Friday, June 2, 2017

Western States Tourist: The 2017 Western States training camp report

Executive summary

This is a long report, because I ran a long way -- 63 miles in 3 days. Western States training camp is an awesome way to see the course in a low-pressure, fun, manageable way, and I loved everything about it. Get a cold beer and settle in for a long rambling story. (But don't worry, there are pictures!)
Living the dream!


Training for training

The Western States training camp sounded too good to be true: 70 miles on the Western States 100 course over the three days of Memorial Day weekend, with aid stations and shuttles, for $140? Anyone could sign up, whether running the race or not? It sounded like a relaxed, fun way to see a renowned course that I might never see as a runner. Friends had done it in past years and loved it. I cleared my schedule for the last weekend of May, and when registration opened in December, I signed up. 

Although the weekend only covers part of the 100 mile Western States course, I knew the mileage I'd run would be big for me. With guidance from my awesome coach David, I've steadily built mileage over the last 9 months or so, almost injury-free. But even so, my greatest weekly mileage to date was 51 miles. This spring, if you asked me what I was training for, I told you, "I'm training for Western States training camp."

After a good run at Chippewa Moraine 50k and a week's recovery, we planned a week of big miles capped off with back-to-back 20-milers, followed by a short taper. I also sauna trained, for up to 30 min twice a week. Things went off the rails midway through the big week with a calf pull after long hill repeats, evolving into a weird peroneus brevis/flexor digitorum problem that pretty much kept me off the roads and trails for a week. But by the Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend things seemed better and I managed a series of cautious but increasingly confident weekday runs before leaving for Sacramento Friday morning. I hadn't done all the training I wanted, but I was feeling healthy, hopeful, and eager to get on the trails. My goal: "See as much of the course as possible without messing anything up."


Day 1: Robinson Flat to Foresthill


Not a normal year

I reached Auburn Friday afternoon with two bags full of running gear and recovery tools, and filled the motel fridge with four days' supply of good food. An early bedtime and an early wake-up later, and I was on my way to Foresthill, the base of operations for the first two days. 

The morning was clear and sunny as I drove up the wide, climbing Foresthill Road. Temperatures were forecast to begin in the low 40 and climb to near 80; the following days would be warmer, but dry and crisp. It was easy to spot the start area at Foresthill Elementary School; hundreds of trail runners were sorting gear at their cars or making their way along the road to the school. 

The vibe was different from a race: a little more relaxed, though still focused. I saw my Minnesota friends Holly and Scott there (Holly is running Western States this year), as well as Janet and Mike (Janet's running it too). Maria and Doug had come as well. I checked in, ate a banana, visited a little. 
Janet and I at the start!
15 minutes before the shuttle buses were to leave, race director Craig Thornley began his briefing. "This is not a normal year," he started. "Which is good!" The extraordinarily wet winter had left snow at the higher elevations on the course. The road was covered with snow beginning 4 miles below the usual start at Robinson Flat (6800' elevation). We'd start the day by running those 4 miles up to Robinson Flat, then take a shortcut around a damaged section of trail just after it. In total, it would add about 2.5 miles to the days run, bringing it to 34 or so, the first 7-8 miles of which would be snowy. 

After a few more instructions about logistics and some Western States trivia, we boarded four school buses and began the winding, climbing drive up to our starting point.
Out where the buses don't run

Snowfields and sunshine

After a 45 minute drive past fire-scarred pine forests and steadily up and up, the buses came to a halt just before a long stretch of snow covered the road. We piled out and, after a bit of leg-stretching and picture-taking, began following the pink flags as they marked the way up the road. 
On our way at last!
We climbed steadily, partly on packed or softening snow, partly on bare road, occasionally climbing over or detouring around a downed pine. A few speedy runners passed me, but most of the group was content to hike the uphill road, running the occasional downhill section. I chatted with Janet, her friends Hallie and Desi, Brian who was training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and others. The air was still cool, but the sun was strong and I was soon comfortable in a tank top and shorts. 

At Robinson Flat, the snow was deep...
Bathrooms were open, though!
...and we veered off the road across it, following a trail detour that eventually brought us out to a forest service road. Here, we began a steady gentle downhill and snowbanks alternated with running streams of meltwater on the gravel road. It was easy to jump over the little streams and keep feet dry. I knew the day held a LOT of downhill running and the next day did too, so I ran as lightly and smoothly as I could, focusing on running economy rather than speed.

After the first 3-4 miles past Robinson Flat, the snow ended and we followed a sharp (but well marked) turn onto the official Western States course. Occasional brown trail markers joined the pink flags to show the way. I had a talk with Mike from Alabama, who had run Western States ten years ago, and with a few other people. The woods smelled piney and dusty. The sun continued to warm up. It felt great to be out in such a different, beautiful place.
Passed a few of these signs!
The training run had fully stocked aid stations, but fewer than during the race. The first was about 11 miles into the run, at Dusty Corners. I got there in about 3 hours and took my time, filling up my pack (the 2L bladder was getting pretty low), putting on more sunblock, emptying trash, thanking the volunteers -- many of whom will be back in a few weeks for Western States.


