This race is five 20 mile loops in the woods near Zumbro Falls, MN. Big hills and technical footing would be the rule of the day, though there are some extended sections of road on a couple parts of the course. Each loop has five aid stations including the start/finish area.
The race was held on Friday, April 8th, starting at the civilized hour of 8AM. I decided, like last year, to go down on Thursday afternoon and camp out at the start, letting me relax and do very little on race morning. I spent the rest of Thursday afternoon hanging around the campfire with all the volunteers who came down early as well as the other racers showing up for the pre-race dinner and packet pickup. I had a good time talking to John, Bill, Jason, Larry and several others throughout the evening. It's always been a perk of these events to reunite with friends that you've met at other races, and the community around the state seems pretty tight and supportive. Everyone here had either done ultras, volunteered at one, or more likely both, and they all know what you, as a runner, are about to go through.
The Start, and Lap One
It was a chilly night and frost covered the ground, picnic table, and my sleeping bag. I had slept pretty well, only getting chilly when the blanket I had on my bag fell off. Still, pretty good rest for a race night. I got dressed for the day, pinned my number on, then put on a layer of warm clothes and got out of the tent. I kept my breakfast simple with some oatmeal and a banana about an hour and a half before the start. I could see cars pulling into the start and Matt Patten unloading his much coveted coffee. After doing a last check of my gear box, I headed over to the start.
There was a lot of energy as the 25 of us who would face the challenge showed up and got ready to get to business. There was a lot of hand shaking and good luck wishing as 8:00 pushed nearer. It was pretty clear it was going to be a beautiful day out. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was warming up quickly. Soon though, the RDs, John Storkamp and Larry Pederson, called everyone to the line for the briefing. Larry officially handed the reins of the Superior Trail Races and Zumbro over to John (who already RDs Afton). After a quick roll call and some last minute info, we were sent on our way.
We quickly spread out as we spilled onto the trail, and got ourselves sorted out as we wound through the initial single track and approached the first big climb. I'd been following Matt Aro up to this point, and walked past him on the hill. He would end up pushing me all day, though we never saw each other again until 97 miles into it. As I wound up the hill I hooked up with Darryl Saari and Dale Humphrey, both veterans of many 100's and many other ultras. We ran and chatted for a while through to the first aid station at 5k. I just refilled water and carried on down the road.
At this point, position means nothing, I thought through the next seven miles that I still had a couple of people in front of me. And I would have, but they took a wrong turn out of the first aid station and ended up back at the start. So I cruised off alone down the road, which not too long ago had been under 15 feet of water. It was quite a change from last year, when it was graded and perfectly smooth. Now it was soft and rutted, still, it was a cruiser compared to the rest of the course. Darryl wasn't far behind me and caught up to me briefly when we turned onto the jeep road. After a minute of running with him I was alone again through to aid station two. Getting there was pretty easy, though it was the longest stretch of the trail. Most of it was wide, though fairly muddy and quite a bit climbing. The last little bit to get there was a nasty single track super technical downhill that was pretty nasty on later laps. Somewhere along here, a coyote ran across the trail in front of me. And I saw a big owl flying away too. Very cool, and one of the benefits of silent sports is all the wildlife.
I pulled in alone to AS2 and asked Bill who was ahead of me and was told I was it. Cool, I'd never led a race before. I quickly got rid of my garbage, refilled water and headed out on a five mile loop that would end up back here. This little loop wasn't all that hard, except the last mile was nothing but deep sand that the flood had dumped here. I was constantly torn on whether or not to run it or walk it. In less than an hour, though, I was back at AS2 (which is AS3 at this point). Bill told me Jordan (a rookie at the distance) and Matt Aro were behind me. Matt Patten was here and grabbed my shoulders and told me to settle down. I must have looked possessed. All I heard in my head was run run run As I headed out of the aid station and up the gnarliest hill on the climb I'd see Matt Aro and Jordan behind me.
This hill is long, rocky and steep. The only nice part of it is that it is just six miles to the end of the loop. Jordan caught me at the top of the hill as we were running along the ridge. I let him by me, but I wasn't too worried about him, it was early and I had more experience. It was a good call, he never dropped me and only was ahead of me for 10 minutes or so until Ant Hill, where I dropped him and never saw him again. This put me back on the road to AS1(4). This was a gentle cruise and I again just filled my water bottle half way and did went out to do the last 2.7 miles of the loop. Just a bit of jeep road, some technical single track, then back on the road and across the field to the starting area. 3:43 for the first 20 miles.
