I hadn’t even heard of Zumbro until this winter.  A coworker who is an avid runner brought up that he was going to run the 50 mile race, and that I should run it too, at least the 17 mile run. I immediately started looking into it, and I was intrigued by the challenge the race seemed to present.

I signed up before the field of 500 sold out, mostly because I was thinking it’s going to be really hard to get in a good destination trail race later in the year when I’m in the heart of putting on the Sioux Falls Area Running Club’s (SFARC) 1st annual Trail Race Series. My training went well, running 3 times a week and some circuit classes. I ran a lot of hill repeats up and down 57th & Minnesota until the trails cleared up from snow & ice.  I got in a couple of great long runs at Great Bear, which is really the only place to train for major elevation gain close to Sioux Falls. The Irishman helped me gauge my fitness level for speed and I ended up running a PR for the 1 mile race. I felt pretty good going into the race and was excited to push my limits against some really great trail runners.

I had plans to meet up with a friend for the race, but that ended up falling through so I headed the 4 1/2 hours from Sioux Falls with my thoughts and camping gear. I was very happy to see the weather was going to be near perfect, especially given I was going to be in the elements. The prior years race had very cold temps with snow. I arrived around 4 in the afternoon on Friday and easily found a campsite to settle into. I head over to the Start/Finish area and picked up some souvenirs (stickers, sweatshirt, poster). I started a fire and made some dinner and then shortly after dusk, I headed for the warmth of my sleeping bag.  I hadn’t slept much all week preparing for the trip, and when I did finally lay down, my thoughts of the upcoming race kept me up. Tonight, I was exhausted and it didn’t take too long to fall asleep. I was woken numerous times throughout the night; the 50 mile race started at midnight, along with general tossing and turning trying to keep warm.

I awoke to the birds around 6:15 and made a small fire and some breakfast. It was crazy to think the 100 milers had started almost 24 hours ago. I prepared my gear and double checked I had everything ready. I head out and did my myrtle drills with a small 1/2 mile jog around the campground. I made my way to the front of the start line and we started shortly after 9 am.

The 17 mile race had 435 starters. We took a dirt road for a short jaunt and then started a steady and rocky incline up to the top of the bluff that overlooked the campground we just came from. Nothing like a giant hill to start out the race.  I had studied the course map quite extensively noting the inclines, aid stations, where I’d need to push it and when to hold back, and when to take in nutrition.

Being a quick runner definitely helps in races such as Zumbro, where the race takes you onto single track numerous times. Being relatively up front, I didn’t have issues with getting stuck behind anyone or a congested route. That being said, it was tricky in some spots where there were 100 and 50 milers that you’d be coming up on, and it wasn’t always easy to get around them. I read another blog post (here) from the perspective of a 50 miler, and her frustrations with us were justified. I felt the same way she did about us flying past her, bad that they had to keep stepping off the trail or get jostled by us as we try to pass. Honestly, I tried to give a heads up as I came up on others, but sometimes it didn’t work perfectly, and I can’t say I really know what the proper trail etiquette of passing others is (always on the left?).  I did try and give encouragement to all others that I passed, and I hoped that helped their spirits. I can’t say if I was doing the 100 or 50 I’d be very excited about all the 17 mile runners passing me on a lap.

Back to the race itself…it was pretty easy sailing after the first big hill and we came up on the first aid station quickly at mile 3.  I grabbed a quick drink of water and was off again. The trail was up and down and I remembered to take in a GU at about mile 5.5.  I carried a small 8oz handheld water, so I was able to get some water along the way too, in addition to the aid stations. The bottle also has a small pocket that I kept my GoPro stashed away in. I just got both of them (water bottle and GoPro) the week before the race and it was the first time I’d ever used either of them. I know, I was ‘that guy’ taking pictures while running a race. I did take it out quickly a handful of times and took some pictures along the route, but tried to keep it at a minimum and when others wouldn’t be affected. The last time I took it out, I quickly realized I was in no shape to be trying to run, take pictures, and stay upright at the same time. I didn’t take it out again, but was glad I brought it.

