April 9, 2010: Zumbro Bottoms State Forest Recreation Area
We flew into Madison, Wisconsin, this year and as the plane descended through a thick layer of clouds, the city slowly materialized in view through snow flying by the window. Snow – oh no! The roofs below were white with it and of course we didn’t pack for it.
Please don’t be snowing at Zumbro!
Miraculously, as we drove to Zumbro, 3.5 hours away, the weather cleared and we found our way in afternoon sunshine to the new start/finish area for the cookout. It’s always a pleasure to talk with Larry and Colleen Pederson and it just calms you down to be around them. Their company would be reason enough to go to the cookout but we also got to talk with John Taylor, Dale Humphrey and Scott Mark, a cheerful first-time 100-miler.
The evening was sunny, peaceful and warm, conditions that were predicted to linger for the weekend. Good company, good food, quiet surroundings, warm sunshine…it was the perfect counterpoint to the hectic travel earlier in the day. Everything was all so relaxing, I could easily have taken a nap, though Larry has told me more than once that we could easily have 6 inches of snow on the ground for the race. Ok, if the snow didn’t stick earlier, it wasn’t going to happen now.
To top off the day, I navigated a great shortcut on our way to the hotel that would come in handy tomorrow morning. This was going to be a good weekend.
One of the nicest frills about running Larry’s races is the reasonable starting times – in this case 8:00 a.m. My work schedule had me sleep-deprived yet again (this has got to stop) and the later race start let me grab a solid 7 hours – not perfect but better than prior days.
That morning, we walked out of the hotel into 24 degrees. Every muscle cringed. Guess we shouldn’t have laughed at the multi-fangled, Minnesota-strength ice scraper in the car. In Tennessee, we’d left these temperatures with no regrets a month or so. I chickened out and let Rob scrape the car.
To pay him back, I navigated to the start…actually mis-navigated. Well, to be exactly precise, I found a different shortcut but didn’t recognize it for what it was so we turned around, re-traced our path and went the long-way ‘round (passing both new shortcuts on the way…great). We made it in time but with only enough to spare for one of Colleen’s homemade banana muffins, and that’s not nearly enough.
Lap 1, Morning (0-20 miles)
The sun just topped the ridge across the field when Larry gathered the 25 starting runners, briefed us and calmly said “go!” We headed off in the chilly air across dewy grass toward the morning sun, just like a cross-country start from my old high school days.
I suppose this is a good time to mention the course. This year, it was 5 repeats of a dumbbell-shaped lap. The smaller loop of the dumbbell was on the start/finish side of the Zumbro River; a gravel road connected the two loops; and a larger loop started and finished on the far end of the gravel road. We’d essentially run the larger loop last year, and remembered it well, but the gravel road and shorter loop were new to us. Here’s the map – take my word that it maps out to be a dumbbell!
Since the course had changed, I approached the first lap with caution. Sure enough, the first thing we did was climb a ridge. On the surface, I’d run much more challenging courses than this (it was Minnesota, not Colorado for heaven’s sake). The sneaky part of this is that the small loop was going to be much hillier than last year’s small loop and with this being a multi-lap course, the hills would accumulate before you knew it.
For example, Larry was initially planning to make one entire dumbbell lap 20.9 miles. No big deal, right? It’s just an extra 0.9 of a mile. Except that you have to multiply it times 5 which would make the total course almost 105 miles, which pushed the acceptable limits of the “bonus mile” concept. The accumulation of hills worked on this same principle.
Even so, Rob chose to run a bit slower and even more cautiously so I found myself running momentarily with Jason Husveth, then with Lynn Saari and Sara Lovett, then with a bearded-to-the-point-of-being-in-disguise Allan Holtz most of the way to Aid Station 1 (which doubled as Aid Station 4 on the way back).
Runners thinned out quickly. Five laps of this course alone suddenly didn’t seem that appealing. I wasn’t in the mood to race and would rather spend it talking with Rob or Lynn or John, but at the same time I wanted to at least run comfortably and feel like I put in a decent effort. Lynn and John were way ahead. Maybe Rob would catch up and run my pace. Maybe.
I ran the gravel road alone. Ehh, this was long and going to be a pain to run both ways, every lap. But Rob would love it.
Sure enough, Rob caught me just after I turned off the gravel road onto the Highwater Trail that starts the familiar big loop from last year. Much better! And to make it even better than that, the wildflowers had started blooming already. Last year the woods were brown, not a sprig of green in sight. This year, flowers carpeted the woods everywhere you looked. It was gorgeous (so much so that I was inspired, a la Gary Knipling, to add a flower list at the end of this post).
