Here is my Zumbro 50 Mile Story
We start at Midnight… ok?
What an unusual thing to do. I could not figure out how to manage that start time. I thought of sleep in the day. That wasn’t happening. I thought I would just sleep on the way there for a couple of hours as my brother drove. That did not happen. We got there at 10. I thought I would sleep until 11:15, check in, then race. That didn’t happen either.
Instead, I had a hugely impactful meeting at 7:30 Friday morning, which went great, followed by a scheduling meeting at 9. Then, I was busy cancelling all the cards that were in my “stolen/lost” wallet along with a trip to the DMV to get a new Driver’s License (As I found out later, my wallet was sitting under my TC Running hat the whole time). Those were all successful trips and by 1pm, it was time to tie up a few loose ends with work, follow up emails, scheduling things, etc.
Events like these are what keep me motivated to move. I enjoy the discipline and balance it takes to train for ultra-events, be present at home and run my business. I belong to a very unique community that I knew when I first met, were my people and I would forever be linked to the ultra-energy. I didn't get to enjoy that environment as much as I'd have liked at this event but Superior will be different in that way.
I started by laying out all of my gear I might need on Saturday, Friday afternoon.
I’m working to create my own special recipe for endurance balls so I was excited to try them out at Zumbro. For the record, that’s all I ate and I felt great the whole race. I will likely tweak them a bit, but I’m getting there. In fact, until 30 miles in, I didn't have any electrolyte drink either.
Gear packed, I read some stories and played some puzzles with my “big girl” (she’s 3). At a little after 5 it was time to take a nap. See what I mean? I’m usually in bed by 10 and this thing wasn't going to start until midnight. Strange…
At 7, Jesse showed up. After he exchanged, “look at this” from all my kids and Elli melted down at the thought of me leaving for the night, it was time to head to Theilman, MN. Theilman is just North of Lake City and is the staging area and start/finish area for the Zumbro Trail Races.
We got there a little before 10 and I tried to nap. It didn’t go so well. I must have been so energized by the group and the ensuing opportunity; I laid there for 30 minutes but didn’t get a wink of sleep. At 10:45, I climbed out of the van and went to check in for the midnight start 50 mile footrace in the Zumbro River Bottoms.
After figuring out what to wear, I got dressed and headed to the start. The temperature was 50 degrees and it was supposed to reach 66 later on Saturday. There was a pretty good chance of rain but not until later so I didn’t bring my rain jacket. I wouldn’t need it on the first lap.
I started the race wearing a sweatshirt which I soon tied around my waist. It was a beautiful night, getting cloudy, but no rain… yet.
Lap 1 was pretty uneventful. Jesse and I worked an aid station last year; aid station 2/3. We knew the section between them was tricky after hearing all the stories from 2013. The sand got to me a bit. It was very fine and made its way into my shoes. I knew I would be changing shoes and socks at the turn 16+ miles in. Lap 1 was all in the dark and I did not change out my headlamp batteries before the race started so I don’t think I was working with a fresh set. I realized that when I changed them out for lap 2 and I could see quite a bit better.
Lap 2 started great. I grabbed a fresh bag of endurance balls, filled up my electrolyte bladder, filled up the Salomon bladder, and off I went. The sun still had not come up yet and it was around 4:30 when I left for lap 2. Since this was my first event at this course I did not know what to expect heading into lap 1. I knew what I was in for now setting out for my second lap. There were 3 or 4 big hills total for each lap with some road section, the sand I mentioned earlier, and some technical downhill sections that would be very slick if/when wet. This paragraph has covered the first 2/3 of lap 2. Now I’ll start the real story of Zumbro for me and many others like me. I still don’t have much to say because I’ve been somewhat traumatized by the experience.
The third 3rd of the second lap of the Zumbro midnight start 50 mile went something like this. It rained on the second 3rd to begin with which was kind of nice because then the sand between aid 2 and three wasn’t quite so fine. It didn’t get into my shoes as much as it did on the first lap.
