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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Zumbro 2015

I was scared of Zumbro this year, more scared than usual. I came limping into it after a winter of calf issues, IT band issues, and a downhill fall at Seven Mile Creek that I still feel sometimes in my left knee. I didn't have the amount of winter miles I had hoped for, but I did have a few confidence boosting back to back long runs. The IT band was still an issue a week before the race, but getting better with lots of rolling and stretching and yoga. My expectations for the race kept changing as it got closer, and the ultimate goal was to finish and have fun. Still, I was more worried than usual about not finishing. I even considered not running it, but this is Zumbro. I love the race. I have that owl tattoed on my leg, after all.

Photo credit: Zach Pierce

Another intimidation was that last year I dropped at mile 80 with hypothermia (but I finished on the icy course of 2013). Somehow I worked the worry out of my head before the race. I love the week before a hundred. I focus on mental and spiritual preparation. I walk through my rituals. It would take a gorilla amped on methamphetamines and a baseball bat to knock me off my beam or get me worried about something.

It rained Thursday. At race check-in that evening, it poured and pools of mud puddled in the fields at the campground. It snowed Thursday night. This is simply how Zumbro works.

My wife, Lisa, is my secret weapon at these things. She really knows how to take care of me, even when I don't. Most people agree that I'm pretty lucky that way. Someone I met running at night, in the dark, asked, "Oh are you with Lisa? She's awesome."

Photo credit Zach Pierce
John Storkamp got on his ladder and told us some things and then told us to start running. Because there would eventually be multiple races happening on the same course, we 100 milers were given pink ribbons to tell other runners that we were dizzy, deranged, and stupid people. It's a wonderful idea and it encourages others to egg us on in our stupidity. I feed off their encouragement.

We started running, onto the trail and up to the bluffs overlooking the campground of the start/finish area.

My first goal of the race was to do no harm. I learned the phrase as it applies to ultrarunning from Jason Husveth at Superior. But I actually learned the lesson from Zumbro last year, when I started with a 3:15 first loop (Zumbro is a six loop course; each loop is 16.7 miles.), way too fast for me, and I suffered because of it. Do no harm to the race. It's so simple. But I'm excitable and impulsive. So for the first three loops I tried to nose breathe with my mouth closed in order to keep my heart rate from red-lining. Unless I was talking to someone, or occasionally climbing some of the steepest hills, my mouth was closed and smiling. It put me in a blissful meditative state. And it kept me from running too fast. If I needed to open my mouth for more oxygen, it was a reminder to slow down.

My hope was to be consistent with those first three loops, to keep them somewhere around 3:40 to 4 hours. Really to keep them around 4 hours, but I allowed myself a little bit of excitability room on that first loop. My splits were 3:42, 3:58, and 4:00. I was happy with that. I knew I wouldn't maintain that pace in the night, in the darkness, in the time when the body says sleep, when eating seems impossible, when the cold moisture creeps into the bones and on downhill stretches the rocks shine like dangerous traps calling to take your teeth on a fall and the sticks and mud move beneath your feet like living animals. In the daylight I wanted to be assertive without being aggressive, to lay down some healthy miles, to do no harm on day one, and somehow I found that place.

Towards the end of loop one, while I was coming down Ant Hill, a puffy snow fell and soon turned to rain. All those around me pulled out rain shells. I did too. We were carrying memories of last year's rain. It lasted a short way into loop two. Otherwise our day was beautiful. The trails were in good shape, muddy but soaking up the water. It was a perfect day for running here. The rain and mud were just enough to keep us from getting bored.

The day was a blast. I ran with lots of fun people. I saw so many awesome and helpful friends (old and new) at the aid stations and all over the course, people who fed me and hugged me and teased me and kept me moving. The aid station dogs were out and I got to see Winston and Tucker and Pearl and an adorable German Shepherd pup.

I carried a two liter pack with a Tailwind mixture and drank from it consistently. In fact, I've never peed so much in any race. I bet I peed once every hour. That's a lot of time. I was peeing so much that I tried to do it moving once. I also tried to consistently eat real food at the aid stations, and that wasn't a problem in the day.

The leaders came by to lap me in loop three. Jake Hegge and Mike Borst were running relaxed and having fun. I told them they were only allowed to lap me once. I gave them a few big loud Woos. I really like both of these guys, having gotten to know them some for a writing project. They're good people, so it was a real lift to see them both running so well and relaxed.

