04/11/2015 – Zumbro Midnight 50 Mile – Zumbro River Bottoms Management Area, Thielman, Minnesota
Starting at midnight, this laid back, old school, low-key three loop course winds its way up and down the windIng, rugged, beautiful Mississippi River Valley Bluff Country trail. With never more than 300 feet of continuous climbs, Zumbro suckers you in, strings you through countless mud puddles, trips you with leaf covered rocks, and spits you back out through stretches of sand that somehow, of course, finds its way into your socks and shoes. Before you know it, you will have covered 7500 feet of vert, seen the sun rise, and have thanked more volunteers than you can count.
For reference, here’s my 2015 Zumbro Midnight 50 Race Preview and the 2015 Zumbro Midnight 50 race results – statistically a bit lower than I’m usually in, but I had great company throughout with my friend Jerod of The Wandering Beard.
The Race Video Recap is all the way down at the bottom.
A part of a larger training plan for another race this summer, this race is a glorified supported training run, a chance to hang out with a friend, and some dedicated specific training with running through the night with a headlamp. There was a bit of a taper, but not in the ‘traditional race training plan’ taper sort of way. I’ve basically been running since early December and this is just a peek week, albeit a fairly big peak week, of my 4 week training cycle of 3 increasing weekly mileage weeks, then 1 lower weekly mileage recovery week.
Since the plan was to run the Go! St. Louis road Marathon the next day, in less than 24 hours, in a different state, 10 hours away, I only ever so briefly thought about racing-race this race, before thinking a bit more clearly and deciding that since I more or less kind of dragged Jerod up here with me (and by dragged, I of course mean, thanks Rod and Marcia for driving us to and from St. Louis to Minnesota and back!) I should probably try to keep up and run the race with him.
Well, Minnesota is a long ways away from Seattle. It’s even a longer ways away when you fly into St. Louis, then sit in a car for 10 hours going northeast through Illinois, then northwest to Minnesota. Yeah. If you want to make it even more fun, try leaving at noon and getting to the start line one hour before the race start. Honestly, if you’re actually really thinking about itinerary it’s probably best that way. Get there too early and what are you going to do, hang out all day while waiting for the start of the race? I guess that’s not a bad idea really. But if you can hitch a ride with someone (thanks again Mr. and Mrs. Thornton!), then you can nap on the way up, get there right before the race and even be halfway rested for the race.
Seeing as this is what we did, there’s three ways to get from St. Louis to Zumbro Bottoms, Minnesota and they all more or less take the same amount of time. You can go the northwest route through Iowa, the straight north route also through Iowa, or the northeast route which actually google maps said was the fastest route through Illinois then briefly through Wisconsin and then west into Minnesota. Any of the three ways you go is going to be flat and a good portion of if is going to be through farm fields. It is the middle of the country after all.
I napped on and off for probably a cumulative 2 or 3 hours and intermittently checked the weather. We stopped every couple of hours to stretch our legs and eat a late lunch, then a dinner, then second dinner. So far, so good.
Coming into Minnesota the cell service (AT&T) dropped to mostly intermittently and then as we came and went through Kellogg, Minnesota the service pretty much dropped completely for me. The turn west to County Route 18 was a blink of an eye and we missed it, having to pull a u-turn and double back to hit the road. It probably didn’t help that it was 10:30pm and completely dark. Finally pulling through not any more than four roads of Thielman, we found our way to a gravel road that led directly to Zumbro Bottoms Management Area where a full out party was in full swing – crews for the 100 mile runners who had already been out for a good 15+ hours and 50 mile runners trickling in and amping themselves up for the midnight start. We were two of those people.
Rod and Marcia dropped us off, told us to be safe, and said they’d be back in the morning to pick us up. Hugs and kisses, a pat on the back, and Jerod reminding them to text him when they got back to their bed and breakfast, and there we were, t-minus 60 minutes to the start with really no way out and no ride back until the morning. Might as well run for 12+ hour, 50 mile stroll through the pitch black night in the middle of the Minnesota woods!
The Packet Pick-up
When the race starts at midnight and it’s pitch black outside, finding the start really isn’t all that hard – just follow the gravel road to a dead end, look for lights, smell for hot soup, and listen for upbeat music and the chatter of
crazy amazing ultra endurance athletes.
While some milled about making trips to the aid station for some pre-race food, others stood around a campfire, but we parked ourselves on a bench right next to the hot water and coffee, double-checking our packs and making last minute adjustments, and then we sat and waited for the Pre-Race briefing by the Race Director, John Storkamp.
