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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Zumbro 2016: Something About a Bear and an Owl and the Number Six

The race director checks his emails while marking course a couple days before the race.

My toes sting with cold at the start. My head is congested and I'm nursing a sore throat. A couple miles into this, past the Telephone Booth Overlook and under the lovely evergreens, my feet begin to warm with blood flow and movement.

Let's just get this out of the way early. I'm wearing women's pants. Jogging Knickers by Oiselle. I wanted something between full tights and shorts, and this is the closest thing I could find at the store I work at. So what if they're made by a women's clothing line? They're manpris if I'm wearing them.

This course has four main climbs. They are all short and get steep. The first happens almost immediately, the climb to the campground overlook at Telephone Booth. It's the least cruel of them. The second is just before Aid Station 2 and it tops out at a pavilion in a field. If it needs a name I recommend we call it Stinky. Just because. The third is Picnic Rock. It's steep but it ends quickly. The last major climb happens when we leave Aid Station 3 and it takes us up to the ridgetop where we get a nice distant view of Aid Station 4 and the Zumbro River valley. That's only four climbs. Multiplied by six loops, they tend to grow a little each loop. But it's not the climbs that grind us at Zumbro, it's the descents. They're steep and technical and full of loose rocks that move under our feet and roll down the ravines with us. In the last couple loops our quads and hip flexors will sing with pain and cramps and curse us. But now it's early and the ground is unusually hard for Zumbro. There's no mud, no ice, no snow. At least  not in the early parts of the first loop.

We hear the unmistakable sound of sandhill cranes moving above us. I shade my eyes and scan the sky but don't see them. I heard them at this same spot last year.

I'm running with TJ Jeannette. We run together at home, although he's a faster runner when it counts. We rode to the race together. We ran the first 42 miles of Superior together last year. I enjoy his company. Assertive but not aggressive, we tell ourselves. Do no harm early, we tell ourselves. Still, spots in this first loop seem fast, faster than anything we've discussed. Even though I'm the one pushing the pace at times. Boys get excited. We will adjust and back off on the climbs. We have a rhythm. I run the downs faster while he climbs quicker. I spend longer at the aid stations (so chatty!). Somehow we end up running together most of the time. I tell him, we make a good team, and it's true.  

Climbing away from Aid Station 3 the snow bounces off us in styrofoam pellets. Atop the ridge the wind pelts our faces with those pellets. The other side of the valley has disappeared in a beautiful sideways blowing snow. I appreciate the cold. Snow's so much better than a chilly rain.

This is Barney's first ultra and he's handling it like the boss that he is. He's an accomplished trail dog and has put down heavy miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. He loves skiing frozen rivers in the winter. He's an old dog and arthritic and walks slowly and crooked, but today he's got a bounce in his step, although it's still a crooked bounce. He greets us in the chute at the campground. He's already made friends with everyone possible. 

I try to eat something real at each aid station. Mainly bananas. I drink Tailwind from my hydration pack and eat a gel every hour or so.

Climbing away from Aid Station 3 on loop 2 with TJ and Nate Ziemski, I'm working the hill too hard. My heart rate's too high. I'm dizzy and a little nauseous. It's too early to feel this way. I cut the string and back off. I don't expect to see those guys again. They're both fast and strong runners. I down a gel and work the Tailwind. It's funny how quickly calories change things. I float down Ant Hill and catch a glimpse of TJ's red jacket at the bottom. I'm moving better and catch him on the river road. He's in the same place I was in ten minutes ago.

The beavers have worked the trees between the river and the road.

"Eat something," I say. "Run with me." I keep moving as he slides out of my periphery. At first I feel guilty for not walking with him. But I'd get mad if he slowed for me. Also, knowing that he was just ahead when I was hurting helped me move a little better. Not in a competitive kind of way, but in a brotherhood feeling. He will catch me soon. I know it. And he does, shortly after Aid Station 4. He's climbed through his dark spot, and we laugh about it. At Superior, we suffered through miles 30-40, and it seems like something similar might be shaping up here. Although I know there is plenty of challenge ahead. We're only a third of the way into this thing. We've both been here before, finding the way to convince our bodies to accept that the long haul is upon us.

