually asked for food, I was required to continue.

Some-30 minutes later I forced myself out of my chair and left for the third section. I also picked up another pacer, Eric. He provided Jonnie some company when I didn’t want to talk. I could also focus on their conversation.

The miles rolled by, albeit slowly. I was still running the flats, but Eric and Jonnie could walk faster than I could run.  The climbs caused my chest to found, my heart weary with fatigue but knowing that more was demanded of it. Descents were minefields on my weakened stumps known as legs. Getting down Ant Hill on Loop 6 was a task all in itself. Aid stations took longer as I tried to replenish the calories I had lost.

At the bottom of Ant Hill we hit The Road, the 1.2 mile circling and flat chunk of gravel pathway that lead back to aid 1/4. In each prior lap, I ran every step of this length and resolved that I would do the same on the next lap. Now was the test. Could I do it?

I set myself with the elements. The sun was by now beating down on us. We stood in the shade briefly before we set out. I stared ahead, looking down to a point 10 or so feet in front of my toes. Jonnie and Eric pulled away as their trots far outstripped my sorry pace. But I was running.

We stopped half-way and I drained my water bottle and a couple of salt tabs. A hobble, a step and we were off again. We rounded the corner and saw the bridge, the dreaded piece of concrete that permitted passage over the river.

Aid 4, Loop 6, Mile 97.5. Only 2.7 miles to go, and I've developed the 1,000 yard stare.
I pulled into aid 1/4 and left less than a minute later after a brief pep-talk. Time was off the essence, and I only had 2.7 miles to go.

The finish

I ran the road out of Aid 4 with as much gusto as my legs could must. Needless to say it wasn't much. The single track teased me, as the road we which would eventually bring us in ran parallel to us at the base of the hill the single track danced on. Soon I saw the flagging on the road and turned toward it. I could smell the barn, so to speak.

I hit the road at the bottom of the single track in the last section and felt almost like I did when I saw the Mystery Mountain campground at Sawtooth last year. Now I had a set distance to my goal, and I tried to extend my strides accordingly. Tried being the operative word. It was too early to tap that sort of reserve capital. Only so much of it exists, and I needed enough to get me from the gate to the finish shelter.

I slogged on the road, struggling like I had on for the 1.2 miles winding road from the bottom of Ant Hill to aid 1/4. I saw the road turn right, then left. Then the rail bed road sign. Another hundred or so yards and we were at the gate.

I rounded the final corner and saw the gate. Photos of the yellow gate at Barkley fluttered into my head. Two HAM radio operators sitting on ATVs asked for runner’s numbers, and they called them into the finish. I relayed mine and heard a cheer from the finish shelter, still a good quarter-mile away.

Jonnie and Eric fell away behind me, and we ran in a triangle toward the end. Cowbells rang, people cheered and I tried to give two thumbs up as I hobbled, every stronger, to my goal.

Do you know what it feels like to be alive?
My wife came into view and I pushed harder. I entered the chute, raised an arm in triumph and slowed to a walk for 17th place and 30:37:03 time.

I tried to sit down but went to my knees instead and curled up into a ball – child’s pose for the yoga folks. I rolled to one side, then to my back and stared up at the roof of the shelter. “Huh,” I thought, “I never noticed that they used to be a large wasp next up there” was about my most coherent thought. My wife came over, proud and smiling ready for a congratulatory kiss. John Storkamp put a buckle above me.

I gave everything I had, and now I have nothing left to give.
“Buckle,” he said as he delivered my trophy. “Chip,” he said as he lowered the token to my chest. I clutched them and had my photo op.

My preciouses.
And then I cried, overcome with something I couldn’t quite define at the moment. A handful of tears slowly streamed down the outside of each eye, rolling out of my salt-encrusted eye sockets. I pulled my cap over my eyes to wash them out, but it was soaked with sweat and salt as well.

I can’t exactly put my finger on what overwhelmed me in that moment. Perhaps it was the emotional release of the finish, a realization that all of the pain and suffering I had endured was done, my body was ready to given up as it had done exactly what I had prepared it for and demanded of it.

But I don’t think it was entirely that. I struggled through the last section as tumultuous thoughts crept into my brain. At aid 4, my wife attempted to motivate me.

“You’ve missed all of your time goals, now get to the finish in under 32 hours,” she said. I looked at my watch. It read about 29:50, or a little before 1 PM. I could get there in under 31, I told her.