Descent and climb through the canyons

Not long after the first aid station, we began descending into the first of the famous "canyons" -- down to Deadwood Creek. It was steeply switchbacked singletrack that went down, down, down. I had caught up to Mike and I ran this section with him. We had a good time moving down through the shady green trails, pausing to marvel at the noisy little streams and the giant tree trunks that crossed the trail.
Me and a big tree. I'm such a tourist.
"You know what the first rule of running is?" he said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"What goes down what goes up."
It struck me as a bit pessimistic, especially on a point-to-point run.
"You know what my first rule is?" I replied. "Run the mile you're in." (After all, it's hard to run anything else!)

At the bottom of the canyon, the swinging bridge crosses the creek. It's cool and noisy and beautiful and would be a great place to stop and spend an hour.
Ahhhhh.
The view downstream
I didn't stop, though, but immediately started the steepest climb of the run, the 2-mile switchbacked climb out to Devil's Thumb. Here, I left Mike behind and found a slow, steady rhythm. The first two-thirds of the 40 minute ascent were in the shade and I enjoyed listening to the fading sound of the river and in gauging my progress upward by how far down I could look. I passed a few runners, and a few passed me, but mostly I had the trail to myself.

The last section climbed out of the valley and found an area of direct sunlight. It was hot, but very beautiful.
Up up up!
When I finally reached the top, in a little grove of pine trees, I let out a whoop. I'd done one of the two big climbs and felt pretty good! I was jubilant as I ran into Devil's Thumb aid station shortly afterwards, now 20 or so miles into the day. They had watermelon! And ice! And one of the volunteers dipped into his personal stash of sunblock! Happiness, joy, and only 8 miles to Michigan Bluff.

Down to Eldorado Creek was much less steep, and a peaceful solitary run. I met a couple backpackers on their way up who shared their trail mix -- delicious after eating mostly gels! This time, when I reached the creek at the bottom, I stopped, took off my shoes, and put my feet in the ice-cold water for a few minutes. Wow! That felt really good.
The view from the bridge. I joined them. Definitely the right call!
 The climb up to Michigan Bluff was longer, but nowhere near as steep as up Devil's Thumb. I once again found my pace and went steadily up, eating and drinking as I had been all day.

The Michigan Bluff aid station had the vibe of a block party, with as many visiting neighbors as volunteers. Every runner was greeted with a hearty "Welcome to Michigan Bluff!" I joked around with a few of the great volunteers there as I again filled my pack and hat with ice water and my mouth with watermelon and salty potatoes. Many of them had run Western States themselves a time or three, and most volunteered at the aid station year after year. What a great organization!

"Need anything?" a helpful volunteer asked.
"Ice in my pack, please.... that's enough, thanks!"
"More ice anywhere else?"
"Aw, I bet you say that to all the runners," I told him.
"Yeah, but it isn't working!"
"Maybe you should try a different pick-up line."

I couldn't stay any longer; it was time to go on. "Only 10k more!" they told me, and I headed off, now in the midafternoon sun. Down the road, up the road, and suddenly I was descending steeply on singletrack again. Another canyon? Sure enough, I was on the way down to Volcano Creek.
No bridge here, just a few ropes to hang onto while fording the knee-deep water. "WOOOO I LOVE THIS SPORT!" I yelled as the cold water shocked my feet and legs. "We get to play in the water! And eat snacks! How awesome is this?!"

Refreshed and energized, the steep climb back out of the canyon felt easy and do-able. Once I hit the road, I knew I was close to Foresthill... though the climb up Bath Road was longer than I expected. But at last, I was on the road, I was running... and then I was back where I'd started that morning, after nine and a half hours and 34 miles of running. Grinning, still, from ear to ear.

Interlude: The most joy

I drove back to Auburn, walked a little creakily up to my motel room, and texted my coach:
(beer + no bottle opener = sad)
Then, the important question of the evening. Being David, he gave the right answer: 

Wow, I thought. The most joy? Well, I'd had an amazing time running. I wasn't tired of running yet. I wanted to see the course, and heck, the next day was "only" 18 miles. If all felt good in the morning, I wanted to run.

Day 2: Foresthill to Rucky Chucky

I awoke feeling a little stiff but overall pretty good. Running sounded like a great idea, and today's itinerary promised to take us on the "Cal Street section" of the course, all the way down to the American River crossing, which seemed like it was going to be pretty great. I headed off to Foresthill again.

The crowd was smaller today, though still with a few hundred runners. After a pre-run briefing that covered bus logistics (today we'd run from Foresthill and buses would return us afterwards), Western States trivia questions, and a warning not to swim in the American River, which was very high right now, we started off down Foresthill Road.

We turned onto Cal Street and soon we were on double- and singletrack trail again, descending gently, then steeply, through shady wooded groves and across little lively streams. About a mile into the run, as different paces were still shaking out on the trail, a voice behind me said, "Excuse me," and a shirtless runner flew past me, moving with inhuman speed and grace down the steep slope. I -- and everyone else on the course -- had just enjoyed a Jim Walmsley fly-by.

