The preamble to the 50:
An idea was placed in the back of my mind in 2017. “I could run an ultra”. While simply stating as such is miles (generally 31 miles/50k) between saying such a silly thing than doing it. Just like when I squatted a cumulative total of 1 million pounds in 2014, I started to put a plan into place.
Initially I took a rational approach to begin. I hadn’t run more than a half marathon since the liberty half ironman I did in June of 2011. I started running towards a goal of doing a half marathon at some point. Clue the montage of looking up cookie cutter programs online to get me to the finish line. Having looked at the website of the Upper Midwest Trail Runners, I know the William O’Brien 10 mile caught my eye. I know this because I ended up running in it. It was my first time racing on trails. I wasn’t fast, I did end up walking some of the hills.
After William O’Brien, I set my sights on the Gear Western half marathon. The logic being that if I could run 10 miles, what’s another 5k? I set my goal relatively low. My main goal was to just keep going the entire half, just walking the aid stations to drink. This turned out to be a perfect strategy for me as I pretty much nailed it. I kept my heart rate in check and kept going at a pace that I knew I could maintain without completely sandbagging it.
In my mind I believed I was ready to go whole hog into a 100 mile race. I knew mentally I could hold it together. My first 100 cycling ride was the Minnesota Ironman bike ride when it was in Lakeville. I did it alone on a mountain bike. I know what the pain and frustration cave holds. It’s dark in there. I’ve ridden many miles into the cold wind that occurs in the spring in Minnesota. Especially along county roads where there isn’t any crops or much in the way of trees to provide comfort from the wind. My first outdoor triathlon, because in Minnesota there are a few options to do indoor ones (lap pool, exercise bike and treadmill), was a half ironman. I ended up having calf cramps at the turn around for the swim. I still managed to finish the swim, bike and jogged/walked the half marathon at the end of that one. Just on pure will to get it done.
My family was adamant that I not sign up for the 100 miler at Zumbro. Therefore I signed up for the 50 miler. I mean why do the 17 mile race when at that point I had been running a few 15+ mile training runs at Afton. At the turn of the year, I knew it was time to get my stuff together. Opting to turn to my handy internet search engine once again, I settled on Hal Koerner’s 50 mile training plan. I kept reading on reddit that if you can run 20 miles on back to back days, then you can survive a 100 miler. Thus when Koerner’s program had back to backs each week, I figured if I went in over prepared then it would be enough.
The beginning of training in early January was horrible. I couldn’t run since I pulled something while doing a half marathon on the treadmill on New Year’s Day. Slowly I could start running again by the end of the month. I cobbled together an abbreviated training plan from Koerner’s plan. Since I had been running quite a bit in 2017 already, I wasn’t too worried but I didn’t put in any recovery weeks. 10 weeks from start to race day was all I had. I kept a 3 week taper to help build in some real recovery.
The training plan, while not ideal, held me to the fire of pushing the distances. Short runs during the week (4 to 10 miles) and long back to backs on the weekends (15/9 to 25/20). Looking back, there wasn’t a day I missed my mileage up until the week we went to Arizona. After running the 25/20 back to back, I took Monday off. 10 mile on Tues, 6 mile on Wed, then 30 miles after work on Thursday. That was brutal, but I kept my head mostly into the game. While on the road I tried as much as I could to keep to schedule while balancing a family vacation.
After driving back from vacation, the training taper went pretty much as planned but mostly treadmill runs since it had pretty much snowed off and on from when we returned. If I had only took this as a sign of what was to come.
Woke up as usual on Friday. Checked the weather reports from the local area as well as Kellogg, MN. The same song and dance, rain mixed with thunderstorms followed by snow and wind. Popped open Facebook, same fretting about the weather conditions and what to bring to the race. Early in the week I had planned to pretty much take anything and everything I had any use for while backpacking and running.
Worked a full day and enjoyed a meal with my family Friday afternoon. If it was going to be as bad it might get, I didn’t want them to be in the cold waiting for me to do laps. This was also helped by the few pictures of flowing water on the trails and video of the start where there was plenty of standing water. I drove down in the on and off rain until I arrived at the campground.
I had planned to do my gear explosion in the car, which went perfectly. Gear strung around the interior of the car. Tops, bottoms, hygiene, shoes, socks, after race clothes, and food. Given the temps and the rain at the time, I put together a brief setup. I had wanted to get down to the start to give myself time to sleep. I set my alarm and tried to fall asleep multiple times. it just didn’t happen. I wasn’t worried about the race, I wasn’t worried about the weather.
