Zumbro 50 Mile


Well, after DNFing at mile 40 at Rocky Raccoon in February, I wasn’t sure what to do or where to run  next.

I knew that I needed to get back to training  more formally. Traveling for business a few weekends a month, along with spending 10 to 12 hour days at work during the week, has sure interfered with my training.

I know, I know… excuses, excuses.

Then too, since losing Chris, I found it difficult to have the heart to do all the things we used to do together. I know he would want me to keep doing all the things we used to do, and even better discover a more activities.

I guess I’ve found it easier to disappear into my work than to think about all the stuff we used to do… and about  how much I miss him and how much I will continue to miss him.

I will be pacing a friend Dave Elsbernd at Western States 100 this June. “I really need to get back into ultra-running shape,” I thought.

After Rocky Raccoon, I intended to training more regularly. Truely I did. I even signed up for a 50 mile trail race: Zumbro 50 in the Mississippi River Bluffs of Minnesota.

I thought that if I had a race on the calendar, it might motivate me to get out there and train.

Somehow despite the best of my intentions, it didn’t happen.

Since DNFing at Rocky Raccoon in February and before Zumbro,  I had run… get this… only a grand total of 6 times.

What a slacker I’ve been!

By the time I had a couple of free weekends in which to train, I suddenly found myself only two weeks until race day.

There’s no point training now,” I carefully rationalized, “well, at least I will be well-rested and uninjured for the race.”

Yeah right. What was I thinking?

Showing up to start a 50 mile ultra without hardly training?

I do need to point out that all of those 6 runs were in the 15 to 20 plus mile range.

Plus I that 40 mile DNF in February had to count for something, right?

So it was not like I was a complete sedentary couch potato deciding to go run 50 miles on a whim. I must still have had a base foundation of endurance there inside me somewhere.

But gosh, it was still pretty dumb. I knew it too.

How better to get injured than to run a race undertrained?

They say that if you must give up part or all of your training, the one thing that you must not give up are your long runs. I had continued my long runs, but what I did not do but which I should have also done was my hill training as well as my tempo and interval runs.

I don’t even have an excuse for not hill training. Hills are literally right out my door. I live in the hills.

Oh well,” I thought, “whatever happens, it will be a learning experience for me.”

My only hope will be if I start off very slow.. and then hold back and go even slower. The only chance I have in doing this is to be careful and not hurt myself during the race.”

One unique aspect of Zumbro 50 is that it starts at midnight while the hundred mile race is already underway. 50 miles consists of three 16.7 mile loops, almost all single track hiking trail.

Even though this is the Midwest and these are bluffs, not real mountains, the course goes up and over them at every chance.

I actually liked the idea of starting a race at midnight instead of the usual 6AM predawn start. A midnight start would be great training for pacing later in the year.

Plus, whenever I travel to a race the day before, I don’t sleep much the night before the race anyway. I would be able to go home Sunday instead of my usual Monday after the race.

“I might as well be out running… instead of tossing and turning all night in a strange hotel bed,” I thought.

Friday evening I tried to take a nap but I just could not fall asleep. Then a thunderstorm complete with hail hit around 10:30PM. The hail pelted the windshield loudly.

I hope this storm stops before the race begins…” I thought.

Before midnight, we gathered in the meadow while the race director gave us some last minute instructions. I admit I felt more than a little trepidation about going on into the dark on trails I had never seen before.

As I started the GPS on my phone, one of the other runners commented on it. I had a spare battery with blue lights attached to it. In the dark, it looked like one large bulky phone.

He advised, “You know there’s almost no cell phone signal here, especially in the river bottoms and the woods. You won’t be able to use it.”

I responded, “Yes I know that there is limited cell phone coverage. That’s why I have this.”

I went on to explain that it actually was a new prototype satellite I-phone prototype that Apple had requested for me to  test for them during races. They  are in the process of developing a new satellite I-phone prototype that will eventually be able to be used on expeditions and in third world countries where there is poor cell phone access.

They’re being very secretive about it so please don’t tell anyone,” I requested.

Of course, I failed to mention that what I just told him was a complete and utter bald-faced lie.

Wow. Really? That’s SO cool!” he said. “I can’t wait until I can get one!”

I thought about telling him the truth. It wasn’t true and I was just kidding.

Then I thought the better of it.

I wonder how long it will be before we hear rumors of ultramarathoners testing new satellite I phone prototypes?

Shortly after starting the race, we found ourselves climbing the first of many climbs during the race.