I was getting sore by the halfway mark, feeling it in my hips. I was surprised that my knee was holding out so well, although it whispered its presence to me on the downhills. It was near dark when I left the campground for loop four with my headlamp around my neck. I tried to cover the remaining daylight miles as well as I could. But loop four snuck up on me. Then it pounced. I felt the cold and wet burning in my feet. The climbs grew taller. My quads ached. At Picnic Rock, I sat down and turned off my headlamp, soaked in the stars. I put my head in my hands for a few minutes. Runners moved by me. I was looking for a reset button and wasn't sure where it might be, so eventually I got up and kept moving. It's all I could do.

The night was filled with the constant songs of coyotes, frogs and owls. 

From a bluff I heard sandhill cranes in the river below.

My headlamp reflected the eyes of mice and rabbits.

Half a moon rose over a ridge. It was the color of grapefruit.

Aid station volunteers stoked a fire and warned me of its power to hold runners too long.

Food was not easy so I drank more and ate only a couple bananas. And pancakes with chocolate chips.

I wanted to send my parents a note saying how much I appreciate them.

I climbed into the moment, into the breathing.

Somehow I stumbled into the campground and got into the Jeep and turned the heat on. I was a mess. Lisa helped me change my wet socks and shoes. She's amazing. My feet were white raisins. Lisa rubbed my ears and neck and hands. I stayed in that Jeep a long time, 45 minutes. I tried to drink a Coke, but jumped out of the Jeep and threw up on my shoes. I left with warm feet and dry clothes and felt a lot better.

I moved better through loop five.

I wished I had poles.

I decided I wanted to learn to make artisan breads.

The leader of the 50 mile race came by. A minute later my friend Kurt Keiser came by and asked how far ahead the leader was. Kurt caught him soon and eventually broke the course record. Both of those runners own running stores, one in LaCrosse and one in Mankato.

I remembered something another runner had barked at me last year at the Black Hills 100, when she saw me walking downhill. She said, "Use the downs!" At every downhill, I remembered her snapping this at me and I moved a little quicker. In my mind I pictured her saying this as Large Marge from PeeWee's Big Adventure.

I was far away from the start/finish area when I heard a huge celebration. This must have been Mike Borst finishing, smashing the course record. Jake Hegge finished his first 100 only 15 minutes behind him. 

I saw my friend Tom Weigt at Aid Station 1/4. He was running the fifty. It's always great to see Tom on the trail.

I found some strawberry Huma gels Lisa had put in my pocket. These went down well. I made an effort to eat more of them through the end.

The horizon began to lighten on the ridge just after Aid Station 4, off to my left. By the time I got to the campground, it was day again. My feet were wet and cold so I sat in the Jeep to warm up. I shivered and watched runners cross the field. Eventually I climbed out of the jump and left the campground around 7 am. My feet felt so much better now. I lost a lot of time with those two stops in the Jeep, but maybe they helped me finish.

I moved well through this lap, ticking off the miles as best I could, either running, shuffling or walking. I said goodbye to each landmark and obstacle. This lap is really a celebration, when I think, Well I don't have to do this hill again. I don't have to walk through that sand again. At the top of one climb, without thinking about it, I flipped off a simple sign nailed to a tree that said, "Picnic Rock."

Every hundred miler I saw had some complaint about their quads aching, blowing up, falling apart. Mine were screaming too.

I really wanted to finish before noon, below 28 hours. The numbers 2747 kept popping into my head when I thought about this.

Climbing away from Aid Station 3, I looked down and saw my friend Shelly behind me. She was running the fifty. We often run together. I yelled at her and kept climbing. I didn't know how this hill had grown so much. She caught me on the climb and I followed her to the top. Then I told her we could visit later, that she was the first lady her age that I had seen, that she could move a lot faster than I could. As she often does at these things, she won her age group, fourth lady overall.

I walked some of the down on Ant Hill. I was trying to be careful with my knee and quads. I wasn't sure how far I had to go but it felt like 28 hours was out of reach. Still, 2747 popped into my head.

I walked some of the flat river road. I would run as far as my legs would let me and then I'd walk a stretch. Then try running again.

I saw Lisa before the bridge. She had come down to meet me. What an emotional bump seeing my honey was!

Photo credit Todd Rowe

I told the fine folks at Aid Station 4 I appreciated them very much, but I was glad I didn't have to see them there anymore. It was a happy farewell but I think they were getting tired of seeing me too, as nice as they were.

In those last miles a couple 17 miler friends came by and lifted me, Jim Kalina and then Josh Henning yelling Woo! from far back. 

I told everyone who passed me to enjoy this moment.

Just before the campground, a lady passed me. I don't remember if she was running the 50 or 17. I said to her, I'm going to put myself in your back pocket if I can. I didn't make it ten steps before I was walking. Shuffling. Seizing. Then it was just a field to cross. To finish.

Ed had to tell me to keep going to cross the line.

Signing the banner!

The boys guarding the wooden finisher's medallion.
My time was 27:47, the same number that had been popping into my head. Yeah, that's weird.