I ended up running most of the race with some of the same runners. We were all pretty evenly matched with pace and as I had never run here before, it did give some ease to just have someone lead for a bit and when they walked up a hill, it reminded me to do the same, and not try and push all the time.  A lot of the race really blended together so it’s hard to say where this section or that section was at in the run, but generally speaking it was a lot of everything. There was wide dirt roads for logging, regular single track with simply dirt beneath your feet (like I’m used to around SF,) rocky sections (one stretch of long downhill was extremely treacherous as half the rocks were covered in leaves and it was late in the race when I was really feeling it), uphills of all kinds, downhills of all kinds, and everyone’s favorite – sand. The sand wasn’t just for a little bit either. I’d guess it was at least a mile of the course (that could be rather inflated as everything that sucks seems to drag on forever) and in addition to the length, it was deep, not packed down at all. I’m really glad I had on calf length socks with gaiters, as it somehow kept all the sand out of my shoes.

My Achilles heel with longer races, has always been cramping in my calves. It almost never fails with any race longer than 10 miles that I cramp up. I have a host of issues that I won’t get into regarding my form, daily work setting, etc. that I know play a role in this issue. Either way, I wasn’t excited when my first twinge of a cramp in my left calf came at mile 8.5.  With nearly 1/2 the race left, I knew I would be limited on how much I could push my pace the rest of the way, as when I speed up, the cramping really comes on strong. I did alright with it for quite a while, being careful to not push too hard and to take in a lot of water at any chance I could to stay as hydrated as possible. I took in another GU at mile 10.5 and after I reached the 11 mile mark, I knew I was home free for the most part, as all the big hills were done (see map).

If I remember correctly, the downhill from mile 12-12.6 was the treacherous rocky downhill, but I could be wrong. Right after that though, is a perfectly flat gravel road for over a mile. It would have been a perfect time to turn on the jets, but as soon as I hit the flat road, both my calves started cramping badly. I slowed and tried to change my gait and whatever else I could to keep them going and not have to stop. I somehow gutted through it and after throwing in a piece of gum, the cramping let up and I was able to resume running regularly, within a reasonable pace. I can’t imagine chewing gum would cure muscle cramps, but it happened quite close together. I was overjoyed to make it to the last aid station at the end of the road. I badly needed some water as the temps had climbed into the 60s and there were no clouds. From here there was less than 3 miles left and I kept my pace up as fast as I could through the end.

I used my mantra a lot during this last stretch too. I can’t say I’ve ever really used one before, but I read about it in the past, and re-read a quick blurb about it the night prior while I was sitting by the fire. I figured I’d probably need it because of the race length and general toughness. Also, I didn’t run with music, which I do quite often. It usually helps in later stages of a race to crank up a great song and let the music give you an adrenaline rush.  Since I didn’t have music, I used my mantra, it was simple and reminding, “back up, knees up, arms up.” I have terrible posture the way it is, and when you get tired running, the first thing to break down is your form. So, keeping my back straight is #1. Keeping my knees up helps a lot on trails as it keeps you from stumbling over things and helps power up the hills (even if walking).  Finally, keeping your arms swinging helps keep everything else in place and keeps my pace going. I used my mantra numerous times throughout the race and think it helped tremendously to ward off the cramping by keeping my form, especially in the later stages.

As I entered the campground and made my way through to the finish, I was happy, tired, and thankful.  There was 190 volunteers who helped put on the races, and as I experienced them along the way, and after the race handing me a freshly cooked breakfast of eggs, bacon, and pancakes, I couldn’t have been more grateful for all they’d done to make my race special. I ended up finishing 12th overall which was better than I was hoping to finish. I was also able to stick around and see Jacqueline and Natalie finish the 50 mile race together, just as they had started the race, side by side. I talked for a bit with them and Chris, who crewed for them. I then ran into Ed, Bridget, and Emily as I left the campgrounds on my way south to Decorah, for a much deserved beer.


Epilogue: Zumbro feels like Ultra Trail Race more than anything else. The 100 and 50 mile races were joined by the 17 mile race in 2012 after having been run since 2009, and the arrangements needed to support such long runs is quite extensive compared to any regular race. I’ve also had very little experience with any races with Ultra distances, my two prior both being the Newton Hills Ultra, where most of the race participants are running shorter distances, such as myself. I’ve never ran an Ultra either, only running one marathon back in 2009.  17 miles is nothing to take lightly, especially with the 3098 ft of elevation gain, but when you’re standing there comparing yourself to all the people running 3x or 6x further than you, it suddenly seems like you’re getting off easy.

Official Race Recap can be found here.

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