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.


  1. Kevin, I always look forward to your race reports. They are so quietly beautiful in their specificity and detail. Thank you for sharing your race. And congratulations on an outstanding Zumbro race!

    1. Thanks Robyn! You keep telling me I need sunblock at these things. Maybe one of these days I'll listen. Or remember. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Thanks for the report Kevin. I always love reading them. This year I worked 2/3 for a while on Friday so got to see you when you were nice and fresh. It was a pleasure and honor to help get you through the day.

    1. Thanks so much for being there Jamison. That aid station won the cutest dog award, with that German Shepherd pup.

  3. I'm always on a mental adventure when I read your blog. Congratulations, you are special.

  4. You have got ambition! Are you running this race again?

    1. Yes, as long as I'm able I hope to be there in some way. Thanks!

  5. Well done! You may have given me inspiration to try Zumbro again.

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks Chad. You had a great run yourself, man.