“Well get there in under 31!”

And so I left, miserable. She didn’t intend her words to carry the meaning my addled brain put to them. She wanted to motivate me.

Instead I left aid station four on the way to the finish filled with doubt and disappointment. I missed all of my time goals? I knew it, and had known it long ago. I watched 24 hours slip away when loop four took five hours. I watched 28 hours go by when loop five took almost seven hours. It really hit me at mile 91 that I was coming in north of 30 hours.

What had I done? I wanted to apologize to her for wasting her time and mine, for incurring the race fee, cost of gas, gels, and a camping permit, and for doing all of that while not bringing home the goods with a sub-goal time finish or even what I then-considered a quality run. The numbers ran through my head – I spent just over three hours on my first loop, and I’m going to finish in ten times that number even though I only ran six times the distance. What gives?

It was likely these emotions that were released by the finish-line tears.  

Foot damage.

I did more damage to my feet at Zumbro than I have at any of my other ultras.

Sometime around mile 60 on loop four near the top of Ant Hill, I punted a rock. Not an uncommon occurrence. Pain shot through my right foot and registered in my brain. Again, typical. But this time the pain didn’t go away in five or ten minutes. It stayed.

I changed socks that loop, and when I pulled my right sock off I saw what I feared. The area behind my third toe was bruised. That meant two things: either the toe is broken, or I jammed the nail hard enough to bruise it. I was guessing the former, and barring physician examination and with the benefit of a warmth bath, some ice, and time post-race race, I now know I was correct.

The damage to my feet was more than I had ever experienced in my entire ultra racing career. My right ankle was swollen and likely sprained, and my right Achilles was swollen and pushing on the back of my shoe. I had a large callus and/or blister form under the ball of my both feet, and a blister (both unintentionally popped in-race) on the inside of the balls of each foot. Blisters formed under my right pinkie toe and my right big toe, and I’ll lose those toenaills. I jammed the first knuckle on both big toes, and they were swollen. My toes in general were swollen. And then there’s the bruised/broken toe on my right foot.

My feet were more or less OK under the circumstances until the overnight thunderstorm. My once-dry feet became macerated. Once wet, my shoes dried out but the bottoms of my feet didn’t. Sand got into the wrinkles and those grains of sand told me they were there on every step.

I changed shoes at Mile 80 and it likely saved my race. I went to Zumbro with two pairs of shoes, my now-beat up original pair of MT 10s and a brand new pair of the same. The original plan was to use the former for the entire race unless catastrophic failure arose which necessitated a change. The change likely saved my race because now I had a little more protection under my feet and a dry footbed upon which to run. When I changed shoes (and correspondingly, socks), my feet dried up, the majority of those wrinkles went away, and there was less sand in my socks because the shoes let less in. The shoes initially were tight and compressed my toes, but that discomfort went away almost instantly and likely did some good by proving some stability and support to my beat-up feet.

Damage assessment, day 0 status-post Zumbro 100.
The take away.

It is too easy to look at these races and one’s splits with disgust. Yeah, you are going to slow down. But it matters not that you slow down, but what you do when you slow down. In that I succeeded.

I never asked anyone to let me quit, nor did I ever vocalize that thought. I never permitted myself to flirt with the idea of DNF’ing, and even as I slowed down, the finish line was always in reach.

I made two mistakes during the race. First, not letting a runner go on loop 1 and as a result finishing the loop in second place, and second, not eating enough on Loop 5 and the start/finish of loop 6. I may have also spent too much time at aid stations, but it is hard to not stop in the later stages when one’s feet are in such poor condition.
A few housekeeping thoughts:

I feel bad for Matt Aro. Matt ran so well when I was with him and when he lapped me in the early morning hours. And he lost – taking second place – by only two seconds. Photo finishes should not occur at ultras.

Joe Boler finally put it together and crushed the CR for a third-place finish. Boler and I have run together a handful of times and raced together for a spell at the 2011 Afton Trail Run at Afton Alps. He’s plenty strong and got the Zumbro “ENDURE” tattooed on one of his upper arms for chris’ sakes. He fell ill just before Voyageur 50 last July and dropped at Sawtooth last year after a severe bout of vomiting. He put it together at Zumbro and cranked out a third-place, sub-course record time in his first completed 100 miler, finishing 16 minutes behind the top two. I hope he’s smoking a cigar whilst he reads this.