Monday, April 21, 2014

Zumbro 17-Mile Trail Run Race Report

Mud-covered post-run. (Sorry about the lack
of pictures you will find here, but I knew I would be
 slow enough without playing the tourist.) 
Friday, April 11, 2014, was a beautiful day in the upper Midwest. Driving from Wisconsin to Minnesota past rolling farm fields, crossing the famed Mississippi River, and then continuing our journey along the bluffs of The Big Muddy was an exercise in contentment. The weather was perfect. Not too warm, not too cold. Clear skies. Even a bit of sun. It was the perfect start to what would be an imperfect race weekend – at least weather-wise.

The husband and I were on our way to the Zumbro 17-Mile Trail Race in Theilman, Minnesota. The 17-Miler was actually the “short” run, part of a wider 100-mile and 50-mile event, which had started that day at 8 a.m. As we pulled into Olive Garden in Onalaska, Wisconsin, for dinner, we mulled over the fact that the 100-milers had already been on the trail for 10 hours. As we crossed Ol' Man River into the dying sun and then turned north towards the hotel we would be staying at, we noted that the 50-milers would be starting in about five hours at 12:01 a.m., spending the first seven hours of their journey in utter darkness. We, on the other hand, doing the short race, had the luxury of leisurely driving into the area, getting a decent night's sleep at the AmericInn in Wabasha, Minnesota, (of Grumpy Old Men movie fame, apparently), and having a lovely breakfast before driving to our relatively late start of 9 a.m., well-rested and ready to go.

Then it rained.

Sitting in the car at the campground start.  Rain, rain, go away....
Waking up on Saturday morning to a very light drizzle was not the worst thing in the world, especially after the weather man on the local news noted that any rain would be passing by 9 a.m. (our start time). It should be noted that the “local” news was from the Twin Cities, approximately 90 miles northwest of our race start.

Driving from our hotel in Wabasha into the Zumbro River Bottoms Management Area, where the race was staged, the light drizzle became a bit more emphatic. Pulling into the campground, emphatic became even more insistent as thunder and lightning entered the fray. By the time we had parked our car and gotten our race bibs, the rain had become a downright downpour with some hail thrown in for good measure. It was 8:15 a.m. We still had 45 minutes to the start.

Ok, I didn't say that it was big hail, but still....
Sitting in the car, waiting for 9 a.m., watching the weather steamroll over us, I was hard-pressed to remember why I had actually signed up for this event. After all, I had just spent almost five months trying to rehab an ornery IT band and now was dealing with a grumpy hip flexor and/or groin muscle. (Hard to say where that pinching is coming from.) I had jokingly told my friends that if my plan of slowly getting back into running while simultaneously training for a 17-mile trail race worked, I would write a book.

The fact is, though, that ever since running the Moose Mountain Marathon the previous September on the Superior Trail on the North Shore of Minnesota, I had fallen in love with Rock Steady Running's events. They do trail races well. With Zumbro, I wanted to see what else they had.

Back in the car, we slowly got ourselves ready: making last-minute clothing changes as dictated by the rain and 40-something-degree weather, pinning bib numbers, prepping hydration, etc. As it approached 9 a.m., the sky began to brighten; the rain let up a bit and then miraculously ceased. It was time to run.

The Zumbro 100, 50, and 17-mile trail races are located in the Zumbro River Bottoms Management Area in southern Minnesota's Bluff Country. It lies within a portion of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. The race is run mostly on single- and double-track trail, with a couple of stretches on gravel maintenance road thrown in for good measure. The net elevation change is 6,196 feet: 3,098 feet up and 3,098 feet down. The 17-mile race is actually a 16.7-mile loop that leaves the campground, wends its way along trails with names such as West Scenic Trail, Bridge Trail, Old Pump Trail, Ant Hill Trail, and Sand Slide Trail, to name a few, before landing you back at the campground. The 50-milers do three of these loops. The 100-milers six.

There are four aid stations out on the course. It's approximately three miles to Aid Station 1 (AS1), 4.3 miles to AS2, 2.7 miles to AS3, almost 4 miles to AS4, and then another 2.7 miles to the finish.

So, enough of the statistics. How did the race go?

After a relatively low-key start, the 200 or so odd 17-mile runners headed out across the campground. The main occupation at this point was dodging the puddles that had popped up all over the campground. As time would soon tell there wasn't much point in that. Approaching the trailhead, our merry band of misfits slowed to a walk as we all tried to squeeze onto the single-track. Being at the back of the pack, this wasn't that unusual. Much like the Keweenaw and Moose Mountain runs I had done last year, I was used to the fact that when you are getting funneled onto single-track, you can't really expect to go any faster than the folks in front of you. Given that in this race, the funneling point was immediately followed by an uphill, I knew that we'd be walking for a few minutes. So, I passed the time by chatting with the folks around me: spouses of 100-milers, the undertrained-but-determined, and Hoka aficionados. Good conversations all.

At some point on this uphill slog, it became clear that we were going to be running through some mud, as if the booming thunderstorm before the start and the huge puddles in the campground hadn't been clue enough to that fact. Even so, I was still naively unclear as to what the ramifications for this would be. I started to catch on as we approached our first downhill segment. Looking ahead on the trail, I could see that those further up the conga line we had formed were starting to head downhill and they were still walking. My cohorts around me and I laughed and wondered what the hold up was. Reaching the top of our little single-track hill in the woods, looking down at what awaited us, though, it became quite clear. The downhills were going to be beautiful messes of chute-shaped mud. And, it was slippery. The only way to navigate it without falling would be a) to either go off trail (which was brush-choked) or b) head down the slippery slide, grabbing trees as you went. I chose B. For the next 16.5-miles, the single-track descents were often to become a carefully choreographed dance as I basically slid from tree to tree. After the race, my shoulders would be sore from all the upper-body work I had done, both trying to keep myself from falling on the downhills and to help pull myself up on the uphills.