I'd been a bit concerned about the downhill running I would do today, after yesterday's descents into canyons, but even though the course ended 3000 feet below Foresthill, I felt my quads loosen up as I ran, and it all seemed okay. The morning air was cool, though the sunlight held a promise that things would heat up, and I enjoyed the wildflowers, the madrona trees, and even an impromptu lesson from another runner on how to identify poison oak. I ran a bit with Mike-from-Alabama again, and talked a bit with other runners, but also enjoyed long stretched of peaceful solitary running. Before I knew it, I was at the first aid station of the morning (Cal-2), and we were almost halfway through the day's running.

As the trail continued to descend, we came within earshot and then sight of the beautiful, green American River at last.
Views like this for most of the day!
Along this stretch, I meet up with Mona and Julie, who proved to be amazing company for the rest of the day.
Mona (left) and Julie (right), photo credit Mona Gutierrez
They were hilariously entertaining, accomplished runners and struck a great balance between moving efficiently down the trail and stopping to enjoy every shady scenic overlook and cold stream along the way. They shared my philosophy that it wasn't a race, so as long as we were ahead of the sweeps (and we were, by an hour), why not have fun along the way?

At last the trail stopped descending. We'd reached the river! Trails that had been dusty and occasionally rocky now became sandy. The shade gave way to bright unbroken sunlight and the air was warm.
Sandy riverbank trails
When we got to a creek crossing not far from Rucky Chucky, Mona and I were at last ready to join Julie, who'd been plunging into streams all along the way. The water was everything I'd hoped for -- an ice cold shock to my legs and core.
So good! Photo credit: Julie Melendez
We reached Rucky Chucky a little under five hours after starting. The Western States course crosses the river here; most years it's fordable but this year it'll be on rafts because the river is high. For the training run, after stopping at another well-stocked and friendly aid station (I heard Stephanie Howe was volunteering at it, but I didn't recognize her) and loading up on ice in my hat, bandana, and pack, we climbed the 2-mile, steep, dusty, exposed dirt road to the Driver's Flat staging area, where the shuttle buses would pick us up. In the meantime, the organizers had a pretty excellent finish-line oasis set up: a grill with burgers and hot dogs, massages from Monsters of Massage (AWESOME!), music, and a shady place to sit and tell stories. It was a great way to end another incredible day of running. 

Day 3: Finish line out-and-back

What would bring me the most joy? I asked myself Sunday night. After 52 miles of running in two days, I still felt pretty good. Certainly my downhill muscles were stiff, but nothing felt injured. I'd been eating, sleeping, and recovering like it was my job. I was definitely up for some more running. On the other hand, the run on tap for the training weekend was Green Gate to the finish, 20+ miles, and I didn't feel like I needed that much running. I also wanted to run earlier in the day than the scheduled run (which didn't start till nearly 9:30), to avoid the worse of the heat. I decided I'd start at the finish line, and run out-and-back, probably for a total of 8-12 miles, depending on how things felt.

The Western States finish is at the Placer High School track in Auburn. I arrived Monday morning just as the training run organizers were opening for business. I said hello to a few friends, did a little stretching, and headed out through town, looking for pink flags as I went.

After a small amount of random-walking, I found my way to Robie Point and the trail, and went downhill towards No Hands Bridge. 
First view of the river!
As I descended, I enjoyed the coolness of the morning and saying hello to passing runners. The trail passes a beautiful little waterfall... 
Good place to cool off!
... and soon comes to No Hands Bridge, with insane views off both sides. 
Upstream; the line at the top is Foresthill Bridge
I was having lots of fun so I kept going, starting the climb up from No Hands Bridge toward Cool. It's a long, steady stretch of mostly doubletrack trail and there were plenty of runners and walker out enjoying the morning. I decided I'd turn around after an hour and a half -- I didn't have anything to prove and wanted to keep my mileage more sane today.

At the 90 minute mark I still felt good, but going back seemed like a fine plan too. I turned and started descending back to the river. I took my first and only fall of the weekend along here, bloodying my shoulder, elbow, knees, and hands, to the horror of passing runners and hikers. But it seemed pretty minor and I washed up in a creek, then more thoroughly at the No Hands aid station.  
My view on the way back
The climb from the bridge back up to Robie Point was steep but I knew I was near the end, and the day was still cool. It was fun to come up the road and see the mile 99 sign: 
Yay!
... and to see red footprints painted on the road, leading back to the stadium. I crested the hill and jogged gently down to the stadium as my Strava told me I'd gone 11 miles, a little sad to be done running, but overpoweringly happy to have had such an incredible weekend.

Final thoughts

I don't know whether I'll ever run Western States. Heck, I'm not sure I'll ever run at 100 miler. But I'm still riding the high from this weekend and I don't know when I'll come down from it. Being a "tourist" on the course was, for me, truly living the dream.

