After each 100 miler I've run (both of them), I said "That was the hardest thing I've ever done." Well, I can honestly say that again. Zumbro 100 is no joke.
I left home early on Thursday morning, and made good time. Stopped off at the Scheel's in Fargo for some baseball gear for my son. I figured that Americans love their baseball, and equipment should be cheaper there due to volume. I'm not sure about the logic now, but at least I had a present for him when I got home. Arrived at the race check-in at 6pm and got my bib. Ate a few pulled-pork sandwiches and chatted up the locals. It's always great seeing familiar faces at races and catching up.
I had a room in Red Wing, a 45 minute drive away, which was a bit farther than I liked but not obscene. It was a nice motel nestled beside a railroad track and a state prison. Fortunately there were no riots or escapes to keep me up. Still, I had the usual pre-race jitters and only slept for 1 hour at a time.
The start time came far too fast for my liking. The forecast called for cold weather, which was going to present its own set of challenges. Lots of nervous energy around me, and everybody lined up about 50 metres before the starting line. Nobody wanted to be up front! John Storkamp gave a few encouraging words, then we were off. Not caring about how fast I finished, so long as I finished, I elected to hug the back as best I could. Despite starting out at a snail's pace, I still had to wait in line at the first uphill when the trail turns from a wide trail to single-track.
The race itself consists of six 16.7-mile loops, with four aid stations along the way (plus one bonus aid station at the start/finish area) to make for 29 aid stations total in the race. One thing was certain: I wasn't going to get hungry. Each loop has five evil hills which are steeper and/or longer than the others, and you find yourself counting them down on each loop. There is one evil hill between each aid station, except for between AS1 and AS2 which has two evil hills (the hardest section of the course) and between AS4 to the finish line, which has none (the easiest section on the course). The first evil hill is average as far as they come, it isn't incredibly steep but it is rather long. In short, it would be marvelous if we were running down it. The second evil hill is the shortest of them all, but steep. The third is the steepest and just keeps going with a few false summits. I consider it to the the toughest. The fourth starts off as a long slow uphill, then gets steep near the top (up to the top of Picnic rock). But fortunately, that's the only uphill in the entire section. The fifth is by far the longest; the dreaded Ant Hill. It just keeps going and doesn't stop.
I tried to stay relaxed my first loop, but still got sucked into going a bit too fast. I finished in just under 4 hours. Whoops! I knew that if I kept that pace up, I would be looking at a 24-hour finish time which was just far too ridiculous a notion given my fitness level and the course's nastiness. I was going to have to force myself to slow down. The cool weather didn't help the cause an, but the snow squall I experienced at the top of Ant Hill did.
My second loop wasn't much better, finishing it around 4.5 hours. This was starting to sound like a disaster. My goal was 5 hour loops, and I was 1.5 hours ahead of pace.
My socks and shoes were starting to get a bit gungy, so I decided to switch them for my third loop. I also remembered to grab my headlamp since odds were that I'd need it at some point before completing the loop. As I left the start area, I joined up with Susan Donnelly and John Taylor, whom I had been leapfrogging all day. They ran much faster than I, but my aid station stops were Formula One style in-and-outs. I asked them if they had their headlamps, and John stopped, turned around, and ran back to the aid station (fortunately we were still really close). Good karma. About 1 mile into the loop, I realized something wasn't quite right with my left foot. I glanced down and couldn't see anything. I asked John (who had caught up at that point) if he could see anything, and he said the sock had completely disintegrated and what was left of my heel was rubbing against the shoe. Awesome. He mentioned that the upcoming aid station was run by TC Running, a shoe store in Minneapolis, and they might have some spare socks to give out. Unfortunately, they didn't have any. But they did have some miraculous duct tape that gave me the extra layer I needed and didn't rub off for the whole loop! The night settled in and the clouds parted. Beautiful stars in any direction you looked. It was exactly what was needed to keep spirits high. I finished my third loop in 5:10, which was finally on target. Halfway through the race, and I was finally doing something right.
The fourth loop is the loop which destroyed me two years ago. I wasn't going to let that happen again. I mostly walked it, and took my time. I reached some really dark mental places, but knew that once the sun came up everything would be much better. It got very cold out. Water bottles started freezing, and some aid stations couldn't pour water out of their jugs. Six hours later, I finished the loop up and it was still dark out. On my first Zumbro attempt, the sun had already risen by the time I finished my fourth loop, so I knew I was ahead of where I was then. As a bonus, nothing was hurting more than it should, and I was still moving well. This was the highpoint of the race: I threw the monkey off my back and knew I was going to finish the full 100 miles. As to whether it was under the time cutoff was another matter entirely.
Early in the fifth loop, the sun began to rise. Unfortunately, I didn't have a drop bag anywhere on the course except for the start/finish area, so I had to keep it on me for the whole loop. Coming in to AS3, Tom Weigt passed me. I had met him back at Kettle Moraine 100 two years ago, and he graciously loaned me a water bottle as I had forgotten my race vest at home. I am eternally grateful for his generosity. I got to catch up a bit on the goings-on of the rest of the crew from Mankato (Scott and Shelley). He was moving much faster than me, so he left me in his dust. Not bad for an old man. ;) At the aid station, I was joined by Chris Deck who was also running the 100 miler. We clicked right away and pretty much agreed that we'd finish the race together. It was nice to have somebody to run with and talk to. I was incapable of doing any mental math, but he seemed to be pretty on the ball and informed me that there was no way we were going to have any problems with time cutoffs. Loop five finished in 6:20.
I'd heard that the sixth loop was magical. It was the last time you'd see each root, rock, tree, hill, etc. And as you passed each one you could flick it the middle finger knowing it was gone from your life forever (until you foolishly decide to register for the race the next year). Unfortunately, I had none of that bliss. My right knee was starting to act up and was having trouble climbing hills. But on the other hand, I could still bomb the downhills. Chris was having the exact opposite problem: He could climb like nobody's business, but was taking the downhills extremely gingerly. This made for an interesting dynamic, where once we got to an evil hill he'd drop me and I'd catch up to him on the ensuing downhill. Somehow, we made it work. At AS2, I told him that for me to feel safe, we'd have to really burn the section to AS3 and he agreed. By no means was it the fastest either of us had run that day (or the previous), but it was definitely the hardest. Once Ant Hill loomed, I knew we were good. We had almost 3 hours to get back to the start line. We would be able to crab-walk and make it. We stopped running and walked it in. Official time: 32:57.
Gnarly Bandit race #1 was in the bag. Honestly, that was the only race that scared me. I just remembered how much it destroyed me two years ago. And now that it's over, the rest of the race series seems doable.
Next stop: Kettle Moraine 100.