Or maybe we don't come into the campground together. Lisa's notes say we were a minute apart. Memory gets weird. Things get fuzzy. After years of self-destruction, that area of my brain doesn't work well, and long runs amplify my lack of memory. We talk about easing off the pace more and it seems like a great idea at the time.

TJ's cute kid Coby is home with strep throat and his awesome wife Kelley is home with Coby. So my awesome wife Lisa feeds us both and lifts our spirits. She offers us warm clothes and lots of jokes. She is incredible.

Photo credit John Storkamp

I simply want to beat darkness with this third loop. Nothing matters yet. I'm still settling in. TJ and I discuss Axl Rose singing for AC/DC. It's still light when I finish the loop. TJ is ahead now, just leaving the campground when I come in. I don't expect to see him again and I won't. I drink soup. I change into a dry top and add a shell. I am still comfortable in my Oiselle pants.

When I leave the campground I want to cover as many miles as I can before darkness falls. 

The temperature drops. Aid station bananas remind me of Dairy Queen Monkey Tails. My gels are Icees.

Not far beyond Aid Station 1, I turn the headlamp on. The big loose rocks are white and seem even whiter under the headlamp. They glow.

 In the dark I hear owls.

On the river road the lights of Aid Station 4 reflect in the water under the bridge like a lighthouse.

Marking course.

At the campground my friend, Toby, unscrews the lid of my milk and rubs my shoulders. These simple acts of kindness overwhelm me.

I start loop 4 about a half hour or forty minutes ahead of the fifty milers. The first runners come upon me between the first and second aid stations. Kurt owns the store I work at and Tim paced me last year at Superior. An hour into this, their lead is huge. They are going to beat the shit out of each other all night, I think. This will get ugly. When they are gone, I realize I should have had them relay a message ahead to TJ, something absurd, bizarre, funny and perhaps pornographic, something to get him laughing and raise his spirits in the night.

Other fifty-milers eventually come by. Some are friends. Lindsay's happy to see me and having fun on the double wide trail. Scott comes around me at the top of the descent from Picnic Rock and disappears into the darkness. Shelly recognizes my voice or maybe my tattoo and her voice behind me is like a warm light. It's great to see them all.

I step aside for groups of runners and worry I'll fall over beside the trail. Their encouragement gives me energy, but moving aside for them is work in the dark and the trenched trails. My legs tremble while they pass. I reach for branches or rocks to steady myself.

Their lights on distant ridges and valleys are beautiful lines.

I hear water moving somewhere.

I drink broth at the aid stations. I time my gel consumption by the upcoming climbs.

Somehow I'm on my fifth loop. I walk the entire section up Picnic Rock and through the Sand Coulee. Early in the race I told TJ that he would end up swearing every time he came through the sand. "I'm going to smile every time I see sand," he said. "Me too," I said. I am cold and I am dizzy and nauseous and it's the loveliest night ever and I'm having the time of my life and all this sand makes me smile and giggle to myself.

At some point I take my pack off and dig out another pair of gloves and despite wearing two pairs my fingers ache with cold. At Aid Station 3 I take a seat by the fire. My shins burn from its heat. My face feels paralyzed from it, as if it won't ever move again. It's psychedelic how rubbery my face feels. It's time to go.

I pick my way around each rock on Ant Hill. They glow and somehow I delicately make a line through them. I am resolved to getting through this loop and I'm not worried about how long it takes. I've long ago accepted that the body and spirit slow down at this time. It's simple biology. Everything in me wants sleep and warmth. The sun when it comes will bring resurrection.

I hear coyotes yipping.

I grab a cup of soup broth and a Coke and take a seat by the fire at Aid Station 4. I expect Erik Lindstrom will kick me out if I stay too long but he tells me he's been Ubering dropped runners to the campground.

I hear Lindsay coming through telling someone she's a road runner. "Not anymore," I shout. I'm glad she's having so much fun.

