A little run at Zumbro

The adventure of learning to run a 50 mile Ultra Race

Goal: Run the Zumbro 50 mile trail race. Done. Check.

Why? Seriously why? Those are questions I got asked a lot when people became aware of what I was training for. The answer goes back to last fall when I asked a friend if there were any good races coming up that I should look into doing. One he mentioned was a 17 mile trail race and with no trail running experience and only a couple weeks to train I agreed to do it. At this point I had taken up running about 8 months prior and just run on the pavement with the longest distance of around 10 miles in a day. That race went very well with me feeling quite good at the end. I was intrigued with trail running.

About a month later I heard a simple quote from a race director known for putting on hellish races… “You don’t know how far you can go until you have been tested and failed.” Think about that for a moment. When was the last time you pushed yourself to the breaking point? The point where you can look in the mirror after failing and tell yourself that you had given it everything and could not complete whatever it was you set out to do. I couldn’t shake the thought. Could I run 50 miles? Hell no! Or could I? With a little investigating I discovered Zumbro was the first trail race in the state the following spring. In hind sight agreeing to do a trail race the first weekend of April in the Minnesota springtime my not be the best idea. But neither was running 50 miles so why choose sanity now?

Ok. I committed. I will do it. Now what? Where does one start on such an adventure? I was lucky to know someone who had done these things in the past. He was invaluable in my prep as well as pushing me to do it in the first place. (Thanks Steve!) But there was a lot to learn. How do you train to run for so long? Simple right… Just run farther. Ummmm…. Turns out there is more to it. Really? More to running then just running? Yes. You suddenly get quite cozy with yourself and your decisions. That choice to eat 14 more cookies the night before a run? Yup, you’ll regret that in the morning. Stay out late for another beer with some friends. Yup, you’ll regret that on the run the next day too. Surely I don’t have to do everything that the training plan says right? I mean it is just a suggestion right? Depends on what you want to do. Do want to look in the mirror and truly know you gave it your all and be able to be happy even if you were defeated? Shit. I better follow that training plan.

Yes there was a lot to learn. It was an interesting adventure. And you know what? I think I have more questions now then when I started the adventure. Each run I did answered some things and created some more questions. But I learned enough to get things completed on race day so I consider the training an accomplishment.

So the runs got longer and I’d like to think I got smarter. Thankfully the Minnesota winter was quite nice to allow me to get out and mix in some actual trail running. Each time the self confidence grew until I was reasonably sure I could finish this. Now how long will it take? We did some figuring based on the race last fall and came up with 12 hours. As I heard more about the race, the trail we would be running (think gnarly rocky uphills and the same on the downhills in southeastern Minnesota bluff country), and the way the weather can play into the outcomes I decided I would be happy with anything less than 13 hours. Deep down I wanted less than 12 hours since that was the original goal.

Race time. The interesting thing about this race is it starts at midnight. I had never run at night on a trail so this would be new at the race. I recruited a few people to join me at the race and help me during the race itself. We arrived early so I could nap before the race. I got about an hour and a half of time laying down. Notice I didn’t say sleep. Amazingly I did nap some but the first while was spent with my brain flying in a million different directions.

