"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, April 13, 2009

2009 Zumbro 100 Mile Race Report

"I've been up all night. I've been making mistakes." - Art Brut, "Alcoholics Unanimous"

"Learn a little, here and there, weep and laugh and sweat and swear." - Dorothy Parker, "Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom."

I awoke before my alarm went off, weighed myself (up 5 lbs. after 3 days of rest, so fully hydrated), and turned on the television for a weather report. It was already 35 degrees and would get up to 55 without a cloud; it looked like those running McNaughton would not be as lucky. I ate two bowls of oatmeal and started packing my drop bags; unlike last year's Superior attempt, I did not sweat the details for weeks. The only pre-race planning I did was to decide that I needed to run the first 20 miles in 5-5 1/2 hours; 4 1/2 would be too fast and meant I'd suffer, 6 meant I was already suffering. The newspaper arrived and I did the New York Times crossword puzzle in 23 minutes, so my mind was sharp, though my time management skills are questionable.

The Zumbro course I knew would be hard on my feet. I put on a pair of Wright socks, which seemed too light and flimsy for the weather, so I added a pair of SmartWools; it was the right choice, I guess, as I had no blisters after the run. Because of all the sand, I'd need gaiters, but I could only find one of the ones I wanted, so I had to use the back-up Dirty Girls and, since those require added Velcro to the trail shoes, that limited me to my Vasque Blurs for shoes. Vasque are made in Red Wing, Minnesota, just a stone's throw from the race course, so this seemed a good omen.

I tossed my bag of back-up running clothes and medical bag in the trunk of the car, and brought a chair (which I prayed I would not use) and a cooler full of ice (in case I did myself a mischief) and foods I knew I tolerated and would not find at the race (apricots, dates, etc.). I would use none of it. In fact, the only things in my drop bags I used were a homemade electrolyte/carb mix and my headlamp. There was back-up hydration equipment already in the trunk and that would come in handy.

The drive from St. Paul was unremarkable. In the back of my mind was that I was driving on bald tires I should've replaced long ago. I was listening to the radio, listening for lyrics that might portend (a superstition of mine) but there was nothing interesting but "Grandson of Jesus," which was a bit of sacrilege for Good Friday. Ah, Good Friday, a day of remembrance of suffering for the sake of redemption - could I pick a day for a first 100 finish, or what?

The Zumbro River runs through a bowl of moraines. For those not familiar with them, they range from piles of rocks, shaped like a baguette and 200 feet high to ones like a knife edge sticking out of the ground - two 400 foot cliffs pressed together. This was the course. I, who fall on level ground, was running the toughest terrain I'd ever seen.

There were a number of last-minute entrants to the race, but the assembly area had more familiar faces than if it were a family reunion. As Larry gave the runners their last-minute instructions, I went back to the car to adjust clothing. I decided it was cold enough to wear tights for the first lap, but I hadn't packed any; I had a threadbare, torn pair (from 1986!) in the emergency winter gear I hadn't yet removed from the car. I decided to use one handheld water bottle the first 20 miles, then put on more gear.

At the start, Nolan Ming took off like it was a marathon; I knew he was fast, but I also knew the first guy rarely does well. I knew I'd start too fast no matter what I did, so the plan was to be in the top third of the pack early. I started with Dale Humphrey, whose racing ability I greatly respect; he dropped back after the first mile or two - I'd later learn just how smart that was on his part. Soon, I was running with a guy I knew I knew, but couldn't place; when I found out it was Scott Meyers, who I had picked to win, I knew I was out way too fast... yet, this first 6 miles is the only flat, easy section of the course (to be removed next year, of course). I wasted no time at the first aid station, so I left Scott behind me and headed down the Highwater Trail, another easy section. I soon found myself at a trail junction with no markings, so I had made a wrong turn already! I backtracked and saw the turn I'd missed; if one ran on the far edge of the wide trail (unlike the single-track trail of much of the course), one couldn't see the turn. I apparently wasn't the only one to make this mistake, as there was yellow caution tape across the wrong path by my second lap.