When I fell on Monday, I told concerned runners not to worry, I now had the Western States 100 in my blood. I was joking, but I do feel like this weekend unlocked something new in me. The knowledge that I can exceed my own expectations and my own previous limits. The confidence that I can train for things that are hard and show up ready to take them on. The elation of living in a body that can become something new through patient, transformative work. And the embrace of an accepting, encouraging community.

I wonder what else I can do?
Ready for great things!

Monday, May 1, 2017

The PRs We Choose: Chippewa Moraine 50K Race Report

Executive summary:

My first 50K of the year in 6:51, my third-fastest time. The weather was perfect and the trails were too. I ran an almost perfectly even split and felt good the whole way. I set a PR for cheering on other runners, volunteers, random hikers, and dogs. Smiled my face off, yelled WOOHOO, airplaned a downhill, told stories about parasitic worms to everyone in earshot, and had a ridiculous amount of fun the whole way.
New training goal: Spend more time feeling like this.
(photo: Mike Wheeler)

How I got there

This was my first 50K race in almost a year; my last one was Spring Superior. In the intervening 11 months, I'd started training by heart rate (in August), which seems to have kicked my lingering left peroneal/knee problem (along with diligent foam rolling and taping), and made my "slow easy" pace considerably faster.

With guidance from running/life coach David, I was steadily able to add more mileage, and more miles beget more miles, until my mileage in the first 4 months of 2017 (689) was almost double that of 2016 (389). I'd covered marathon-plus distances in three events (pacing at FANS, Grand Traverse, and 36 miles at Icebox 480), set official and unofficial PRs at the 10K and an unofficial PR on the Afton loop, and done more, and harder, and for longer, than I'd been capable of a year ago.

I still didn't really know what to expect on race day. My longest training run this cycle had been 19 leisurely miles at Afton, at the post-Zumbro Pie Run, but on the other hand, I had more miles on my legs than ever before, and I felt ready to race.

On Wednesday of race week, in an email detailing nutrition and hydration minutiae, David ended up with these words:
Thank every single volunteer and encourage every other runner. Positivity is a performance enhancer. I want people to come up to you after and thank you for being so great on the course. This is one of the main SWAP rules... Fuel well, run the downhills with purpose, and smile your fucking cheeks off. You guys are amazing!"
I tend to run pretty happy anyway, but I took it as a challenge. No matter how the running went, I was going to do my best to PR in positivity in this race.

Sunshine and breeze

I got up stupid early on race day, had an omelet (2 eggs, Brussels sprouts, don't kick, it works for me) and coffee. Since race start would be 3 hours after breakfast, I packed an almond-butter apple and a hard-boiled egg and ate them on the drive, with a second cup of coffee. This worked out well. I headed two hours down the road to New Auburn, WI, enjoying an incredible sunrise. 
Worth the crazy wake-up call!
The Chippewa course is an out-and-back on the Ice Age Trail, and starts at an interpretive center set up on a hill. The morning was brisk, so it was nice to have some indoor space at the pickup.

Kari was running, Erik was cheering
Stephanie and Travis were there in the infamous pink van!
I got to run with Jenny!
There was plenty of time to pick up my shirt and bib, wander around seeing friends, and conclude that I'd be OK without my buff and gloves, which I had forgotten.

With 10 minutes to go, we started to line up...
Not very organized, yet
Dave and Janet
Starting-line picture with Janet!
The sun was shining and the temperature was in the low 40's by the time race director Jeff gave a few instructions (follow the pink flags, thank the volunteers), and we were off, down the big hill.

Start to turnaround: Finding my place

It felt great to be running with almost 200 friends, down the hill and across the grass for a mile before we got to the woods. Unsure of the course or my fitness, I'd decided to aim for 3:30 to the turnaroud, a negative split, and a sub-7 hour finish, if possible. My goal for the first section was to stay comfortable.

The course reminded me a lot of Lebanon Hills -- small but continuous hills pushed up by the advancing glacier, which left behind little wooded lakes as it retreated. We climbed and descended gentle hills on leafy trails with an occasional rock or root to keep your attention.

Airplane at mile 2!
(photo: Chase Nowak)

I wanted to run comfortable at least to the turnaround, so periodically I'd back off my speed and let the people ahead of me go. In this way, Jenny Marietta and her friend Taylor eventually caught up to me and we stuck together for the rest of the way outbound. 

Several little plank bridge crossings like
this one -- a little scary and lots of fun!
The trail wound past lakes, beaver dams, and Jenny stopped me to point out a wetlands with three tall trees containing big messy nests. Bald eagles? Maybe so.

We passed backpackers who graciously stepped aside for us. "WOOHOO backpackers! Thank you!"

We passed a hiker with a dog that patiently sat. "That's a good dog!" ("Sometimes," the hiker smiled.)