It was a perfect day to plant myself in a lawn chair and watch friends come in. My dad had driven over to see me finish. Lisa found me a cold root beer.

These things always teach me humility and gratitude, an appreciation of all the people in my life. Sometimes it's like that Talking Heads song and I'm surprised to find myself in this life. I ask, How did I get here? Especially after all the things I've done to this mind and body, stuff that happened years ago now. I feel truly blessed to be able to do this, visited by grace, truly blessed to be alive.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Saint John USVI Runs and Hikes

Over half of Saint John's land mass (and two-thirds of the island if you include water) is US National Park. That makes it a trail runner or hiker's dream.

The book Saint John: Feet, Fins and Four-Wheel Drive is an awesome guidebook.

For maps, the Trail Bandit's is best when considering trails. You can find it at some shops on the island. There are different versions, but the maps on each are the same. Ask for the Trail Bandit map. The NPS office sells one version, and I found another at a local dive/snorkel shop. There's no difference between the maps or trail descriptions that I can tell. You can download it for free at Big props to this guy for all he's done to discover, maintain, and map trails. He's got a fascinating history with the park.

Most of my runs on Saint John were done on trails. These trails are often old ox roads from the sugar plantation days. On almost all of them I stumbled across ruins and many of those are marked on the Trail Bandit maps. My runs were 6-8 miles and I connected several trails together. After all, it's a small island. The roads are curvy and mountainous, not runner friendly, considering the traffic--and by the way, all driving is done on the left). I saw people running these roads and wondered, Why? There are amazing trails here. Maybe some people just prefer pavement. And I did sometimes run short portions of pavement to connect trails. We stayed on the south side, between Chocolate Hole and Hart Bay, and it was some road distance before I could find trails. In order to lessen impact of my running time on the rest of my family (we were sharing a rented Jeep), I dressed in my running clothes whenever we went to the beach and ran from there. The bonus to this was a wonderful swim at the end of each run.

Leinster Bay/Johny Horn Trail
I started this run at Maho Bay Beach and ran about a mile on roads to the Leinster Bay Trail. On the way I saw ruins of the Annaberg Country School and passed some cool mangrove trees.
Rainbow from end of the road
Near the Annaberg plantation ruins, the road ends and I followed a flat and scenic Leinster Bay Trail (an old road from the owner's house to the plantation) around the water's edge to Waterlemon Beach. We came back to this beach another day for snorkeling and it was our favorite snorkel spot with lots of fish, corals, and even a Spotted Eagle Ray. The Johny Horn Trail starts at this beach and passes several ruins right behind the beach, then goes up the mountain.

Pipe organ cactus on Johny Horn Trail
Waterlemon Cay from Annaberg owner's house
Eventually the trail becomes a gravel road and tops out. The view here was nothing spectacular, surrounded by trees, and a family with kids sitting around the trail. I turned around. On the way down, I took an unmarked spur trail and came out at what someone told me had been the Annaberg plantation owner's house. It was mostly foundation and steps and some walls, all overrun by lovely wildflowers. Back on the road, with Maho Bay Beach in sight, I took a fall, a real grinder that dug pebbles and pavement into my knee, back, shoulder and hands. Maybe this is why I like trails--I bounce better  there. A car stopped to ask if I was okay, and when I asked if the fall looked good, they asked if I would do it again so they could see it better. I limped into a beach chair and washed off in the soothing salt water. So many lovely views on this run. There are parking lots at the end of the road/beginning of the Leinster Bay Trail so one could easily make this run all trail, and you could continue down the hill where I turned around, on toward the Moravian Church and Coral Bay.

Reef Bay Guided Hike
We made reservations for this one (and the Full Moon Guided Hike) through the Friends of the Park office. I didn't know if I would like hiking with so many other people, and it could get frustrating adapting to other people's pace, but there were plenty of advantages here. First, the guide, a volunteer named Kent, was amazing, and freely shared his wealth of knowledge about plants, animals, history, etc. The group met at the Park Service building in Cruz Bay, where two taxis took us to the hike's start on Centerline Road. Kent led us slowly down the hill to Reef Bay, through four different ecosystems, and on the way we visited different ruins, ancient petroglyphs, and an old sugar mill. We learned so much more than if we had done this hike on our own (in fact, we have done this hike on our own on a previous trip), and at Reef Bay, instead of turning around and hiking back to the top, we rode a dinghy out to a boat that took us around the island back to the Park Service building, a fun way to get a different view of the island.