The course here went up the Texas Trail, which is a rollercoaster of ruts and rocks for a while, then up the Old Pump trail (I've never seen signs of a pump) and then the Walnut Creek Coulee, which is as nasty a trail as I hope to run; one could use one's hands to climb at one point and this was the first section of loose rock. At the top of this very long hill was a section I dubbed Larry's berry patch, as it was just course markers strewn (to me, apparently at random) through raspberries, which tore my already battered tights to shreds. It then went where there wasn't even a deer trail, what Dallas Sigurdur named the "Little Barkley," a steep drop off a cliff with tree roots and rocks (covered with leaves so they couldn't be seen) - if it had been raining, I would've quit right there. I again hit an unmarked junction; another wrong turn. I went back to the last flag I saw and Scott was there, so I just followed him. I never did see where I could've gone wrong. Soon, I was at the aid station, where I pulled off my gloves and hat; I was overheating - I'd urinated 90 minutes into the race, but it was very dark yellow, which seemed weird, given how much fluid I thought I had in me - the rest of the first 20 miles would involve me trying to play catch-up on water intake.

I don't remember much of the rest of that first lap, except talking with Scott. The course I remember from other laps. There's the Hidden Draw, the lower Sand Coulee, the New Trail and then the extremely long, very challenging Picnic Rock climb, followed by the Turkey Trail along the ridge line, then down the treacherous Dakota Draw (the rocks, unlike those on the Superior Trail, are loose) and then an endless rut where one feels like a stylus in a vinyl groove - which, again, would be flooded if it had rained [I think Larry believes that if water can run somewhere, so can people].

This leads to the next aid station where I heard shouts of "It's Steve! Steve's coming!" This was fantastic, but disconcerting, as I wasn't sure at first who was doing the cheering. It was the same crew who manned the Sonju station at the Superior 100. I'd spent something like 10 hours with them one night last September. They had an amazing array of cookware and I looked forward to seeing them when it got cold and I was hungry. I took off my jacket here.

After this station is the hardest climb of the course, which I'm sure is named, but which I called the "Escalator," as the equally tough downhill yet to come is called by the even more diminutive name "The Ant Hill." Everyone who comes here takes photos from this ridge, as the views are spectacular. I'd seen them before; I only cared that I didn't fall. After the Ant Hill, with its threatened death by a thousand sliding rocks, one's almost through the first lap.

I hit 20 miles just under 4 hours. WAY too fast. I was going to suffer. Big time. So be it. I took off the tights and strapped on a belt with another water bottle and my headlamp. In the next 5 miles, I fell hard; it was my second (and last) fall of the day and it reminded me I'd better slow down. The next section I ran with Dallas Sigurdur, who I'd first met at my first ultra and who would go on to win the race. You only get to see some people for a short time, so I was glad I got some good useful information from him while we ran together.

The second lap was actually easier than the first and I ran it in just under 5 hours. The first half of the third lap was easier again. I hit the half-way mark in 12 hours, leaving me a cushion of 22 hours to run 50 miles.

I'd need it. The hot start and the hard 25K the week before killed my legs.

At aid station 2, just before sunset, Wynn Davis was telling me I looked good (he'd volunteered to pace me, but that's like a racehorse pacing a plow horse) and, when he figured I was out of earshot, I heard him say, "He really looks good." So I knew he meant it. What he didn't know was that I had already made the decision to walk all night. If I ran any more, I'd risk injury and failure. I'd forgotten to put new batteries in my lamps, so I decided to use only one until I hit very bad footing; I also walked as long as possible in twilight without lights, which I learned from Allan Holtz and which, given the full moon, was longer than you'd think.

The night was filled with strange noises. The most common was turkeys drumming. The hunting season was only days away, which decided the date of the race. I heard a strange growl and wondered what it could be; instead of ignoring it, I turned and my lamp caught a guy who was out in the woods, just trying to scare me. Apparently, some of the locals are a little odd; fortunately, they didn't pull up any of the markers.