Coming up to a right turn in the trail we saw a photographer in head-to-toe camo standing at the junction, no hallucinations. Turns out he was real and was a newspaper reporter from Rochester, Minnesota, there to “shoot” turkeys (or to shoot a turkey shoot, I wasn’t sure which) who had naturally been surprised by all the runners passing by in the middle of nowhere. He asked our names and cities (exact spelling, please) and was surprised we’d travelled all the way from Tennessee to run a race here. The most amusing part is that a scant tenth of a mile up the trail, I stopped to photograph a bloodroot and accidentally flushed a grouse and wondered if the photographer ever got his turkey?
This far side of the river was familiar and the footing was luckily dry but much of it was pock-marked with what Rob called horse buckets. You know, the lumpy, churned-up trail horses leave behind? I was faring better on it than Rob so he told me to go on shortly before we arrived at Heidi’s Aid Station 2.
Somewhere en route to Aid Station 2 I caught up with Lynn and Sara. They’re fun company and I even learned that I never want to need a crash cart. At the bottom of a descent, our threesome and Scott Mark stopped to take a few photos. Scott took off ahead of us and we were ready to follow when Sara asked if this was right. No, it wasn’t. We had just spotted the flags off to the left and started to worry about Scott when he returned, saying he hadn’t seen any tracks in the sand that way. Crisis averted, we headed down a new-to-us trail into Aid Station 3.
At the AS, Jim O’Brien introduced himself and said someone at the Delano 12-hour race had said to tell me “hi.” We couldn’t figure out who but he said he’d driven here from Chicago to help work an aid station instead of run. That’s priceless. Ultras can’t happen without volunteers and they don’t just appear out of the woodwork.
From here, the trail was the same as last year…alongside one pasture, then down the rocky Anthill trail to Paddy’s to the gravel road and back to Aid Station 1, now in it’s alter ego as Aid Station 4. There was no shortage of food there and I was sure to end up with a net calorie gain for the weekend.
The last bit that ends the lap, from AS 4 to the start/finish, was new to me. No huge climbs, it hugged the valley floor, though a portion of it was annoyingly chunked by dozer treads. I’d just left the dozer’d part when an eagle cried out. We saw one last year along the river and that cry might be this year’s chance. Off to the side of the trail was a picnic spot overlooking the river so I ducked over and scanned the riverside, but no telltale “bald” head in the trees. Oh well, they were still there and that was very, very cool.
Back running merrily along the dirt road, carefully navigating the new stuff but also thinking of the next lap, I happened to notice Don Clark in the woods way off to my right taking photos. What an odd place to be doing that.
“What are you doing up there?”
“You’re supposed to come up here!”
Sure enough, the turn onto an unnoticeable side trail up the hillside wasn’t flagged in flashing neon but I would have figured it out sooner or later. I’d just reached Don and was thanking him when Dennis Drey came running back on the dirt road, obviously figuring it out later rather than sooner. Don headed down to make the turn unmistakable while Dennis and I shuffled on in mutual silence.
A short time later, the trail crazily re-joined the same dirt road, which carried me to the grassy start/finish field. I crossed it and clocked out the first lap in a leisurely 5 hours.
Four more laps to go.
Lap 2, Afternoon (20-40 miles)
I left the picnic shelter to start on my second lap when Rob entered the field from the other corner on his way to finish his first lap. We both made slight detours and hugged in the middle (aww…). On one hand, this meant he would catch me soon. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to make it easy!
To be honest, I didn’t have a goal for the race. If one found me, then fine, but otherwise it would be fun just to spend time with friends, see the course and enjoy completing the distance. I could have “raced” it but after a long, stressful period at work, I had a strong aversion to voluntarily placing myself in stress of any kind and actually needed the run to de-stress instead. I had no appetite for spending the whole race by myself and wanted to share the experience instead.
I started up the first climb and figured it was time to take stock. The laps weren’t hard but course changes added a little climb per lap that would eventually total up to a big elevation gain/loss over last year’s course. Even if you hadn’t run this course last year, a lap format makes it easy to underestimate the elevation toll over 100 miles. That and hopping the horse buckets were conditions worth respecting.
This new part of the course was still new enough to be a fun distraction. I stopped on top of the hill at a wonderful overlook of the start/finish to see if I could spot any ant-sized runners heading into or out of the start/finish. Hmm. No one moving at the moment, which meant Rob must already have left the shelter and be somewhere on the hill behind me. I could feel him working to catch up.