Buttress root system (see, I was listening)
Petroglyphs. Closest figure is a representation of a bat. Bats were important to the Taino, message carriers to their ancestors.
Sugar mill ruins
Grave of W. H. Marsh
Sugar mill ruins

Bordeaux Mountain/Yawzi Point
This run starts at Salt Pond Bay, but it can be shortened by driving to the trailhead just beyond the end of the road, but be prepared to bounce around in your vehicle and get some mud on it, which is fun too. While my family settled in at Salt Pond Beach, I ran back to the parking lot, and to the end of the road.
Mom settling in at Salt Pond Beach while I play in the mountains beyond
The road curves up and down some switchback hills, turns to gravel, turns to mud, and passes the Great and Little Lameshur beaches.
At some cool ruins overlooking the beach, there's a small parking area and both the Lameshur Bay and Bordeaux Mountain trails begin, as well as several spur trails. 
The Bordeaux Mountain Trail starts as a Jeep road to the turnoff to the Ranger Residence. Then it steeply climbs along a ridge for over a mile.
The trail comes out on the Bordeaux Mountain Road. I followed this road to the right, but I now see if I would have gone left toward Centerline Road I would have hit the highest point on the island. I topped out near a house with views of Coral Bay, turned around, made friends with a dog protecting his driveway, and went back down the trail.
The way down offered many nice views of beaches and bays. I met a lady I had seen going the opposite way earlier. We both agreed it would have been a good idea to bring water along. She had been up much of the previous night drinking tequila.
At the bottom, I took the short Yawzi Point Trail to add a bit of mileage. It went through some huge pipe organ cactii to a point between Great and Little Lameshur Bays.
Pipe organ cactii
Yawzi Point
Yawzi Point
The road back to Salt Pond got warm, but the swimming and snorkeling were, of course, wonderful. It's our favorite beach. Later, Lisa and I did the short walk from Salt Pond to Drunk Bay.

Drunk Bay 
Apparently drunkin or something similar means drowned in Dutch and that's where the name comes from. Walking from Salt Pond Bay, turn left at the salt pond and follow its shore to Drunk Bay. Drunk Bay is full of coral people and animals, and we left one, just as we did last year.
Drunk Bay
Drunk Bay mermaid
Drunk Bay
Drunk Bay dog or pony
Drunk Bay cairn
Catherineberg Road/L'Esperance 
The rest of my family was hitting either Trunk Bay or Cinnamon Bay, depending on crowds and parking, so I asked Lisa to drop me off and pick me up at the bottom of the Catherineberg Road, which is between those two beaches. I asked her to pick me up in two hours and I started my watch. The Catherineberg Road isn't much of a road, and it's listed on the trails map, so traffic wasn't an issue. The road is dirt/gravel, but the switchback curves are paved. It climbs steeply at first and goes by some fancy gated homes. After 1.5 miles of steep climbing, I saw the ruins of a sugar mill, and shortly after, Centerline Road.
Sugar mill near Centerline Road
I ran a short distance east on Centerline, less than a hundred yards, and found the L'Esperance Trail that goes down the south side of the island to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill. The L'Esperance Ruins are worth checking out, and there is a grave behind the house.
Louise Sommer, DOD 15 Sept 1864
The way down toward Reef Bay was lovely single-track trail, mostly mellow descent. I missed the spur to the Sieben ruins, which is where you can find the only Baobab tree on the island. I could hear the waves of Reef Bay when I decided to turn around. I had been running 1h 10m and had 50 minutes to make it back.
L'Esperance Trail
The L'Esperance Trail connects to the Reef Bay Trail at Genti Bay, and one could easily make a big loop that hits both the north and south shores using the Cinnamon Bay and Catherineberg trails on the north side. This gives me one more reason to go back.

Ram Head Full Moon Guided Hike
This is another hike we arranged through the Friends of the Park. Our guide, Jennifer, is a landscape architect and her knowledge and passion for local botany is impressive. The hike to Ram Head isn't super long, about 3 miles round trip from the Salt Pond parking lot where the group met. We had been told to bring flashlights, but they really weren't necessary.

Ram Head is the southeast tip of the island, a place escaped slaves came to hide out and live. It was a lovely night with a bright moon and views of the south shore and many other island and I tried to imagine what this place felt like to those people, living by the light of the moon and stars, living in fear of being recaptured, holding tight to this momentary freedom.
Lameshur Bay Trail
This run began just like the Bordeaux Mountain run, starting from Salt Pond Bay (I told you it's our favorite beach) and going past the end of the road to the trailhead. This trail goes all the way to the Reef Bay Trail and connects near the spur trails to the petroglyphs and Reef Bay Great House. The climbing here is mostly gradual, the views amazing.
Going up
Bromeliads are everywhere
Going up
Lameshur Bay Trail
Great Lameshur and Little Lameshur Bays
Badass tree
Nice view, Lameshur Bay ruins