While the headlights of other runners kept shinning into the car, I tossed a shirt over my head. I studied the maps and reread the directions I had cached on my cell of what the RD sent and those from the race website. My ears noticed at some point that the sound of rain falling on the car turned into the sound of sleet. This was confirmed when I tried to gaze out the window and saw it was mostly covered with ice. I sat up and started to re-plan my gear. A few gear swaps and changing the layering approach I was using for my mittens, I was set. Then I noticed the ice was no longer forming. It was snow.
At this point the check in was happening. I checked in and knew it was no better time to start getting dressed for the start. It might be over 90 minutes away but I wanted to make sure to be ahead instead of rushing and forgetting anything. I wasn’t doing drop bags since I had planned to make a trip to the car each lap if I needed anything.
Up to this point I had only done one other trail race in particular but since I’d done plenty of mountain bike races, I knew what to expect at the start line brief. The issue this time, it wasn’t like any of the others. We were briefed on the weather. Told how bad it was getting on the roads to get to Zumbro. Then told about the trail conditions. We were given enough information to make a careful decision once we got on the trail. If you wanted to bail at AS 1,there’s a option to shortcut back. If you decide not to start, there is no shame as it was getting nasty out there. As stubborn as I am, I kept my options open as I didn’t really know what it was like until I was out on the trail. This was going to be my first ultra, but I’m not a complete idiot.
On our way to the starting line itself, I fired up my Suunto. I started the run on it before we started moving because I’m not all that concerned about getting each second precisely dialed in. A few minutes later, we were off. I started slow but then picked it up a bit to try to get in front of some people that were really going slow. Mainly because I remembered from mountain bike racing that if you get stuck behind someone slow, it might be a bit until you can get moving at your own pace.
We hit the trail after going through the campground. It was snow covered. It was wet and slick with mud. With the headlights and falling snow, it was awesome. I took my time and passed people when the opportunity passed. I probably went out a little aggressive. I was excited and tapered so I had energy to burn. Quickly arrived at AS1. I felt great, if not slightly warmer than I should have. A splash of coke and M&Ms and I was set. This might have been the biggest thing I’m taking away from the race. Fuel early and often. I had GU with me, quite a few. I should have been consuming them.
The rest of the lap I felt fine to carry on. Slipped a few times on the snow and mud combo. Plenty of sections where it was standing water. What I didn’t really realize on the first lap was the section between AS3 and AS4 was going to be the tough one of the day. It was completely dark going along the ridgeline with the exception of the headlamps. The wind was pretty fierce with the snow. I kept my focus on the runner in front of me. Getting back to the start/finish area, I knew I didn’t feel like stopping. I was running/walk/power hiking trail I had never seen before. It was an adventure.
The second time through the beginning of the lap, I could tell the trail was changing. A lot of mud, snow and water but it wasn’t as sloppy. I could tell the temp was dropping as well. I kept my legs churning as the miles went by. By the time the sun came up, I knew I was behind on calories. I tried to take more GU in and started to walk more. Those things are quite the battle while cold. Coming into the aid stations I was requesting hot food and coffee. I didn’t feel like quiting at that point, I just knew I was going to be slower due to my stubbornness to keep up my intake. I also didn’t want to swing too far the other way and consume too much and be sick either. As I had been walking more and behind on calories, I started feeling colder. My mittens started having ice in them. My feet were cooling from the sweat that had been in the socks.
From those factors I knew if I was going to go on to lap 3, I should make a plan. Mentally inventorying the contents of what I had brought with me. I had other gloves. They were okay in cold weather but it wasn’t that cold. At least they would be dry for a lap. While the sealskinz socks were good for the slush and mud, I thought to change them out and my shoes. I brought some hiking boots. I had run in them before I knew I could again. They had goretex so if I found more standing water, those and a good set of dry wool socks would get me to the end. Lastly thinking of changing my shirt under my jacket. It was damp and the wind was slightly chilly with it.
This time between AS3 and AS4, I realized how bad it was on the ridge. The wind was insane. At parts, the trail was covered in drifting snow. I could make out just enough to see where to go. Some parts where very deep and ended up post holing at times. I crawled at one point because when I stood, I was being blown around and didn’t want to fall down the side. Eventually made it out of that section and finished the lap with no other highlights.