Example of the hills we scaled.
Of course, there were runnable hills, too. (For me, naturally, that refers to downhills, as I walk uphill as a rule.) Those mainly were the trails that had a lot of rocks or roots poking out so that I could jump from one to the other, were somewhat navigable off-trail, or whose mud had been so churned up that you could essentially plant your heel in it as you ran down, i.e., turning it almost into a downhill stair run versus a hill.

About twenty minutes into the race, just in case the course weren't muddy enough, it started to rain again, and not just any rain – a thunderstorm. I don't think I have ever run in thunder and lightning before, so that was a new experience. I kept thinking about the Pikes Peak Ascent I had done in 2011 and how paranoid they had been about running during a thunderstorm. Of course, that was at 14,000 feet and above treeline; this was only at about 1,000 feet and in the woods. I kept telling myself that this wasn't really a big deal. And it wasn't. The worst part about it was that it got me wet. Up until that point, I had enjoyed the illusion that I might manage to keep everything above the ankles dry.

The whole race wasn't run up or down hills, of course. There were some nice, flat runnable sections, but even these turned out to be more of a challenge than they otherwise might have been. Single-track was transformed into a slippery, narrow chute, while double-track tended to be flooded. With the latter, the choice was either to run through the puddles, or try to pick your way around. My choice throughout the race was to tiptoe my way around the puddles. Mentally, I am sure the option of picking my way carefully through the ankle-deep mud to the side of the trail seemed like a drier proposition than picking my way through the ankle-deep puddles and mud down the middle of the trail.

To be honest, it didn't even occur to me to plow through the puddles until coming out of the first aid station, when I witnessed a tired looking 100- or 50-miler resolutely walking straight through the middle of the flooded trail. I remember thinking that person must be really whipped to have given up on trying to keep her feet dry. What I should have realized was that, really, I was fooling myself. My feet weren't dry and they weren't going to dry during this event. In the end, I decided that I should have just followed that ultrarunner's lead. Running through the puddles would have saved me not only time, but effort. Surely, despite the water, the center of the trail would have required less effort than picking around the overhanging brush while navigating the sketchy footing at the trail's edge. Lessons learned for next time.

It would be hard for me to remember this entire race, blow-by-blow, given how distracted I was by the muddy conditions, however a few things stand out to me about this event. Regarding the trail itself, it was a fantastic mix of different challenges. I am not a really strong runner, so as I get tired the flat sections lose their charm for me. But I love power-walking up the hills and running the downhills – even late in the race. This event had a great mix of everything. Plenty of hills, but also enough flat sections to keep the flat-land runners happy. The footing did not seem too technical to me. There were a couple of rocky sections, but for the most part, the trail was fair. Of course, I can't judge too well given all the mud.

There was one stretch in the middle of the race that seemed to dry out, because the soil was more sandy. That was great until the race put you into a dry creek bottom. There was a decent stretch where you were running through sand. Not a little sand, but like on a beach – and it wasn't hard-packed. I chose to walk much of this, because it seemed to take a lot of strength that I didn't have to power through it. Making up for the sandy part was what seemed like a mile-long stretch of dirt road as we approached Aid Station 4. For people who run well, this would be a boon. I had a 50-miler pass me on this stretch, because she said the flat sections gave her her energy back. After being up and down hills so much (and given that I had only been doing a run/walk as I recovered from my injury), I found this section to be a slog. I ran/walked it, but as this came around the same time that my 13-mile “wall” did, I was feeling pretty pooped. I was happy to have this section behind me after the last aid station and to get back to some hills for the final stretch.

I didn't wear a watch for this race, and I didn't wear the run/walk interval timer I had been training with to get back into running. With a nine-hour time limit on the event, I knew I had the luxury of lollygagging if I wanted/needed to. The event for me was a slow one, for sure. I finished at about 4:45. To be honest, my goal time in dry conditions had only been 4:15, so to have missed it by only a half hour given all the mud, I was happy.

In fact, I can honestly say that overall I really did enjoy the run. I had a smile on my face for the first thirteen miles, which coincidentally is the length of my longest training run for this event. The area itself is beautiful. The climbs are tough but manageable, and the sweeping views you see of the river once you get up there are fantastic. I enjoyed the loop concept that allowed me to feel I was running with people for the entire race. Even as my 17-mile field thinned out, there were 50- and 100-milers still out there to talk to.

I am happy that I only had to do one loop, though. If I were in it for the 50- or 100-miler, I think mentally I would have a hard time. I am not a huge fan of multiple loops for long runs anyway, but one that has the challenges this one has would be especially hard.  I mean, after being quit of that sandy section, I would have been less than thrilled to realize that I had to do it two (or five!) more times.  I really give a lot of credit to the folks who did it. Again, though, I am biased by the conditions we had. I talked to several of the longer distance runners on the trail and they all said they enjoyed the run. For most of their race, they were able to enjoy pleasant, dry weather conditions. It only got hard at the end, but then doesn't any race even without the thunderstorms?

I definitely think this is a race worth doing, and if it were something that was closer to home for me, I know I would be out there again. As it is, I think I might enjoy getting back to it someday. I would love to run these trails in fair conditions...and maybe next time take some pictures.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness, your race you just described was eerily similar to my first day on RAGBRAI. However, isn't there something strangely satisfying about finishing your day much messier than when you started? Good job on your race and great report too!