Maria Barton was manning this aid station and would all day and night. She's a real trooper at these events. She filled my water bottle, while I restocked my goo and headed back out onto the course. I didn't know who all was behind me, but I figured the best case was never to let them see me.
Loop 2: It get's hot.
It was about noon now, and pretty warm out. This loop would be a cooker, and much slower than the first. I sweated a lot this lap and definitely got dehydrated. On my way back out I saw a couple of guys on the road coming in, everyone was still looking good. When I got to aid station 2 I started my pattern of asking them to let me know what the gap was between me and the second place runner. It was kind of foolish, still being relatively early, but it did help motivate me to keep moving briskly. I found out that the lead has the problem of never knowing exactly how close the second is, but the second always knows. When I completed the little 5 miler back, I found I was 10 minutes ahead. That's nothing with 70 miles to go. Then it was back up the monster climb across the ridge, then back down Ant Hill (a bit slower this time).
On the road again back to AS4 I saw a number of folks headed out for lap 2. I was hot, and took a full bottle at AS4 to get me back to the end of the loop. I was in pretty low spirits when I got back, being hot, feeling chased, and feeling the distance. There's also the mental drain of knowing I had to go out three more times. At least this was my last one alone. I'd get a pacer next time around. This time, though, Maria again hooked me up with some water while I resupplied and had an ibuprofen and some ginger ale. I'd drink a lot more ginger ale to keep my stomach settled. John had some words of encouragement for me as I headed back out. This was the loop that broke me last time, and here I was headed out, not feeling great. I clocked about a 4:20 this time.
Loop 3: Settling in
I felt better almost immediately after starting loop 3. The ibu kicked in and this was the coolest part of the course. Plus it was getting on in the afternoon, around 4PM, so the sun wasn't as intense. I cruised through the single track then onto the jeep road and the big climb. Before long I was back at AS1, where there were some people headed in. I'd see some more on the road coming on my way to AS2. I felt pretty loose, much better than last time around. I joked with Zack, my pacer for loop 4, asking if he was ready. Sure he said, in 20 miles. The road had become monotonous by this time, an easy run, but long and monotonous. Better than a paved road any day.
After doing the zigs and zags back to AS2, I was out onto the sandy 5 miler. Back to the AS they told my I now had 20 minutes. It was nice to be gaining, but with 50 miles still to go, that number was pretty meaningless. As it stood, I just had to keep at it. So, back up the monster climb, across the ridge, and down Ant Hill, getting more gingerly each time. As I approached the road, Lynn Saari gave me a cheer and a high five. Now, as much as I disliked the road, it was a sign the the end of the loop was near. Part of why I didn't like it was that I had vowed to run everything flat and downhill, no matter how it felt. But it was a good place to make time, and also one of the few places I was able to see other runners. John Taylor was one friend that was headed out and shook my hand, and joked about me getting ready to lap him. He's an iron man, going for his 30th hundred mile finish at this race.
I had passed two runners on this loop, both of them ready to be done. I had thought I'd get a rush from lapping people, but it didn't do anything for me, in fact I felt a little bad for them, imagining how I'd feel.
I made my way to the end in 4:09, the last lap I'd keep track of. I got some more water, goo, and my primary lamp. I'd run loop three with my backup, but didn't need it. Zach would be ready and waiting for me at AS1 when I got back around. Another ibu, and ginger ale, and it was time to face the beast. Around this mileage (60 so far) things get really tough.
Loop 4: Keeping company
It was about 8PM and getting dark fast. Amy showed up just as I was leaving and walked me out onto the course, I didn't get to say much to her, since I was mentally taxed, but she chatted and turned around as I hit the single track. I turned my lamp on and knocked out the hills to AS1. I knew I only had to do the trail behind me one more time. There was some small relief in that. And Zach waiting head of me to keep me company and think for me for the loop. I pulled in and he was there, and after a quick bottle refill we were off. "Do you need water?" I asked. "Oh shit" he says and spins around to get his camelbak. Now Zack is a fellow geek like me and we talked almost the whole loop about either running or programming. It was really nice to get to know him better and have some company.