Londell Pease paced me for the next lap. We'd run all night together before, so I was looking forward to his joining me. Unfortunately, this was when I got into a bad mood and snapped at him for everything he did or did not say or do. Sorry, guy. You saved my ass. You saved me more than once that night. In fact, he said he was going to try to wrangle someone to do the final 15 with me. He also said that he'd rather do the entire Superior 100 than one more loop of this course.

I couldn't figure out why my hands were so cold all night, since it was supposed to be above freezing. I'd hear the next day it was down to 19 or 20.

I'm leaving out all the details of the other runners who passed me, including the 100K runners, the development of whose race I was following with interest (Kim Holak ran an amazing race). There will be at least a dozen other race reports from Zumbro and their stories will have to be read there. Matt, sorry I couldn't smile for you at mile 84; I felt better than I looked and I was really happy for you, even if I was self-absorbed at the time.

My pacer for the end of the race was Tim Roe, who had finished the Arrowhead 135 on foot in February. That should be enough to earn anyone's respect, but he really went above and beyond in this race. He'd set up an aid station on Thursday, manned it Friday and now was going to walk for 8 hours (without having brought clothes for it! He wore a jacket with no shirt!) to help a guy he didn't know. He said in an "aw shucks" kind of way something like "I'm just excited to be a part of your finishing your first 100." I kept telling him what the trail ahead of us was going to be (something I couldn't do at all for Londell), though I knew he didn't care. "All right," he'd say each time. I started panicking about finishing. I'd worked out that I only needed to average 40 minute miles to finish, but at each aid station, I'd redo the math and it came back to 40 - so were we only doing 40's?! We had to be much faster, but I couldn't be sure. My pacer knew; we were going just slower than the steady 20 minute miles he cranked out, one after another, at Arrowhead. "You did good on that last section, even faster than the one before. I'm proud of you," Tim said.

I was dehydrated again. My hands had swelled like two balloons ("Comfortably Numb" anybody?), which happens when I'm dehydrated and walk for hours. When I tire, I hunch my shoulders, maybe to stare at the ground just ahead of my feet, so my back was killing me. At the last aid station, I only needed to do 2.7 miles in 4 hours, so I knew I had made it - and, of course, slowed way down. On the final ridge, spring arrived. The first flowers I'd seen all year bloomed there and they hadn't been there a lap earlier; I had actually watched flowers bloom, I was so slow. A bird of prey caught a thermal along the ridge and flew within 4 feet of me, but I didn't bother to look to see what kind it was - look up and I might fall down (and down is a long, long way there) - Valeria LaRosa-Shuster and her pacers, Helen Lavin and John Storkamp passed me on this last ridge and John, patting me on the back, said, "Steve, only .000001% of all people could run 100 miles on this course."

I always knew I could. The point is, I did.

31 hours, 23 minutes. 11th place (last) of 18 starters.


Andrew said...

Congratulations, well done.

Don't forget recovery.

brothergrub said...

Gutsy run! I only paced for 54 miles of it and my feet feel like they have been tenderized with a ball-peen hammer...no blisters ... just bleeding from the inside...

Are you still running Trail Mix?!??!

Julie B said...

Yes, you did it! Congratulations Steve. I'm SO glad you finished your first 100..and you must not have broken anything? Wonderful, just wonderful!!

Adam said...

Nice work. Congratulations.

Zach said...

Awesome Steve, great report! It's really interesting to get other people's takes on what different sections were like. Now if I'd just wake up enough to write my report :)

It was really great to crack the 100 mile distance with you after having done so many training runs together over the past 2 years.

Matthew Patten said...

No apologies needed!

You were mildly chipper the first time I saw you around 12:30am.

I refrained from telling you to drop your pants the final time we crossed paths.

I think I said "he would think that was funny 3-4 days from now, but not right now".

Yeah, it got damn cold!