We reached the mile 9.5 aid station just after the 2 hour mark. I'd breezed through the mile 3.5 aid station stopping only to pound blue Gatorade and effusively thank the volunteers, but now it was time for a water refill and to grab some snacks. Bob Marsh, Janet and Mike Hausken, and the other awesome volunteers helped me out, then kicked me out as I kept thinking of things I'd forgotten, like throwing out my trash.

Jenny, Taylor and I continued up the trail to the turnaround, talking about her "surprise" going-away/birthday party, our kids and their doings, friends and trails we knew. The temperature climbed into the low 50's and I pulled off my arm sleeves. A steady breeze kept things cool and ruffle the water on the lakes. Everything felt easy and fun.

We joked about "fake running." This was something I'd invented at Icebox last November. I'd dragged Jenny and Jon Matthiae out on a fifth loop (miles 28-35) by promising, "We're not running. We're fake running!" By running verrrrry slow and easy (fake running!), we'd gotten it done in good style. Plus, it cracked us up to say "fake running." Still does!

Runners ahead of us began coming back, first one by one and, as we neared the turnaround, more and more. We yelled and cheered for everyone, told the first five women their rank and splits, stopped to hug a few. I regretted not bringing along a cowbell. As always, out-and-backs are the best for seeing everyone in the race. Not far from the turnaround, we passed Kevin Chem. "I'm too old for this shit," he told me, grinning anyway.

Turnaround to finish: Taking care of business

My goal was to hit the turnaround at 3:30, and we ran in right around 3:20, still feeling great. I was really happy, and excited about turning around and running back home.
Awesome AS volunteer went beyond the call of
duty by taking a picture of me. Thank you!
After a five minute stop to move nutrition into the front of my pack (Larabars, Clif organic food, Shot Bloks, and a few Gu and Roctanes), I took off again, this time with Taylor and Ross Jilk. Jenny stayed behind to run in with her cousin, doing his first 50K.

The three of us set a comfortable pace and had a merry time of it for the better part of an hour, picking up a few more runners in our train. I told stories about parasitic worms (don't know why it was on my mind, but fun to talk about). Ross told us about his work in plant biochemistry, and Taylor told us about textile design. It was fun and relaxing. We hiked the hills, ran the flats, and moved along.

A bit before the mile 9.5/21.5 aid station, Ross began to drop back a bit. "Too much biking, not enough running," he explained. Taylor and I pulled ahead and ran into the next aid station together.
Finish line selfie with Taylor!
She'd spotted a tick on my calf a mile or two out, so I was of course imagining I had them everywhere. When we got to the aid station, I asked Bob to check my legs for more ticks. Thankfully, he found none. Thank you, Bob! We grabbed a few snacks and went on.

The next section had a bit of breezy cool road, then a run through an open, meadow-like area. The sun was overhead and I was glad I'd brought my sunglasses. The humidity was low and the breeze felt energizing. We both still felt good and moved well.

Back across another plank bridge!
As the trail to the final aid station wound on, conversation faltered. We were still moving well, but for me, it helped to focus on keeping that forward movement going. We passed lots of people on our return trip, probably 15 or more. All were still looking strong, and afterwards, a few told us they'd picked up their pace as we passed. It was good to feel progress on the long trail.

We went down another decline, and started walking up another hill. "We're taking care of business," I said. Taylor agreed. "We're doing pretty well!"

The first/last 5 miles had mile marker signs, and I whooped when I spotted the first of them. "Only five more miles?" exclaimed Taylor. "Yes!" I exclaimed. I guessed we had only a little more than an hour to go.

Just before the final aid station, we passed Kevin Chem, who was power-hiking but looked strong, then Kari Gibbons, who was working out a cramp. They both caught up to us at the aid station as we attacked the delicious orange slices (me) and pickles (Taylor), and finished close behind us.
This may be the last time it ever happens
Out of the final aid station and through terrain neither of us remembered well. "I remember this hill, but I didn't think it was this long," I said, more than once. But we were still running! The mile markers slowly counted down. 3.... 2... then we were on the grass and could see the visitors' center up on the hill... 1...

We ran, and ran, and I kept waiting for the final big climb. (I wanted to have an excuse to stop running and walk! I'd been running a long time!) Taylor pulled ahead a bit as I started walking too early. Finally, after a false climb and little descent, it was unmistakeably there.

Power hike up the big grassy hill, past the "NO WALK HILL" and "EMPTY THE TANK" signs, and at the top, the flag-lined 100 yard run to the finish. The clock ticked to 6:51 and change as I crossed the mat, grinning and cheering like a little kid.
... and we're back where we started!

The PRs We Choose

I set out to set a PR for positivity and joy in running on Saturday. And really, it was a pretty easy PR to set. After all, the weather was perfect, the trails were beautiful, and I felt pretty good the whole way, enjoying the company of new and old friends. But the act of consciously choosing to be joyful and to embrace the run with all it brought changed how I experienced it, and made it greater than it would have been without that "race plan."

I reached my sub-7 hour goal, my "beat the women's median time" goal, and got decently close to my "beat the overall median time" goal. I set a benchmark for my fitness this season. And I figured out something about setting process oriented goals and making this run and every run worth celebrating.