On this loop we started passing people, not a lot, but the field was really spread out now. We cruised the road, to the jeep road and the twists and turns. Pausing briefly at a picnic area just before AS4, turning off our lamps to see the stars. They were incredible. I led most of the time which seemed to work out best, since I could dictate pace, and we wound our way to AS2. I watered, ditched garbage and started on the tedious 5 miler. This patch never seemed to take long, but we did have some excitement. Zach told me he had to make a pitstop, but he'd catch up to me. After a few minutes he comes barreling up the trail with a roll of TP in his hand. "That had to be a record crap" he says. "I was finishing up and something big rustled in the trees right behind me and I took off". There's always some good humor to be found out there.
When we got to AS3, they told me I was up by about 20 minutes. I immediately took off, getting nervous. I hadn't gained anything! And still 30 miles to go. I found out later that it was more like 40 minutes. I was out on the trail before Zach was ready, I think I surprised him. But he caught up and, yes, we were once again up the big nasty hill, across the ridge and this time slowly down Ant Hill and to the road. Once we got to the road, Zach let me know that he would like to take a break at the next AS and get his stomach settled down. That was cool with me, after all, this was an unpaid gig he was doing, helping me out. As I left AS4 I asked him to time how far back Matt was and he started his watch.
One of the benefits of loop courses is, after the first lap, you know exactly where you are and how far you have to go. You learn where to spend your energy. This short section went pretty fast, and Amy would be waiting there to crew me for the last go-round. I rolled in to some cheers, as this is where the most people were and they cheered everyone both coming and going. They all knew it was hard to get back out onto the course. Amy had my goo and water ready to go and got me a new headlamp, since my batteries died on my main. I did this lap somewhere just under 4:40. The darkness, especially on technical trail really slows you down.
Loop 5: A Bout of Tourettes
Amy again walked me out onto the trail, sometime around 1 AM. Around this time I started enough swearing that I'd make a sailor blush. She just laughed it off. I was tired and sore, but had 20 more miles ahead. Soon I was pushing back up the single track and falling asleep on my feet. I needed coffee bad. Before long I was at AS 1 and Zach had lined up Chris Koch to run the last loop for me.
This dude was motivated and I swear he had a riding crop. He pushed me to run as hard as I could for this loop. Chris was really stoked to be out on the trail and we talked a lot about his upcoming race at Western States. It was a neat meeting him since the crew I run with at Hyland was wondering who he was, one of two Minnesotans to get in this year. So we ran and talked and I dropped a ton of f-bombs as I regularly tripped over roots and rocks. It didn't seem like all that long and we were back at AS2. Chris got me watered and fueled up and out on the sandy loop quickly. We chatted and I kept him apprised of what was coming up in the course.
As we approached AS3 we went over what I'd need, mostly water and some goo. When we got there I started asking where's Matt? How far back is he? Chris just pointed behind me, and there Matt was. He was just starting the five mile loop we had finished. This was our first meeting, and we traded some words and a high five and I was off again. One last time up the big hill.
At this point we knew I'd come in under the course record, and get the win, just by how much we weren't sure. Chris pushed me to keep running down the road to the last aid station where a small crowd cheered me through and onto the last stretch. The time looked good, but I wasn't sure we'd get under 22 hours. As soon as we left the single track and got back onto the road with 17 minutes to spare it was all about running as hard as I could. There was three quarters of a mile of road and open field to the finish line. I had Chris go first and I just locked in three feet behind him and gave it my all. We made the last turn off the road and hit the field. We could see the finish line from here and were running all out. About half way across we could hear cheers as the aid station saw our headlamps approaching. Chris gave me a bump and split off to the side of the chute and I crossed the line. 21:53:05 and a new CR.
I can't say enough about how great this race was. For me there was the elation of my first win, but bigger than that is the community I get to run with. John and Larry, along with a boatload of volunteers put their hearts into making sure everything comes out right. That's weeks of effort for our one day on the trail. All the runners I encountered were all supportive, no matter how tired they were and all the aid stations stocked with good food and staffed by great people. I totally recommend this race to anyone looking for a great, family feel 100.