From atop a ladder, John Storkamp delivered the standard pre-race briefing through a megaphone. “All 100 milers have a ribbon attached to them to help identify them from the 50 miler and marathoners. Treat them with care and encouragement.” “Course marking flagging are reflective and are at all trail intersections.” “These hills are no joke.” “Have fun. You guys want to give that wimpy little baseball cheer again or that Braveheart cheer again? Ok guys, let’s make some noise! 3, 2, 1, Go!”
The race starts, ends, and goes through the main campground. For three 16.7 mile loops of 16.7, we took direct routes, switchbacked, and followed ridges up and down the Minnesota River Valley Bluff Country, across bridges, along sand bars, through steep single track almost slot canyon ravines and down technical leaf covered ankle crushing trails mostly all through the middle of the night by headlamp. With the help of the most gracious, helpful, and encouraging volunteers never more than 4 miles away, it’s no wonder there was a 72% finishing rate among all starters.
Lap 1 – (0-16.7 miles)
A short quarter mile down the road allowed the fast runners to get out front and the rest of of us to file in behind. We hit the trail and almost immediately the line backed up as the trail funneled to a steep single track switchback.
The trail quickly opened up and we felt out the trail while snuggling into ‘our pocket’ amongst the mass of headlamps. A mess of lights scanning from trail edge to trail edge sporadically with a flick of a light off into the forest casted long shadows lost to the abyss beyond. As the miles ticked by, the line thinned and our world narrowed with only our singular headlamps lighting the tunnel before us guiding us to the next oasis of light and energy provided in every aid station.
Interspersed among the technical downs and sandy bottoms were trails two to three wide and if it had not down poured in the days leading up to the race, they would have been buttery smooth cruisers. But as was the case, the rain and snow prior had lingered, soliciting on the trail and instead we at first side stepped and leaped across and around the mud and puddles, eventually succumbing to the inevitable, trudging straight in and through without abandon.
With our only drop bag at the start/finish line, we stopped at aid stations only to refill on liquids and restock on pbj’s, hot soup, chips, and canned potatoes dipped in glorious amounts of salt. With the amount of volunteers rivaling the amount of runners, each with a smile, the aid stations flowed freely and quickly often your indecision at what to get at the buffet table the only limiting factor in getting in and out quickly.
We rolled into the end of lap 1 slightly ahead of schedule, 3:45 and stopped at our drop bags. I pulled out additional gels and waffles before liberally applying the all too important and never enough lube in all those parts that need lube. It’s only gross when you think about what you just did, then think about how you didn’t go wash your hands, instead wiping them off on your sweaty shirt and shorts and calling them ‘clean, and then grabbing handfuls of chips out of the community bowl. Uh huh. Don’t think. Just eat. In and out in 7 minutes.
Lap 2 – (16.7-33.4 miles)
Still in darkness, we kept our headlamps and moseyed on down the short road section and up the steep switchbacks again, although this time by ourselves. Every so often by this point we’d encounter a 100 miler and their pacer and gingerly pass them, offering them words of encouragement (great job, great work), telling them they look great (even when they didn’t) and asking them if they needed anything (they never did, except for one request for new legs and a few hours of sleep.) We passed a runner and his pacer bellowing with laughter telling pirate jokes, bar jokes, and of course raunchy jokes that only get told at 5am on a trail in the middle of the woods. We walked with them for a bit, their energy and stories reinvigorating us, before almost begrudgingly leaving them to continue on our way. Even a quarter mile away we could hear their laughter piercing the darkness, echoing between the trees. On the other spectrum we passed a few teams of runners and pacers who were deathly quiet, sucking the life and energy from those around them. We gave them a thumbs up, told our by now well rehearsed white lies, “Great job. You’re looking good. Keep it up” and quickly moved past them, only after well out of ear shot turning to each other and concurrently commenting that when we run our 100 miler neither one of us want to be that runner or have that pacer.
Eventually and sure enough the sky slowly lightened with the onset of morning. Still not quite bright enough to ditch our headlamps or knock the chill from the air, the inevitable light never-the-less was a welcome addition.
We left Aid Station 3 and found ourselves climbing up a ridge to by far my most favorite section of the trail, traversing a ridge overlooking the Zumbro River. It’s vaguely short and vaguely steep, but completely worth the trek to the ridge, not that we had a choice since it’s the course.
Around 6:45 the sun finally rose and we were treated to a most memorable sunrise.
With birds singing their morning song and the morning light on my face, a new day calls.