Midnight. A few minutes before we were at the start with the race director saying a few words. Then we were off. The start of the race was a processional affair. We ran across a grass field, entered the woods and began climbing a hill. And climbing. And climbing. More climbing. Still more climbing. Oh. This is what the elevation map was trying to tell me! The race is set up with three aid stations on a 17 mile loop we were to run three times. The start finish area being one aid station and two other during the lap that we passed two times each lap. The first lap went well. The darkness didn’t bother me much. I chatted with a few people along the way. I knew I was on a fast pace, but I felt good. I thought about slowing down and saving some energy. “Screw that, I will just dig deep and push harder later in the race” I thought. I finished lap one in 3 hours and 13 minutes. I had told my crew I was shooting for 4ish hours. Good thing they were ready for me! A quick clean out of the shoes and a half a banana and I was off. Feeling good. I believe at this point I really was invincible. Or so I was thinking. I started lap to and began the climbing again. I made a bad judgment somewhere at this point. I did not fuel properly. By aid station 2 I was going through serious bouts of bonking (zero energy because of lack of proper body fueling). I knew I had screwed up and should take another energy gel. I didn’t want to. What?!?! This had never happened in training! Things got serious. I told myself that I would wait for aid station two and eat some food. I made excuses. I knew what I needed to do but didn’t want to do it for some reason. Finally I had a serious discussion with myself that went about like this… Dean you need to take a Gel. But I don’t want to! (Go back and read that again in the most 2 year old whiny voice you can. It is what I sounded like at the time.) Man up! Take the damn gel and get moving. With that I reached up to my vest, pulled out a gel and ate it. Aid station two was about 10 minutes later. I had rocks in my shoes and went to sit down on a chair. The volunteers working these aid stations are great. Truly great! Angels maybe! As I dropped into the chair a guy asked what I needed. “Nothing. Just need to clean the sand out of my shoes. Thanks” I pulled my right leg to the chair and promptly through it back straight with a moan of pain as a cramp shot through my upper leg. Interesting. That’s new. And painful! I had to ask twice (and with a please) but the guy that had asked me what I needed agreed to take my shoes off for me. During the brief conversation he asked how the race was going. I told him I had just bonked. “You need mashed potatoes.” And with the precision of an ER surgeon yelled “Get this guy mashed potatoes! And put some chicken broth in them!” Seconds later I was handed a cup and warned that it was hot. I didn’t care and ate it as fast as I could. I wanted to get moving again. I finished the potatoes about the time they got my shoes back on and with a very thankful handshake I left them behind. The rest of lap two went better — the bonked feeling left and I refused to adjust my gel schedule again. I was very strict to take one every half an hour, no matter what. I did not what to go back to that bonk feeling. The only thing I was struggling with was the cramping. My legs were in tough shape from the near constant climbing and descending. I completed lap two in about 4 hours.

Lap three would prove to be a lap of determination. I knew the situation. I had done the math. 12 hour goal time minus lap ones approximate time of 3 ¼ hours and lap two of 4 hours put me needing to complete lap three in around 4 ¾ hours. That should be easy I thought. Or was I just trying to convince my tired body to get moving? I was exhausted and found myself stopping for a break on the seemingly endless climbs at the beginning of lap three. Damn. I did more math. I figured out that I needed to be at mile 42 by 9:45am to be on track to make the 12 hour goal. That gave me no extra time. No extra time for a more exhausted body later in the lap. Push harder and make time I thought. It didn’t really work out. I got to mile 42 at 9:40. But being so close to that spurred me on inside. I dug deep and started pushing more and more. Run even if you are running slow I told myself. If you need a break at least walk fast I told myself. Whatever you do, don’t miss that 12 hour goal by a couple minutes I told myself. That one was the most horrifying and motivating. Sometimes its the things that stir the strongest feelings that do the best, even if it is a little negative. I remember getting to Ant Hill (a particularly ugly excuse for a downhill trail that is littered with more rocks in one square foot than blades of grass in your front yard) and thinking that I didn’t care about the pain in my legs. They would hurt if I went slow. They would hurt if I went fast. Screw it. Man up. Run it. Now it wasn’t a fast run but it was the fastest of the three laps that I went down that mess of a downhill. I hit the bottom and kept running. Ran to the road a little further up. Ran up the road. Or I started to. I began to walk again. Really, I asked myself? This is a flat gravel road and you are going to walk? Yes, was my reply to myself. Damn. The body won. I did the math. I better get going faster soon to make sure I made it, but I should have enough time. The body won again because now there wasn’t the urgency. That didn’t work! Ok, take a break and walk for a minute. I went past the last aid station signaling 2.7 miles to go. I had just under an hour to the 12 hour mark. Just make sure you are doing less than 20 minute miles I thought. I walked the long climb out of aid station 4. At the flat area at the top I thought about running. I did not. After about a mile I managed to run again. It felt good. Interesting. I knew I was close. I ran a section of woods that led to a gravel road and told myself there was no way I was stopping until the finish which I knew was about a mile up the trail. And I did not stop until I crossed that finish line. 11 hours and 42 minutes.

Can I really run 50 miles? Yes.

I was asked after the race if I had found my limit. I shuddered to realize the answer. No. I could have gone more. I could have gone faster. But I did I accomplish my goals for the race. Mission accomplished! For me. What are you going to do to test yourself?

A super duper huge thank you to all those who helped me through this journey… My pit crew (Steve, Karlie and Chris), People who ran with me. People who asked me how it was going and encouraged me. People who shared knowledge with me. And everyone else — there were a lot of you! I hope you find a bit of enjoyment in knowing you helped me accomplish something epic!