Not sure if I ever want to do that 100

Well earned

Find a way to recover

Helen said...

Congrats Steve! No question that was a tough course to crack 100 on.

nwgdc said...

I can't imagine the feeling of knowing you're going to finish but still having to dig out 2.7 miles on that terrain. I'm guessing that euphoric probably fits in to the equation somewhere.

Great run! Congrats! Now just be careful--we can't have you tripping over something due to fatigued legs and Colles or Smiths Fracturing yourself.

Anonymous said...

Well done Steve! Fantastic job of sticking it out and committing to the finish on a challenging course!

There is no question that you are now one of those who have finished a 100 that understands the mental commitment that ultimately rides over everythings else that is required just to finish one of these damn things. And in the end what a hell of a process it was. I think of the experience like the life of a lunar moth. An eternity of emotions and experiences wrapped into on day.

Recover well and a job well done. Hopefully Larry incorporates the trails of the western trail section next year. Those look interesting.

Jean said...

Steve, what an accomplishment! I am very happy for you, and I can't imagine what an adventure that must have been. My sincere congratulations to you! Rest and recover well.

Binza said...

Great job. Well done.

Beth said...

Wow, congratulations. Truely an inspiration to people like me who can barely cross the 26.2 finish line on nice paved sidewalks and roads. Take care of yourself so that you are ready for your next adventure!

Kel said...

Great job Steve! I knew I wouldn't need to prod you with flag sticks ;)

That Ant Hill must have been a doozy in the dark!

Mitch R. said...

Great job, Steve!

Mike W. said...

Congratulations, well done, great race report, now you can relax and savor your accomplishment.

Londell said...

Great report and great job... And you were not grumpy to me... You were being kind after the hell I know you went through! I thought you may have been toast but you dug deep and did it!!! Outstanding...

Just think, do you recall saying to me as I asked a second time during our run when you missed a turn... you said "This is a first for me, I was leading the race and now I will be in last place"... I reminded you last place was already taken by another leader, Nolan Ming...

I am just amazed as you look so worn... but you pulled it out!

Carl Gammon said...


Congratulations on a wonderful race. Great job!

I've been waiting anxiously for your report, so thanks also for so vividly taking me along. I have a few random comments I thought of while reading it:

I loved your "stylus in a vinyl groove" metaphor, but wondered if it was lost on the CD and iPod generation.

I laughed at the "growler in the woods" and thought, "What, no dueling banjos?"

I can personally relate to the ultra math problem. I spent great amounts of mental energy calculating that I couldn't finish in time at Rocky, when I actually had hours to spare.

Fast Bastard - World's Fastest Hematologist said...

Nice report and congratulations!

Diane said...

Great job!

Steve said...

Congratulations again, Steve. It wasn't pretty, but you got the job done and the monkey off your back.

Wayne said...

Congratulations, Steve! What a way to start out the year.

sea legs girl said...

Congrats! We were eagerly awaiting your report. And what a small world... Tim Roe is SR's ex-wife's brother. Crazy.

Anyway, what an accomplishment.

keith said...


STEVE! Nice job, man! Congratulations for finishing your first 100!!

See you on Brickyard Hill!

SteveQ said...

Thanks for the kudos, guys.

I've learned that the turkeys I heard at night were actually ruffed grouse.

Yes, Kevin, I'm doing Trail Mix (but no repeat win this year!)

Hi Doctor Nic! I could've used a chiropractor during the race; I have got to develop better posture.

Welcome to the non-lurkers, Chris!

Carl, I thought about the aged reference of vinyl, but it's making a comeback. Someday I hope to glide over the grooves like a laser over a CD.

Oh, and Keith: Your shoes finished a 100 Miler before you did! Now they have to be retired.

Olga said...

Loved the report. Very emotional. From the heart. You did, indeed...

johnmaas said...

I'm really proud of you.
Congratulations on your first 100 finish! (and on what sounds like a killer course)
You ran smart and that led to staying upright for the most part!
Great report and description of the course at Zumbro.