A little while after I got in, Janet finished her fourth Chippewa 50K. She checked her phone messages, hoping to see her son's prom photos. Instead, it was full of photos of her brand-new, first grandson, born that morning right as we started the race. Her face lit up with joy as we gasped and yelled and hugged.
NEWLY MINTED GRANDMA!
(photo: David Shannon)
A fast race is nice. But some race day events stay with us forever!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Unstuck in Time: 2017 Zumbro Volunteer Report

Back to Zumbro

For the fifth year in a row, I spent an April weekend at the Zumbro 17/50/100 Mile Endurance Run. It's the site of a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my very first "big" trail race, back in 2013 (when I broke my elbow at mile 2), my first 50 mile attempt (and DNF) in 2014, my first encounter with a 100 mile race. It's been a place of struggle, and beauty, and wonder, and accomplishment. It's also an annual trail family reunion, the first time in 6 months that many of us come together to celebrate a winter of training or recovery, and the year to come.

This year, instead of running Zumbro and Spring Superior, I'm planning Chippewa 50k at the end of April and Western States Training Weekend at the end of May, so I didn't sign up for any of the Zumbro races. I decided instead to volunteer Friday and Saturday, and run the race loop myself on Friday, during the day, when things weren't too busy at the aid station.

Un-Zumbro-Like

After an abnormally warm February and dry March, the weather forecast for race weekend was... warm? sunny? I packed rain gear, merino wool, gloves, and spare shoes anyway, because, well, Zumbro is defined by its wildly unpredictable weather and trail conditions. But in deference to the forecast, I also included a sun hat, sunblock, and sandals. Unlike every other year I've been there, there turned out to be no rain, no snow, and mostly clear blue skies.

I drove down to the start/finish early Friday morning and arrived an hour ahead of the 100 mile start.
I have never seen Rob K without this smile. I'm not sure I'd recognize him!

Bob came down early and ran the 17 the next day.

Alicia and Cheri, radiant and caffeinated
The merch table was jamming!
To our everlasting disappointment, Rob
took off the hat before the race started.


9 of our 11 Gnarly Bandit contenders!
Rob, wondering why everyone else is so overdressed
Susan and Erik, two returning Gnarly Bandits

Radek's first 100 mile start!

Kevin and Wendi, spreading joy
As the sun streamed down in a cloudless sky, John gave some words of guidance from his traditional stepladder, made a few jokes so terrible I won't repeat them here, counted down from five, and the race started. It was a perfect day to run. With runners on their way, I headed out to AS 2/3.

Friday volunteering and running

At AS 2/3, Matt Patten was in charge and the setup was well underway. It was my fourth year volunteering here, and though the cast of characters shifts a bit from year to year, the drill is much the same: mix the HEED, put out the gels, organize the drop bags, figure out what one item didn't make it into the (exceedingly well-organized) bins this year. (It was the salt.)

One big difference from last year and other prior years? No mad rush to light the bonfire or set up the camp stoves for hot food. We'd do all that a bit later, but meanwhile, it was already beginning to warm up in the sunshine.

With the trails unusually dry and lacking in mud, ice, and snow, we expected the first runners through in near-record time, and they didn't disappoint. The 100 mile had 74 starters this year, and after the front-runners came by with barely a pause for more water, or just a wave hello, a steady stream of mid-pack runners came through in ones, twos, and threes. We rang cowbells as they appeared around the bend and came in through a sand coulee, and again as they departed, bound for Picnic Rock. It was fun to see so many familiar faces among the runners, from Doug Kleemeier, who led from wire to wire, to Kevin Langton, who had been injured and was happy to even be on the course, to Allan Holtz, the oldest 100 mile starter and determined to get some great mileage.

By the time the front of the pack wound back around to the AS 3 side of our tent, we had music playing, a fire was burning, and the first wave of snacks was out and ready. I renewed my acquaintance with Brian the HAM radio operator, who's been at AS 2/3 every year for a long time. Matt handed out bags of Peet's coffee as a thank-you gift to the volunteers. We broke open the box of race T-shirts, this year an alarming shade of pink.

Once the last of the 100 milers came through AS 3, I changed into my running shoes and headed out for a loop of the course.

It was sunny, breezy, dry, and in the low 50's. The trails were dry and firm. It was a perfect day for a long run.
The sandy parts were... very... sandy, however.
 I plowed through the deep sand coulees, waved at my AS 2/3 compadres, and headed up the ridge.
Is it crazy that this climb and this ridge
are my very favorite parts of the course? 
I never get tired of the view from the top!


 It was a smooth run along the ridge, and before I knew it, I was at the rocky, steep Ant Hill descent.
When you hit this only 5 miles into your run, you can actually run it! Fun!
I'd been running alone for an hour now. (I only saw two runners the whole time I was out.) As I came down Ant Hill, my mind began to wander back to other times I'd been on this course. Last year, at the bottom of Ant Hill, Mike Madden and Dave Shannon were out hiking and seeing Mike there filled me with joy. Two years ago, Jordan and I had made two slow descents down the rocky slope -- but on the second one, we were celebrating, because all the major climbs were over. Three years ago, a sudden thunderstorm turned it into a river course, and I was as cold and wet as I've ever been.

