April 8-9, 2011
Zumbro Bottoms State Forest Recreation Area, MN
Course: 5 x 20-mile loops of dirt road and technical single-track trail with some hills
To be honest,I didn’t want to go. Temperatures in Tennessee had barely warmed at all so it had to be colder way up north in Minnesota. Even in the past two “good years” at this race, temps dropped sharply into the teens for hours at night, chilling me to the bone and freezing my water bottle. To make matters worse, several Minnesota friends emailed worriedly before the race to say it was too brown for flowers, too cold for shorts, and too covered in snow to keep the second aid station. I hadn’t even thawed from our southern winter and couldn’t wrap my mind around 100 miles of cold, snowy, muddy feet.
On the flip side, I love running with this group of far-away people I rarely get to see, i was ready to get back into 100s, and if nothing else, I needed to drive there to pick up the coffee table Larry Pederson, the race director, made me for completing my 10th finish at Superior Sawtooth 100 last fall. I kept telling myself I’d survived it before, then packed all the wool and running jackets I owned.
The 1000-mile drive from Tennessee to Minnesota was exhausting and not the smartest way to prep for a 100-miler, but otherwise uneventful. At least until we crossed the Wisconsin-Minnesota state line and disconcerting patches of snow and high water began to appear. My only hope was the weekend weather forecast, which sounded almost, well, warm.
Race morning dawned cloudless and warmer than the previous two years – so far so good. We arrived at the race headquarters picnic shelter to find all the friends from this race were either here to run or help, though a suspiciously high number of former Zumbro runners opted to help instead of run. It was wonderful seeing everyone in one capacity or another on this golden morning and the weekend started looking up. Rob and I switched some gear around at the last-minute and gathered with everyone else at the edge of the picnic shelter for the race briefing. Any minute now, the sun would blaze forth above the hill we faced and would soon be climbing.
For once, a race briefing held big changes. First, Larry Pederson, the race director who started this 3-year old race, announced he was handing the reins of this and Superior Sawtooth 100 over to John Storkamp. He’d looked hard for a replacement and found the right person with the right energy in John. Next, John announced that aid stations 2 and 3 were combining due to the lingering snow, so there’d be no drop bag on that side of the river. I could survive the drop bag – it would actually save me time spent rooting around in it each lap – but it was bittersweet to hear about Larry. Holding good races like these wasn’t simple and after a flood devastated his house last year, he definitely deserved a break. If Larry was confident in John, that was good enough for me, but I’ve grown fond of Larry, his wife Colleen, daughters Heidi and Erin, and didn’t want to lose the opportunity of seeing them.
Then John said “go!” and it was time to get down to business.
I got to run the first lap with Lynn Saari, making it the best lap of the entire race. That’s one of two things I remember most about the race. We ran for a mile early on with Erik Dalgaard and Kathy Jambor but did most of it just the two of us, catching up, talking and laughing our way through the miles.
The mission on this first lap was simply to settle into a good pace (not too fast, not too slow…), see how everything worked, get my hip working well, and reacquaint myself with the lay of the land – literally. Since I didn’t have to worry as much about the weather, the other thing left to worry about was the four-month gap since my last 100. You don’t forget running 100 miles but you can forget the finer points of how and lose the sense of pace and confidence you need to handle it well. I wanted that back in the first loop and slowly, while Lynn and I talked, it came.
Along the way, we got our first taste of the hours ahead. Patches of icy, packed snow still covered some of our dirt road. Runners quickly spread out, leaving us by ourselves. An unimpressed deer reluctantly trotted off the trail into the woods. One lonely clump of hepatica and one yellow flower were all to be seen the whole 20 miles but the day was easily sunny enough for me to shed the long-sleeved shirt and soak up some sun.
The only downside was that Lynn and I were having such a good time, I forgot about my hip and by the end of the loop it was killing me. Unfortunately, I’d have to buckle down and give it some attention or risk walking the remaining 80 miles, not a happy prospect.
Lynn went to the car at the picnic shelter and since I needed to work on my hip and now wanted to knock off as much mileage as reasonably possible before it got dark, I started out on my own.
The sun rose higher and the day grew, well…hot, which was absolutely fine. I caught up with Darryl Saari, Lynn’s husband, on the Scenic Trail and we talked awhile before I pulled away. Then I got to run Dale Humphrey on the road for a while, which rarely happens because he’s so fast, but he didn’t seem quite himself. The Minnesota runners wouldn’t be used to this heat yet, and could be having a hard time with it. I also got to see Rob on the short bit of shared trail into and out of Aid Station 2/3.
Running on my own this loop was a little lonely but I noticed new things. The frogs and ducks along the High Water trail enthusiastically celebrated the warm spring sun, clumps of beautiful purple hepatica now dotted the woods, a deer seemed surprised to see me, and I even flushed a couple of amazingly large grouse.
With consistent attention, my hip muscles slowly unknotted from their spasm and the upcoming loops looked less daunting.
It seemed like I should be able to get more than two laps before dark (well, they are 20-miles each) but I finally gave up and turned on my headlamp at a clearcut on the Turkey Trail.
After two daytime loops it all looked new. Hepatica had closed up for the night but the rabbits, definitely not petite bunnies, were out and hopping around in the woods like extras in a real Easter play.