Finishing out lap 2, we crossed the campground and back into the start/finish line more or less on our pre-planned schedule, about 7:50. This time I my shed tights for shorts, stashed my headlamp, and put away my beanie, but keeping my fleece gloves and wool long sleeve shirt. Again restocking with additional waffles and liquids, we spent about 15 minutes before taking off on the final loop for the final 16.7 miles, the final 2500′ of vert, the final time down each ankle breaking leaf covered rock filled ‘trail’ and the final time wading across each of those ridiculous miniature lakes of mud.
Lap 3 – (33.5-50.2 miles)
With the sun fully out, setting out to run this lap a third should have seemed like plopping down in an old familiar broken in couch, but it wasn’t. I felt like I’d never been on this trail before and that we had just finished up a two lap race and were starting out on a new one lap race, except with no sleep the night before and 33.5 miles already under my belt. Finally being able to see what we had run past twice already was like doing a blind taste test where you thought you knew what you were eating, but wasn’t quite sure and then the blindfold comes off and you see it and taste it and it all comes together. It’s like taking a vacation, then trying to remember the sights and sounds and smell 10 years later, then you go back and there it all is just as you think you remembered it. Or going years without seeing or talking to a long ago childhood friend and immediately falling right back into a groove without missing a beat. This lap was all that, including the mud and puddles that were still there.
Finally making it to the top of the climb we were rewarded with a photo worthy overlook of the start/finish line the meandering Zumbro River. At night I could feel the void of openness below similar to putting a pillow over my ear on side with the pit of darkness. The lack of anything for sound to bounce off of is a deafening silence. From the campground, at night, you could look up and see headlamps every now and then come through this part of the trail, a speck and a flicker of light surveying the emptiness and ground below. It looked so high and so far away. In the daylight, it still did.
Having staggered starts with multiple concurrent races of different lengths isn’t a novel idea and is fairly standard for trail races, but staggering them each 12 hours apart is something new to me. It also provided for this novel 50 mile race that started at midnight and unless you were a front of the packer (we were not), you were guaranteed to run at least half of your race through the darkness by headlamp. The downside to having the 100 miles go first, the 50 milers go a half day later, and the 17 milers go almost even another half day later is that on this 16.7 mile loop it, the trails got congested on the last lap. I found myself on multiple occasions having to step aside as a line of fresh 17 milers came flying by us, uphill, looking fresh. That was at times disheartening. All you want to do is get in a groove and finish out the race, but every time I picked back up my newly re-acquainted step, I’d have to step off the trail again and say, “great work, looking good, keep it up” when all I really wanted to do was punch them in the face for having so much energy and making the ups look so easy. (I didn’t really want to do that.) (But kind of.) (But then I would have said, “I’m sorry”, patted them on the back, said, “good job” and sent them on their merry way.”
We rolled through familiar aid stations although with less fanfare and muted music, but still with just as much helpfulness as one could ever want. The volunteers were valiant through the night rocking out to music, dishing out broth and coffee and hot soup, keeping spirits high and the energy even higher. But now that light had arrived and the hours had waned, the energy of the sun brought up the lull powering runners and volunteers alike with much needed energy to complete their last lap.
Coming onto the last aid station of our race, the combined aid station 1/4 which I didn’t really figure out was the same aid station, just being approached from opposite sides, until the very last lap, we came upon a runner who was walking and kept moving over to the side of the trail and leaning over to puke. As we approached him I asked if he was ok. He said, “Yeah. Although I think I tore my achilles.” “Uh, really?” “Yeah.” <insert puking sound here.> “What can I do to help?” “Oh, nothing, I’m good.” “Are you sure?” “Well, I guess you can run up to the next aid station and tell them that I’m hurt, but I think I’m still just going to try to walk it in.” “Yeah. No problem.” So I ran as fast as I could. This was the only mile of the entire race Jerod and I didn’t run together. One last romp over the bridge and into Zumbro Bottoms and I was able to tell a volunteer that they should probably send someone out to get the guy even though he was walking in.
It had warmed up quite a bit by now and I had shed my gloves and my long sleeve merino wool half zip shirt. In fact it was borderline hot out. 55 degrees was quite a stretch from the 30 degrees it was in the middle of the night.
It’s just a short few miles through one last stretch of woods, before hitting a short compacted dirt and gravel road signaling the end of the loop and the finish which is near.
Up one final little mini section and the finish is within sight from across the entire length of the campground. We joked about sprinting in the last eight of a mile, then joked again that at our 20 minute/mile pace at this stage of the race, we were sprinting it in.