Remembering these years past, I began to feel a little unstuck in time. My present self and my past selves were all running together, existing now, existing then. I thought about what my future self might be thinking, next year, coming down Ant Hill.

I reached the gravel road.
It went on
and on
and on


 ... but again, not so bad on a perfect spring day early in a run. It seemed like no time before I reached AS 1/4. I spent a little too long there shooting the breeze with Bill Pomerenke and getting my forgotten run nutrition out of my parked car, then headed off to the start/finish.

Turns out, when you take the trail to the start/finish at the midpoint of your 17 mile run, it's much easier than when it's at the end of the loop! I ran easily and steadily, listening to birds and breeze, and spotting early green growth on the forest floor.

Near the turnout to the field, Doug Kleemeier caught up to me at the end of his second loop. Every single time I saw him at Zumbro, he looked happy. He was having an incredible race. I waved him on, and made sure I ran wide of the flags as I came into the start/finish area behind him.

The start/finish had the laid-back vibe of the other aid stations: the race was underway, the music was playing, and people were around, but with the runners spread out, there was plenty of time to talk, laugh, and catch up on the winter's doing. I talked for a while with Lisa and a few others, then looked at my watch and said, "Gotta go!"

Up the hill, take in a view of the camp below, and into the "Hobbit woods."
Ahhhhh
It was my fifth year doing the Zumbro loop, and parts of it are sharp in my memory. Start to AS 1/4 was known territory, and after the initial climb, a fun runnable jaunt. Back through AS 1/4, and I began the longest, final section of my circuit.

It's taken me a long time to learn the rhythm of this section. There are lots of minor features, but no big defining ones. There's a long wooded ATV track, a gentle descent to the river, a U-bend around a field, some crazy steep climbing and a washed-out final descent through the woods back to AS 2/3. Running the decline to the river, I passed Don Clark and Lorien, maker of owl hats. They were walking the loop, and when I paused, they showed me the earliest spring flowers, and little white snails, and tomato-red fungus growing on the bank.
Spring ephemeral
 Again, I had the sensation of being unstuck in time. I'd seen this section in misty sunrise, and the dark of night, and in brilliant sunshine. I'd run it joyfully, walked it painfully, and all my past selves ran alongside me, encouraging me to finish the loop strongly.

As I finally got back to AS 2/3, 4.5 hours after leaving, it took a few minutes to bring myself back to the here and now. But I felt refreshed, renewed, and ready to take on the care and feeding of 100 milers once again.
It was a good thing I was fully right in my mind
the T. rex walked into camp. He'd come all the
way from AS 1/4 in that getup!
 Most runners still looked strong coming through loop 3.
Wendi and Jeremy showing off their
matchy-matchy SHARK ATTACK gaiters!
As director of the Gnarly Bandit Ultra Trail Series this year, I paid close attention to my 11 Gnarly contenders, and was pleased to see that they were all still in the running, and all still looking happy and well. Tina Johnson and Jeff Leuwerke were crushing it up in front; Erik Raivo a crazy, blissful grin every time I saw him; Susan Donnelly was -- as ever -- unstoppable; Allan Holtz was a steady presence.

A few runners were struggling. After a strong start, Rob Henderson was having one weird problem after another. He dropped onto a blanket near the fire and we watched his calf muscles twitch involuntarily, like small animals burrowed under his skin. He wasn't feeling it today. His gut wasn't cooperating. He said, "I think I want to drop." After 20 minutes of resting, eating, and both of us working on his eerily twitching, cramping legs, he still wanted to drop. As soon as he'd turned in his chip, making it official, he looked substantially happier. When I saw him a week later, he told me, "Best decision I ever made."

Kevin had come through on his first loop in a train of 6 runners, all looking delighted to be with such a happy runner, all echoing his joyful "WOO!" But by now, his IT band injury was catching up to him. Without a word, he headed for a chair by the fire and curled in on himself, negotiating silently with pain and injury.

As evening began to set in, we continued to greet runners with cowbells, cheese quesadillas, and Matt's incredible homemade pizza. Between waves of runners, we told stories, complained about the quality of the music, stirred up the fire. It felt a bit like an all-day cookout, a bit like the end of a laid-back fatass or a long day in the woods.

The night crew of volunteers arrived, headed by the capable Dan Harke, and we handed the aid station over to them, explaining which soup was vegan, where we'd put the cheese, which cutting board we were using for which foods. By 7 pm or so, things were in the capable hands of the night shift. Dave Koch gave me a ride to AS 1/4 in his ATV (that was fun!), and I headed out for the evening.

Saturday volunteering

The sunrise was achingly beautiful as I headed back down to Zumbro.
Just, wow.
I imagined seeing it from the perspective of runners and pacers, out all night, and remembered how the rising sun was a source of energy and renewal the years I'd been out on the trail at night into the day.