Somewhere between Aid Stations 2 and 3, and I let myself cheer for a moment to have made it halfway. Fifty miles is hopeful and worth acknowledging. I tried not to think about the half left to go.
On the road section back to Aid Station 4, I met Lynn and her pacer Jim Wilson coming the other way. We stopped for a moment to talk and she showed me her leg, which looked like it had been dramatically splashed with mud. The mud was dried blood seeping from a bad cut in her knee. She, of course, was still running and fully intended to finish – everything else was going well and this was just her own “something unexpected” to deal with. None of us thought her intent unusual.
Great, the next to last lap! The relief was welcome but almost cancelled by knowing the entire loop would be spent in the dark and if I was going to have trouble staying awake, it would be here. Z’s had eluded me the night before so falling asleep on my feet was a possibility. I didn’t have Rob or anyone else for company, so I’d have to stay awake on my own and the only way I knew how was to keep running as much as possible.
If the threat of falling asleep wasn’t bad enough, my usually happy stomach chose this lap to mutiny and I ended up making some unexpected stops. A vague feeling of exhaustion I’d never encountered settled in, though my leg muscles were fine. Things just felt generally “off” but I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Dehydrated? Imbalanced electrolytes? Undertrained?
In the absence of an answer and something to fix, I fought it. Things had been going so smoothly that I had allowed myself to occasionally picture the finish, usually a no-no. It was happy and cheerful and easy and I wanted it but it wouldn’t happen if this kept on. “Hold on to the pace,” I thought, “and this will go away.” I ran the best I could on the tortuously flat road section and focused intently on the ground flowing through my headlamp beam.
Think about other things. The frogs and ducks along High Water clearly intended to party raucously all night. I heard a barred owl. The leaves rustled here and there and I finally spotted a field mouse scurrying away from me in terror. I apologized for scaring it and ran on to scare who knows what else.
Ahh, the last loop. The goodbye loop. Barring catastrophe, I would definitely finish even if for some unknown reason I had to walk the whole thing. Or crawl.
Ironically, dawn had to be near but the minute I left the aid station, the sleepies hit with a vengeance. The only solution that worked for me was to keep running but the persistent feeling of exhaustion made it feel like I was dragging a concrete weight. I pulled as hard against it as I could but still slowed.
Thankfully, the sky started to lighten slightly on the road section and by the time I reached the end of the High Water trail amid the deafening frog-duck celebration, now accompanied by cranes, I could see the rocks underfoot well enough to turn off my headlamp. I’d made it through the night.
I still had most of the loop to go and most things felt great but my stomach and GI tract continued to deteriorate, which was not only frustrating but caused more frequent stops. I’d fought in vain against whatever was going on for almost two laps now and it was winning. I tried but felt I was slowing down and walking more, so I tried harder.
It was slow going but I made it through Aid Station 2, then 3 and pointed toward 4. I had to stop twice up the climb from Aid Station 3 to catch my breath, which was so far from normal it was depressing, but concentrated on trying as hard as I could to keep whatever was wrong from eroding the pace altogether. With the weather and the way my muscles felt, this should have been a relatively easy five laps. Should have.
And then something wonderful happened. At the top of the narrow ridge I heard a whooshing flap, flap to my right and looked over to see a huge bald eagle take off from a tree just a few yards away. Wowww! I didn’t try to take a photo, didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. I just watched in awe as the big bird launched and glided into a flight It circled close for one last view, as if to acknowledge me, and soared effortlessly down the ridge. Maybe the race was supposed to turn out perfect….but then again, maybe not. If I had been faster, I might have missed this. It left me with a deep, contented feeling I was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.
If there was any doubt, the experience repeated itself a tenth of the mile later along the same ridge, as an immature bald eagle launched off another nearby tree just as close. Amazing. What a day!
Grinning, I let go what should have been and decided to work with everything instead of fighting it. Instead of pushing to hold my pace, I made the best forward progress I could with an increasing number of related stops. It might not be the finish I pictured, but I would.
AS 4 this loop seemed to have stretched further away far from the finish but I ran what I could and made peace with what I couldn’t run. This might not be my utmost best performance but it was still satisfying, especially under the circumstances.
I emerged from the woods and saw the finish line across the grassy field for the last time this year. It’s always a little bittersweet to finish a race. Sweet to finish but bitter to let it go. Maybe that’s the way it is with things you love.
In spite of the difficulty, I was the first woman, fourth finisher, and beat my previous, casual times by hours. Even better, I got to enjoy my friends finishing (including tough Lynn, with her still-bleeding knee), which I don’t always get to see, and spend time hanging out with them.
The illusion of control can make us crazy. I fought so hard, of course in vain, against what turned out to be the side effect of a new medicine I was trying for my hip injury. There’s overcoming your barriers and then there’s trying to change reality, and it pays to step back for moment and tell the difference.
Things turn out better, in my experience, if you work with the course, the day, the other people, and the rest of the circumstances at hand instead of against them just to make things turn out like you think I want. If I’m honest about it, the Universe has a way of making things come out better, either immediately or in the long run, than my ideas anyway.
This race was an excellent reminder. If I had only stopped to think about what I was trying to do, I would have backed off sooner, enjoyed the running I could do without all that gnashing of teeth, and would still have finished well and been able to watch my friends finish and hang out with them in the spring sunshine.
And ironically, I got what I needed anyway – a good reminder!