Sure enough, I was taking my time, munching on the smorgasbord at AS 1 when Rob came smiling in. Well, good. It was about time to have some company.
We talked about the race thus far with lots of “did you see this” and “did you hear that?” By the time we reached the Highwater Trail at the end of the gravel road again, flowers were blooming that hadn’t been out on our first lap that morning. It was stunning. The Smokies near me have a wider variety but I’d never seen so much white bloodroot or pink spring beauties in one place before. We couldn’t quit gawking.
At the end of the Highwater Trail, my brain finally came through with the name of the familiar plant covering two hillsides – ramps! People in my neck of the woods are so obsessive about them that I thought that’s the only place they grew until Rob and I spotted them at Burning River 100 in Cleveland, Ohio, a few years ago. So why not here? To make sure and to help Rob guess, I picked a leaf and held it up for him to smell. Phew! Yep, the unusually strong onion smell was a dead giveaway. Rob guessed correctly but unfortunately it got on my gloves and I couldn’t get away from the lovely odor for the rest of the lap.
A little later on, we stopped at a remote picnic shelter on top of one of the hills to read the dedication plaque. Just reading it gave the sense of peace she? must have wanted to share. You can read her wonderful wish below.
Possibly because of the lingering eau de ramp, Rob eventually let me pullaway and said he’d catch me on the gravel road into Aid Station 4. That was miles away but I went on ahead and took photos here and there while Rob joined up with Scott Mark, Dennis Drey not far behind.
On my way, Don Clark appeared on his mountain bike like a guardian angel at the exact other spot Lynn, Sara, Scott and I had almost gotten lost at on Lap 1. Funny, he seemed to appear only where I was getting lost or had already gotten lost. Hopefully I wouldn’t need him the rest of the race.
By the time I got to AS 3 I was well ahead of Rob. Jim (who of course failed to mention he’d won Delano) and I talked a bit more while I ate and lingered, hoping Rob would show. No Rob. Well, he’d catch me for sure on the road (“Rob trail”) and it would be fun to make a game of it, so I got moving.
To clarify, Rob is flat-out fast on road, even gravel road, all of which is like Kryptonite to me, so when I left the Anthill/Paddy’s trail and set foot on the gravel road, my lead would essentially started to evaporate. I did my best to hold a reasonably non-stupid pace, waiting to hear those telltale footsteps behind me but they never came. After a quarter mile, I started looking behind me at the end of long road stretches – nothing. Well, this wasn’t any fun. I slowed the pace. Still nothing. I started walking bits. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Where was he?
Eventually, the bridge over the river and Aid Station 4 appeared ahead, so I’d wait and eat something there. To my delight, Jen Pierce had added avocado slices to the buffet – yum! Why didn’t I think of that before? Avocado and egg sandwiches are my fave post-run meal, so why not have at least part of it now? About the time I polished off Jen’s neatly-cut supply, Rob and Scott came running into the Aid Station, clearly having a good time.
Much better. On the way to the start/finish, I showed Rob the river overlook, prettier with the angle of the afternoon sun across the river. We then yo-yo’d the rest of the way to the picnic shelter with Scott to clock out a 5.5-hour lap.
Three more to go.
Lap 3, Evening to Night (40-60 miles)
Rob changed his socks and cleaned his feet while I waited. I’d eaten so much at Aid Station 1/4 that I wasn’t hungry here and there wasn’t much to do except pick up my headlamp and another long-sleeved shirt (2 total – it can get brutally cold here at night). I was itching to get in some miles before headlamp time but had to sit and watch Scott leave with his two pacers while Rob finished his foot maintenance.
We finally got going and made it through Aid Station 1/4 (and two cups of Jen’s awesome asparagus soup), most of the way along the Highwater Trail, and caught Scott and company on the oddly-named Texas Trail before headlamps were absolutely, positively necessary.
I pulled mine out and turned it on only to see a dim yellow spot. What??? The same thing happened recently at another race so I’d put new batteries in both this headlamp and my backup but the backup was in my bag a couple miles back at Aid Station 1/4 and there were about 13 miles ahead before we’d get there. This was bad. Whether it was the light or the batteries didn’t matter – I didn’t have a replacement for either at the moment. Rob, however, carries two for just this reason, so like a knight in shining armor, he loaned me his backup. This could have been a dealbreaker – there’s no way I could make it to the next aid station much less finish a lap on that feeble glow. I owed Rob one.