The trails were wet and muddy, everyone slipped and slided.

Some runners landed hard on their buttocks with a thud.

We had to grab onto brush and tree saplings to keep from sliding back down the trail.

Again, I questioned my sanity for choosing a sport such as ultrarunning, among all the potential activities I could engage in.

I knew the only chance I would have in finishing this race was if I went conservatively and slowly. Soon, I was found myself alone and in dead-last place, exactly where I wanted and intended to be.

If I have any hope of doing this today, it will be last or close to last. I’m just here for a training run,” I told myself, “Last is just the slowest winner.”

Don’t run those downhills too fast,” I chided myself, “You’ll beat up your quads and then there’ll be no chance of finishing.”

Last place beats DNF. I’ve done many 50 mile races before. Today was only going to be a training run. I wasn’t expecting it to be my fastest or best 50 mile ultra. I only wanted to finish it. After DNF the last three ultras before this one, I really wanted this finish.

At the same time I knew full well that I certainly didn’t deserve to finish it, considering how sporadic my training had been.

At between 2 and 3AM, I found myself alone, in the deep dark forest. The thunderstorms had finally dissipated. The only sounds were the occasional hooting of an owl in the distance. We were so isolated, we rarely saw lights from nearby farms and houses.

I was beginning to feel sleepy. “I’d better get some caffiene at the next aid station, ” I reminded myself.

Then all of a sudden… there was a large CRASH! a hundred yards or so off the trail in the darkness.

It was a tree falling and a rather large one at that. I have seen and heard many branches and smaller trees fall over the years, but never one as large as this. The rains must have softened the soil sufficiently for it to fall down the exact moment I was passing by.

I sped up and ran faster and faster. I didn’t need any caffeine to wake me up now!

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” I reflected, “Hell yes it does!!!”

Had the tree fallen  on top of me there is not anything that I or anyone else could’ve done. That would have been it for me. It really makes you think about the frailty of life and how random occurences can make all the difference one way or the other.

I usually bring one of my smaller Native American flutes to play at night while I’m running but had forgotten it. The trails were too steep and rocky for me to be able to play much. One fall, and there goes my front teeth. It was for the best that I had left it at home.

So instead I began singing Scots-Irish folk songs out loud.  “Annie Laurie” and similar. The night was dark and misty. I could imagine myself not in a Minnesota forest where the trees fall but in Ireland where the leprecuan and fairie dwell.

A serious risk of singing while running it that sometimes you could get a song in your head which just won’t go away. One such song got stuck in my head. I sang it, hummed it and whistled it until dawn:

Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows

Fair is the lily of the valley

Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne

But my love is fairer than any.

Come over the hills, my bonnie Irish lass

Come over the hills to your darling

You choose the rose, love, and I’ll make the vow

And I’ll be your true love forever.

‘Twas down by Killarney’s green woods that we strayed

When the moon and the stars they were shining

The moon shone its rays on her locks of golden hair

And she swore she’d be my love forever”

Yes, we are crazy and yes we do just about anything to keep our minds off what we are doing.

I often think of the love I have for my family and my friends. It gives me strength. You don’t have to run an ultramarathon at night to think of and be grateful for such things… but it helps.

Finally, around 4:30AM, I heard a solitary bird sing a few notes. I stopped my own singing so I could listen. Then I heard another and another.

In an hour, the entire forest erupted into a cacophony of bird song. Chickadees, warblers, finches, sparrows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, crows and many others I didn’t recognize or had forgotten to which species the song belonged to.

One amazing thing  about running through the night is witnessing the natural world around you wake up. It truly is one of the more miraculous experiences to participate in.

I finished loop #1 in 5 hours 30 minutes.

Not bad, considering how slow going it was all night. As the sun shined down throught the mist, I could begin to see the terrain around me.

As I climbed up out of the valley, I could see how high these bluffs were… and realize how sick and twisted a race director must be for designing such a course.

Of course, we are all sick and twisted ourselves for volunteering to run in such a race.

Off in the distance, I heard a deep “Wuh!”  Then more and faster: “Wuh-wuh….. wuh, wuh, wuh, wrrrrr”

A ruffed grouse!

I intended to run the second loop faster but that didn’t happen. It’s amazing how as a race progresses you think you are going just as fast or faster and yet you maybe going slower. Sometimes much slower. I ignored my GPS for the entire 16.7 mile loop.

My shorts were chafing, so I stopped to change them and my socks too… its amazing how much better a change in clothing can make you feel.