Coming into AS5, which is also the start/finish area, my hands were pretty cold at this point. Requested coffee and some food before retreating to the car. Once inside I quickly put my plan that I drew up in my head into action. Mittens gone, shirt gone, socks and shoes gone. Dry shirt on and started drinking coffee and eating. My hands and feet dried out slightly and new socks and boots were put on. 2 layer gloves set aside. At this point I also dropped anything I would not need to do the third and final lap. No more headlamps, no more spare batteries. I had been carrying an extra windshell but the jacket I was wearing had been treating me well enough to pitch the extra. Since I had brought water in the car, topped off my water bottles.
Just before leaving the car, I reminded myself that I had gone the longest I ever had. Mentally I was still game to carry on. Physically I was solid enough. Sore in places, sure. All I had to do was complete 1 more lap and I would have done it.
I slowly trudged through the campground to start the final lap. I could tell the boots were slightly heavier than the speedgoats I was wearing before. In a short time I was on the trail. Immediately it was clear that the trail was becoming a different animal again. I had believed that my boot choice would be fine, it wasn’t. I was sliding and not in a good way. For the first mile, any notion of power hiking was out the window. It was too slick with the boots. I told myself that even if I have to walk the entire lap, I would do it just to finish.
It was lap 3 that I got passed the most. It was a mental kicker but I maintained my focus on just getting it done. I had secretly wanted to break 12 hours but knew that wasn’t going to happen. Each aid station I requested the same thing. Coffee and anything hot they had. Chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese and quesadilla. I appreciated what the volunteers had on hand and ate it. Kept the running to a minimum, telling myself I wanted to save what I could for the section between AS3 and AS4.
The ridgeline was just as brutal as before. I powered through the best I could muster. It was rough going as I was cracking mentally as the trail just kept going. Cursing the wind and the trail I frustratingly tried to run at times. Once I descended where the Ant Hill sign was for the final time, I was relieved. About 5 to 6 miles is all that separated me to the finish. I was going to do it. Tried cycling between running and walking a bit. Just felt drained but hopeful.
When I got to AS4, the last before the finish, I didn’t even stop. I heard the volunteer call out my number, that was enough for me. I turned up the trail to the end. That last stretch seemed to go on forever. I expected it to be that way.
Once I saw the road we had been running on towards the end of the lap rise into a clearing, I knew I had done it. All I needed to do now was cross the campground. I started to run. My body had started aching more and more. In the last few miles I had ignored the hunger to eat something else. Eventually I heard my name and city announced and crossed the electronic sensors. I had done it. A wooden finisher medal was given to me. I didn’t initially want it around my neck but then decided to put it on. I had earned it. At that point I had been up for 34 hours. 14 hours, 12 minutes and 59 seconds is what it took to complete my first ultra and 50 miles.
Looking around after finishing, I saw that most of the area had been packed up. No option to buy a poster, guess I should have done it before checking in. Luckily they had some eggs and bacon going. I took some coffee and a egg/bacon wrap and quesadilla back to the car.
The drive home:
I had worried about getting home, or at least out of the area during the last lap. Driving home was a beast. The wind from the ridge returned blowing out on the county roads. After driving slow for quite a while, I made it to US 52. It wasn’t any better. Within 10 miles of being home, US 52 was closed. Exiting the highway, I cut through Farmington to get home. Of course in my haste to get home, I took the shortest way into our neighborhood. I promptly got stuck. Less than 2 blocks from the house and I couldn’t budge the car. Eventually I got it unstuck as my lovely wife helped me. After running in the most epic trail and weather conditions, then driving in them, I was finally home.
The Zumbro 50 wood medal:
As I don’t listen to music when I run, even on the treadmill, I generally have a lot of time to think. Mostly I try to focus on the run I’m doing and how I’m feeling. As my mind has a tendency to wander, I had though about the token we are given for completing the Zumbro 50. While called a medal, it’s a piece of wood. I have a number of medals from races and events. A few stand out as being really special.
The most particular one is the Halloween Half marathon medal. It was my daughters first half marathon. A lot of emotion in that run. I can say for me, that time we spent together was really something special. Thus the medal itself reminds me of that time and feeling.
While out on the 3rd lap, I was focusing on that piece of wood I would be given for finishing the 50 miles. Eventually a time will come that the metal medals I have accumulated will be someone else’s issue to deal with. Either recycled or simply trashed as I don’t really see the point of having them boxed up for someone else to lug around through life. What strikes me as unique about the wooden finishers medals is the fact that one day, like myself, they will be decayed into dust. Seemly as temporary as we are.
Oddly enough I like that aspect of the wooden medals. Strange thought I know but then again, who goes out to run an ultramarathon.