Another crisis averted, the next loomed. I was worried yet again how the work-week’s lack of sleep would affect me. I had Rob to talk to and we could hear the grouse drumming and see other interesting thngs, but many of the flowers closed up in the dark. I hoped that wouldn’t be me.
We clocked through Aid Station 2, no problem, and were on our way into Aid Station 3 when someone approaching from behind asked “are you Rob and Susan?”
“Yes,” Rob replied as we arrived at the aid station. Even with the dark and the bustle, it was clear we were getting lapped. Drat…already? I didn’t see who it was and he left running fast.
Since I didn’t feel like racing (which meant Rob didn’t have to either), we decided to walk more of the horse bucket-y stuff this time. It was covered with enough leaves to be problematic. Running was possible but much less efficient now and the high potential for injury wasn’t worth it. We had too many races coming up.
I was leading near the pasture, Rob yards behind, when I caught a pair of yellow eyes in my headlamp. In the moment it took me to realize what they were, the owner turned and disappeared without a sound. What?!? It was too low for coyote, too big for raccoon. What else was there? Fox? Did they have bobcats here? I’d have to ask Larry later.
We rolled on through Aid Station 4, now complete with a campfire. All was going well until we reached the last part of dirt road that would take us into the start/finish field. Suddenly, another pair of eyes confronted us and scared me to death. We panicked and and moved our headlamps to see what it was. A bear? The owner turned out to be…a humble rabbit (in our defense a rather large one). We got done laughing and had only travelled another tenth of a mile when I caught another set of eyes on the bank above us, this time a deer. Thankfully, no bears to be found.
Despite more walking and luxuriously long aid station stops, we managed to wrap up the lap in 6 hours.
Lap 4, Night to Dawn (60-80 miles)
While Rob cleaned feet and changed socks, I asked Larry about the mystery animal. He said they had bobcats and they occasionally get a lone wolf down this far but there’s too much competition for food and they don’t stay. A wolf would be a stretch but I’d be happy to make it a bobcat.
All was well on this lap until we made it to the Highwater Trail on the other side of the river and I got a little low blood sugar. In the space of a quarter mile, the dip in energy devolved into falling asleep on my feet. It was still night and we had to walk a lot but I tried running everything remotely feasible just to stay awake.
This loop had the most consistent leaf cover and my foggy brain finally realized the problem (besides dumb sleep deprivation) was that the leaves and rocks were flowing through my headlamp beam faster than my tired brain could process their shapes – it all turned into a constant, indistinguishable stream of brown that lulled me to sleep.
Somewhere on this lap, at 3:18 a.m. gunshots rang out and I surfaced momentarily from my trance. They were far off but why, I asked Rob, would anyone be shooting at 3:18 in the morning? It was like Ozark 100 where gunshots rang out too directly and closely ahead for comfort. What was it with people?!?
The rest of the lap went by in a blur. I lurched and staggered along the trail. Rob had a hard time negotiating rocky, leaf-covered stuff so in spite of my staggering, he still asked me to lead. I stopped once or twice just to make the stream in my headlamp stop. Each time, cold and the fear of falling asleep for good got me moving.
It would only get better at dawn but the sky stayed dark. Time crawled by and I didn’t bother looking at my watch. My need for dawn wouldn’t make it come any faster. I just needed to hang on and keep moving.
Finally, as we were pulling into Aid Station 3, the sky on one side gained a slightly lighter tint. It got lighter faster as we climbed the hill out of the aid station. I was still struggling but knew I could make it. Sure enough, it took awhile for the full effect to kick in but kick it did.
I dropped my headlamp in my bag at AS 1/4 and had another welcome cup of Jen’s soup to charge me up.
We made it in, despite all the weaving and staggering, for a 7.5 hour lap. One lap left and this one had to be better.
Loop 5, Morning! (80-100 miles)
Rob actually swore off his foot/sock thing this lap. Thank goodness this would be a quick stop. Larry asked what I needed and I let him fill my bottle while I dropped a shirt and picked up my contact lens solution at the car. The sun nosed up above the ridge and it was full-on morning. I was ready to go!
The course had enough distinct change of scenery along the way to make the laps pleasant and surprisingly tolerable. Still, I was about ready to be done. My eyes were dry and 80 miles is a toll on your body that’s hard to ignore, no matter how easy you take it. The mantra for this lap was “finish quick with as little damage as possible.”
We were halfway up the first climb when Rob realized I’d left my bottle back at the start/finish. Stupid. What a stupid mistake, but it was done.