I left to begin my third and final loop about six hours after I had started my second one.

Gosh, I’d better speed up,” I thought, “or I might not even be able to finish this in under 18 hours!”

I started feeling nausea… and then looked down to see wild ginger Asarum sp.

“Nature will provide!” I thought.

The culinary ginger used so often in Asian foods may have anti-emetic properties. It is not related to the wild ginger of North America but they both share similar spiciness and flavor.

I wondered if wild ginger would have the same medicinal properties as true ginger?

“Its worth a try!”

I chewed small amounts and indeed with time my nausea went away.

Was it just a coincidence and placebo effect? Or was something more? Even if the medicinal properties are not real, it did have a pleasant ginger flavor, much appreciated after hours and hours of running.

I wondered what if anything the other runners thought as the jogged past me digging up and then chewing on this odd aromatic wild plant?

Not one said a word.

I came across a sign on a tree.”What did it mean and why was it here?”

Then I looked over my shoulder and across the sandy dry wash. “Oh I understand now.”

As I ran my final loop, I continued to do mental calculations.

“If I don’t start running faster, I might not even finish under  cut off!!! I’d better get a moving!”

Well, I started moving faster then. It is amazing how much faster one can go, simply by  changing one’s mental outlook.

The sky became clear. I enjoyed the many beautiful wildflowers along the way.

There were bloodroot, spring beauty, Virginia bluebells, buttercups, ferns, mushrooms and many others.

Only a few miles from the finish, I noticed another runner ahead of me.

“Hmmm…” I thought, “Maybe I don’t have to be dead last today after all?”

The trail curved, went up and down hills. I thought, “If he realizes that I’m behind him and starts moving faster, there’s no way I will be able to keep up.”

So what I did is when the trail was straight and he could look back and see me, I moved slowly, leaned to one side and pretended I was struggling.

Then when the trail curved and he could no longer see me hidden by the trees and brush, I ran and ran until he could see me and I again acted as if I could barely make it.

In this way, I made up hundreds of yards until I was only a few dozen yards behind him.

Yeah, I know. It was pretty sneaky of me. Can you blame me? I am dead last not infrequently, it is nice to  not always be the slowest runner out there.

Soon we came upon the last meadow before the finish.

I hung back and let him go out into the field. People started cheering as soon as he left the trees.

I waited until the right moment to make my move. I let him cross the gravel road and be well onto the soft green grass.

I didn’t want him to hear me and realize what I was up to.

Then, when I felt the time was right, I sprinted out of the woods.

People cheered even more. I think some may have been trying to tell him, “look behind you, he’s gonna pass you!”

As I sped past him I shouted between breaths, “Lookin’ good, we’re almost there!”

He was startled by my sudden appearance. He jumped sideways a little.

I passed him only 200 yards from the finish. Had he only known how little I had left in me, he could have easily outrun me to the finish. There was no way I could have gone any faster.

Yep, I finished in 2nd place!

I finished second place from dead F’n last that is!

My time was 17:41:19. I had less than 19 minutes left on the clock before final cutoff!

So much for doing this race in the 14 or 15 hours as I had originally anticipated.

I’ve since learned that if a race director gives you what seems to be very long cut off times, it is not because they are being nice. It is because they know something you don’t: the race is going to be really really hard.

As I rested and sipped an ice cold beer, I had the pleasure of watching the last of the hundred milers come in. Rick Bothwell finshed with less than two minutes and Anajanette Arnold finished with less than a minute on the clock!

Amazing and inspiring! This is what ultramarathoning is all about…

My eyes filled with tears as I witnessed those two last  hundred mile finishers enjoy the  pain, joy and relief of succeeding in their accomplishment.

I know. I’ve been there.

Last place is just the slowest winner!


Since I ran Zumbro 50  in April, I’ve also run in the Wyoming Double Marathon in May and paced my good friend Dave Elsbernd at Western States 100 in June.

Most recently, this last weekend I ran in the Lean Horse Hundred .

But they are all stories for another time. I need to get all those race reports written and posted too.

Hopefully I won’t have to delay for much longer. At this time I am still very busy meeting deadlines for some medical writing I’ve been doing all summer.

It’s both humbling and also a privilege to be a published author. I certainly am not complaining.

However, I do wish sometimes it wouldn’t interfere so much with all of other stuff I like to do.

I am looking forward to October when my schedule will slow down a bit.

I hope.

Until next time, my friends, run well and be well.


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