I can't wait to find my mittens at the campground. I move on.

Lisa and Barney are snuggled into the back of the Jeep and I sit in the passenger seat and turn the heat on. Maybe it's already on. Lisa digs out my mittens from piles of clothes back there while I put my hands over the blowers. She says she had set our packs outside for us and they froze (we've been switching packs each loop), so TJ had her put mine back in the car. It doesn't matter. I'm hardly able to drink anything anyway. I'll stick with the pack I've been wearing. I've been sucking down Coke at the aid stations, straight sugar injections instead of the Tailwind mixture in my pack. I sit in the car too long, but at some point I say, "This last loop won't run itself."

I wanted to tell her that every day I fall in love with her. I get this way, like a little boy drunk on love. But I've avoided bringing it up because she will give me endless shit about it and I give her enough reason to ride me already.

Those first steps out of the campground are tough. The legs are tight and the downhill muscles--the quads and hip flexors--are angry. I don't know how many steps I can run at a time. When I catch myself walking I ask myself why. If there's no reason (say it's a hill) I force myself to run. If one can call this running.

Joel and Kyle and Chris and Jake come up behind me on the climb to the campground overlook. I fall in line behind them. Joel is one of the nicest people I know, and the positivity of this group and their teamwork picks me up and carries me along. These guys are having fun together. With their company, I've got more energy. I glance to our right and see light on the horizon.

I come through the first aid station, announce my number, say thanks and keep moving. I'm too nauseous to deal with food. I'm eating gels and that's it. I do the same at each aid station.

This is my celebration loop. It's a painful dance of gratitude.

I hear turkeys calling through the trees.

I wonder which is faster, my walk or my run. But I'm moving well. My walk has purpose. And my run still exists.

At the last aid station I slam a Coke and briefly listen to Bill and Matt's jokes.

"You can break 25 hours if you hurry," Matt says. "If you run eight minute miles."

"Watch me sprint up this hill," I say. I slowly walk the hill. "I'm sprinting up the hill now." I hear Kathy yell, "Amazeballs!" from the aid station. She and Maria are having a blast.

These legs hurt so I climb into the moment. Each step is here. Each breath is now. It's the only way I know how to move with the pain. With this and gratitude and humility I move toward the finish. 

Just before the end. Photo credit David Shannon.

It's emotional crossing the campground for the last time. I want to cry. My throat is tight. Somehow I've lost my cap and my ears feel the wind here. Barney greets me. It's like how some people finish with their kids. I wrap my arms around Lisa and she holds me up. 

TJ has finished just under 24 hours and won his (our) age group. I finished one spot behind him in 8th place at 25:17. I feel like I scrapped for every second.

Running loops in the woods all day and night is meaningless. There's a beauty in the meaninglessness that we shouldn't let go of. It's not going to change the world, what just happened. But I've gotten to do this thing I love with people I enjoy and care about and for that I am blessed and grateful. So many people have helped to make it possible.

TJ and I sit in the Jeep with the heat blowing on us. He points out a tree across the field. He says it looks like a topiary bear.

"What does topiary mean again?" I ask.

"Someone climbed up there with a saw and cut the tree into the shape of a bear. Do you see the snout and the ears."

"Yep. I see it. I see those ears." It looks like one of those Grateful Dead dancing bears. Some Deadhead lumberjack did that.

When we tell Lisa about the bear, she is amused. She walks with purpose to our friends standing near the finish. They all look across the field at the trees. They look back at us. One by one they come to the Jeep and we roll down the window and point the tree bear out. TJ and I might be looking at different trees. But I like my bear.

We watch many friends finish under the watchful eyes of the tree bear. Kurt has won the 50. Lindsay wins too. And Shelley, as usual, is carrying her award as well. But it's Tom Weigt who seems to be the most successful. He comes by the Jeep and jokes with us before setting out on his final loop of the 50. He is having so much fun he seems to be glowing. He's always having fun. He has this thing figured out. 

Thanks to all the volunteers, directors, friends old and new, fellow runners, and especially Lisa for being a part of this.

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