Well, I wasn’t going back. Could I make it without?
The only worry about running without a bottle was the 6-mile stretch between AS 1/4 and AS 2, where we’d both run our bottles dry each of the previous laps. Rob estimated it could take us 3 hours. That’s a lot, even if I tanked up thoroughly at AS 1. Instead, I decided to ask someone at AS 1 for a regular water bottle like you buy in the grocery store – surely someone would have one, used or not – and I’d lug it at least through that section as insurance.
I mentally prepared myself to carry a slick bottle without a hand strap and had already accepted the awkwardness of carrying it when we arrived at AS 1. As we ran in, I announced that I’d left my bottle at the start/finish and asked if anyone had a water bottle – it didn’t matter what kind.
To my utter amazement, Jen said that Zach, her husband, was running and he had an extra handheld bottle she’d be happy to loan me. Really? Yes, she explained, he brings an extra bag of gear and he would be happy to help another runner. In fact, he gave up a recent race just to help another runner who seemed to be in trouble. She said he was just up ahead of us.
I had no idea how to repay her (and Zach) and stuttered out my thanks until the next runner arrived and she turned to help him. What were the odds someone would have a bag of extra equipment including the exact item I needed at the exact point in a 20-mile loop that I needed it?
Rob and I ran on, and saw three runners at Aid Station 2. One left almost immediately and we realized it was the leader who’d lapped us on Lap 3. I’d never unlapped myself before!
On a hunch, I asked if either of the other two runners getting ready to leave the aid station was named Zach and sure enough, one was. I told him his wife had loaned me the bottle, and thanked him. He said yeah, brought everything in case he needed it, adding “I’m not a veteran yet.”
Leaving AS 2 behind Zach, I asked Rob “what makes you a veteran?”
“I don’t know – maybe you don’t make any more mistakes? But if that’s the case, we’re not there yet. We learn every time we go out.”
The daylight helped the running and we ran more of the single track than we had during the night. Eventually, we passed Zach and his pacer, which seemed very wrong somehow but I was ready to get done.
Ever since the start of this lap, my contacts had been clouding up and getting progressively scratchier from the dry air and most likely a touch of dehydration. By the time we got back to AS 1/4, I was past ready to be done. The contacts HAD to come out soon. Onward we went.
To our surprise, we caught up with John Taylor on the last little single-track section where Don had re-directed me yesterday morning. We talked and laughed with John for a while until John said those fateful words, “are you trying for a sub-30 finish?”
“I thought we could do it but I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Well, we were having fun and didn’t really have a goal.”
It was crazy and the most fun part of the entire race. Rob later told me we ran a sub-30 minute 5k into the finish. It felt like it. It was a flat-out blast, without stopping and we pushed each other, continually upping the pace. I told him I could hold the pace, no problem. The final run across the grass was exhilarating in the sunshine, and we sprinted across the line, gasping and laughing. I haven’t felt that feeling of pure, absolute delight in so long I struggled to find the right word to describe it in this post and it turns out the right word is “play.” It didn’t matter that we finished 42 seconds over, it mattered that we had an absolute blast getting there.
Out final lap took 6 hours but it felt like 1.
The only reason I wish we’d have finished earlier is to have more time to talk to friends. We cleaned up as best as possible and talked to Darryl Saari and Brad Birkholz while watching Zach Pierce, Dennis Drey, Lynn Saari, Sara Lovett, and yes, first-timer Scott Mark finish. To my delight, Brian Poeppel arrived unexpectedly so I got to talk with him a little but not nearly enough (while trying to check in with Lynn Saari before they left). The time ended way too soon and we were actually the last to leave the picnic shelter.
100 miles may sound like a long distance that takes a long time to cover but these races and these weekends are over way too fast.
So just for fun, here are a few lists we compiled on the drive back to Madison that afternoon that I thought I’d include. You can see why I probably gained a few pounds!
Homemade banana muffins
Egg and avocado wrap
Peanut butter cookies
Handmade mashed potatoes (“while you wait”) at AS 3
Jen Pierce’s broccoli-asparagus-rice soup
Homemade vegetable soup
Homemade veggie chili at the end
Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jelly
Homemade cheesy potatoes
Cheesy egg burrito
Chocolate chip cookies
Grilled cheese sandwich
Boiled potato sections with salt
Mountain Lightning drink
(Mints he brought with him)
Spring beauties (both kinds)
Rue anemone (pink)
Buttercup (unknown variety)
Virginia Bluebells (bloomed Sunday)