The finish chute ended right at the pavilion and the crowd of finishers, crew, and spectators cheered us in the final 30 feet as our names and hometowns were announced over the speakers.
Race completed. Another 50 miler in the books!
Thanks for Rocksteady Running and Race Director John Storkamp for hosting and putting on a great 50 mile midnight race. Thanks to some of the most gracious, helpful, and energetic volunteers I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across with at any race. If you ever have the chance to go and run any of these three races, you should. You won’t be disappointed.
Rod and Marcia were at the finish to cheer us in and afterwards, so graciously drove us all the way back to to St. Louis, and let us sleep the majority of the time in the back seat. They prodded us out of the car to stretch our legs go for a short walk every couple of hours, which was a bit painful and the one of the best things they could have done for us. We left at 2pm and eventually rolled into the city at midnight.
Showered up, I prepped my gear for the next day’s race, the Go! St. Louis road marathon and was in bed by 1:30am. I was out like a light and more than ready to get my 4 hours of sleep in before having to wake up to make it to the starting line for the 6am start. Another day, another race. What could better?
Lessons (Re)-Learned. What went well? What could be better?
- It’s better to have to stop and pee frequently than it is to suffer through cramping. The time, energy, and pain, you’ll save is worth the time it takes to water the trees.
- Running with a friend makes the time go by so much faster. The lows aren’t quite as low and the highs are even higher. It’s almost like running with a pacer.
- Nighttime in the woods can be dark and you’re limited to the light at the end of your headlamp. Remember to look around and see what’s around you, even if it’s only a tunnel of light. Keep one eye on the ground immediately in front of you, but scan for course markings and flagging.
- Stop at least once in the night, turn off your light and just look and listen. It’s a surreal experience and a joy. During the day, you might be in the exact same spot, looking in the exact same direction with the exact same person, but it’s going to be entirely different.
- Night and day is exactly that. The experience and trail are night and day. I might as well have been running two distinct different races.
- Solid foods first and for as long as I can. Save the gels for later when I need an immediate energy boost.
- Regulating body temperature at night was key. Something as small as flipping the beanie up so my head was still covered, but not my ears or turning down my gloves so that my wrists were uncovered or zipping my long sleeve shirt down even a half inch helped keep me balanced between overheating and being too cold.
- Drop bags, even just at the start/finish line was great for not having to carry every single thing I’ll need for all 50 miles. It may not have saved me any time, but not having to carry an extra couple of pounds of fuel made running that much easier.
- Recovery tights immediately after the race and through the next day may or may not have helped with compression and promoting pushing blood through my legs, but even if it’s just a placebo effect, I like it. I wore the tights on the plane ride over from Seattle, on the 10 hour car ride up to the race, and on the 10 hour car ride back to St. Louis.
Final Race Goals Recap and What’s Next?
I had four main goals for this race…
1. Make it to the Start Line.
2. Have fun running with Jerod. It’s a dry (wet?) run for my 100 mile race.
3. Make it to the Finish Line.
4. Thank the volunteers and crew.
Goal #1 – Completed. Took a plane ride, light rail, and car ride to get there, but I made it.
Goal #2 – Completed. We ran all of but 1 mile together.
Goal #3 – Completed. Just in time to catch our ride back to to St. Louis.
Goal #4 – Completed! There were so many to thank I’m sure I missed many who helped.
The Go! St. Louis was the next day. On minimal sleep and limited rest, this was a good test of my body’s ability to adapt, recover as quickly as it could, and to run on tired legs.
Next up is continuing this training schedule. One more training race in a month, Sun Mountain 50k, then the race I’ve working up to, Mohican 100 miler.
- Nike quick dry USMNT jersey
- SmartWool Midweight Zip-T Top
- The North Face Long Haul shorts
- Arc’teryx Bird Head Toque Beanie
- The North Face Manaslu Insulated Gloves
- XCCU Unisex Experia Multi-Activity micro mini crew with COOLMAX fiber
- Altra Lone Peak 2.0
- Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set pack with 1L bladder
- Suunto Ambit 2
- Garmin ANT+ Heartrate belt
- Sony HDR-AS15 Action Cam with waterproof housing
- Blue Steel Sports Anti-Chafe Cream – lubricant for legs and armpits
- Athletic tape – two 1″ pieces – one for each nipple, one 3″ piece – center of chest underneath heart rate monitor, one 3″ piece – small of back where pack rubs.
- (Phone, insurance card, credit cards, car keys and license in a zip lock bag – in case I get hurt, can’t talk and need to be identified)
The Race Video Recap