AS 1/4 was a subdued scene at 6:30 a.m. Music played softly, the fire was banked low, and a few runners and crew wrapped in blankets sat around it, not talking. On the walk to AS 2/3, a few 50 mile runners passed me, moving with the steady, unhurried gait of runners who were in the middle of something but not yet near the end.

The vibe was similar at AS 2/3 as we relieved the overnight crew. As 100 mile runners tricked in in ones and twos, I greeted them with "You're still here! Good morning!" Indeed, most were still here, though a few had dropped yesterday and overnight. 50 milers were coming through on their second and third laps. We fired up the music, fired up the quesadilla pan, drank coffee, and set to work.

I started my late-stage aid station patter: "You know what I'm making special for my 100 milers this morning? Peanut-butter bananas. Banana because it's super digestible, peanut butter to coat your stomach. Sound good?" It's not really about the PB bananas; it's how you sell it.

Susan Donnelly came in on her final loop, looked at the aid-station food offerings with distaste, told me, "This is hard work."  
The hard part of the race
After eating a peanut-butter banana, she headed out on the Table Rock loop. 40 minutes later, she was back on the AS 3 side, announcing, "I need another one of those peanut-butter bananas." Fuel in hand, she was off on the final part of her race. A few more 100 milers came in on their final loop. It was good to see so many people ready to finish a long, tough race.

Kevin Chem came by, taking race photos.
The presence behind the camera
Pretty sure he's smiling this much because
he's not running 100 miles this year
At 8:00, AS captain Matt called a brief all-hands meeting. "There are 500 people registered for the 17 mile race. They'll be here in less than an hour. We need a plan to deal with them all." We filled dozens of cups with water, HEED, and soda, moved the food back, and stationed volunteers in the coulee to spot and record race numbers. And none too soon -- the 17 milers started arriving, first in a fast-moving trickle, then a stream, then in droves.

For the next hour and a half, we worked all hand on deck, filling water bottles and cups, setting out more Coke, helping out the occasional runner who had gotten into trouble. I tried to make sure the 50- and 100-milers got the help they needed, offering them hot and cold food, ice (it was warming up!), and encouragement.

A few injured runners came through. After examining and troubleshooting, I helped get rides out for a woman with a bad quad pull, and one with a sharp foot pain that was getting worse, not better. ("Is this your goal race for the season?" "Oh, no. I have a half marathon in two weeks, then a marathon, then Ragnar..." "Hmm. It's up to you, but in that case, I don't think you need another 20 miles on that leg.") A runner was overheated, nauseated, and couldn't continue, even after sitting in the shade with ice on his neck. A 50 mile runner wanted to drop because she wasn't feeling well and wasn't enjoying the race. With so many runners on the course, our ATVs couldn't easily get around, so runners who dropped often had to wait quite a while for a ride out. Most of them took this with good humor and grace.

In the full sunshine, temperatures reached the 70's as the clock crept toward noon. Bob Coolidge arrived, hot but in good humor:
and dressed to SLAY
We cooled him down with cold drinks and a bag of ice on his neck, and he power-hiked out of the aid station, radiating determination.
James volunteered at AS 2/3 last year. This year, he
volunteered Friday, then ran the 17! WOOO!
Carl ran the 50. Katie ran the 17. He came into AS 2
just as she was leaving AS 3. We yelled, "COME
BACK!!!" She did. Best aid-station hug EVER.

Dawn and I matched! Oh, and check out my Unshoes
sandals! They were perfect for standing and walking all day.
Stephanie and Ava, killing the 17!


As the clock drew on toward noon, the stream of runners slowed. I fed and chatted with a hot 100 miler on his fifth loop, then kicked him out as politely as I could, but I don't think he made the loop 6 start cutoff. A few 50 and 100 milers came through on their final loop. I was especially excited to see Sally Hulbert still in the mix, and was thrilled to see her finish later that afternoon. In the early afternoon, we started packing up the aid station.

By 2:30, all the runners were accounted for. We packed up boxed, took down tents, consolidated tables. We stacked gear where ATVs could carry it out. Around 3, the sweep crew jogged in, looking like they were having the time of their lives. We shot the breeze with them and they headed out on the Picnic Rock loop, unhurried, unworried.

By 3:15, everything was packed up except one table with drinks and snacks for the sweeps. Volunteers took their leave, one by one. I gathered up all the layers I'd started the day with (gloves? hat? seemed ridiculous now!), the snacks I'd brought, the coffee Matt had given me. Thanked everyone and started the walk out. AS 2/3 was finished for the year.

Final Zumbro thoughts

I love habit and repetition. I love the ordinariness of things I do every day, every week, every year. The rhythms of Zumbro are part of my year now. I know when I arrive that I'll leave a little warmer, a little more saturated with campfire smoke, and with my heart a little more full than it was before. Whether I'm running, pacing, volunteering, or spectating, it's become my way to kick off the running season, and a link to friends and trail family.