That being said, the trail was beginning to become slick, but still manageable largely in part to the Salomon S-lab ultra SG shoes I had purchased from TC Running Company a few weeks prior. It would have been a much different experience without the proper footwear. Thank you guys! The rocks and roots were slippery so foot placement was a key to staying upright. I witnessed a few folks that were not able.
Once the rain stopped it was very peaceful. With the first bit of rain the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. It began to get chilly. I was glad that I had put on my rain coat at the turn so I wasn’t wet and had that layer to help with the chilly breeze that hit us just after aid station 3. We had 6 miles to go and started up the hill to a ridge that would take us down a technical section "Ant Hill" to a road and into aid station 4. From there we would head up a hill a ways and then work our way back down another stretch of road to the West Assembly Area where we would have access to aid before starting lap 3.
As soon as we got to the top of the hill and onto the ridge where we could feel the building wind we began to hear thunder in the distance. There was really no lightning in the area… yet.
The darkness had lifted a little after 6 so we could see the trail a bit better. I was with a young man of 19 years old. I never got his name but enjoyed his company. He actually left aid station 3 a few seconds before me and once he reached the top of the ridge, I didn’t see him again until I had to help him switch out his race number to his new shirt because he couldn’t move his fingers enough to do it himself. He finished.
Once I got to the top of the ridge coming out of aid station 3 it began to rain again. This is the time when I started to hear the thunder. It got louder and soon I began to see lightning too. The lightning was a ways off yet because the sound of the thunder was so much after the lightning. The rain started falling harder. “Big old fat rain” as Forrest Gump would call it. The wind really didn’t blow too hard (that I remember), which is probably why the lightning storm lasted so long. Pretty soon the thunder was one with the lightning and it was frightening to be on the trail. The rain was heavy and the lightning was real enough that I was moving my head with each strike hoping to avoid being hit.
We were on a road that took us to a bridge that took us across a river that took us to aid station 4. The rain was heavy. So heavy, we needed to yell to talk to people right next to us. We were out there in the middle of an all-out thunder and lightning and rain storm. It was somewhat terrifying. There was only one thing to do… keep going.
After needing directions on which trail to take, the ham radio operators pointed me in the right direction and off I went. To say the least, I was very uncomfortable. Now, the trails that started pretty dry, got a little slick with the first rain, were 2 inch puddles everywhere by now. There was literally nowhere to go without being in the water. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and I had on a raincoat. Everyone I saw out there was in short sleeves and shorts. How they stayed on their feet is beyond me. I guess there weren’t too many options in the middle of the woods.
I think the “trails” we were running on were actually drainage ditches from the top of the hills to the “river bottoms” because the water was draining rapidly down the “trails”.
As I was searching for a log that would fit over my head to protect myself from the hail that had begun to fall, another human approached me from behind. We both commented how we were previously trying to avoid the puddles but soon realized it was a futile attempt so we splashed our way down the hill. What a mess. There have been a few experiences where these things have gotten dangerous. This was one of them. The water was ice cold on my feet, my hands were numb and even my rain coat was starting to leak at the seams. I knew I was getting close to the assembly area where I would have a decision to make about whether to call it a day or continue on.
I decided I would be done for the day once I reached the finish line. I would not continue on my third loop. That’s what I did. I have no regrets. There is no doubt that I could have gone the final 16+ miles, but on this day, 34 were enough. Each event is known for something. Zumbro is quickly getting a reputation for weather. It’s an early race for this climate and I learned a couple of days ago, if you are going to compete at Zumbro, you’d better be prepared for anything.
I don’t know if Zumbro will make it on my list for next year, but if it does, I’ll be more ready than ever. Here's a video from my Sunday 5 miler.
This video ends with a little taste of the emotion associated with the 2014 Zumbro 50 Mile amazingly put on by my friend, John Storkamp and Rocksteady Running. They were out there through it all and made sure everyone was safe and able to continue if they chose to.
See you at Superior!
Jon Howard - Husband and Father of 3 | Ultra Endurance Athlete | Owner - Training Edge Sports