Monday, April 13, 2015

Zumbro 50 Mile Run

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience"- Ralph Waldo Emerson
   My first ultra. I was feeling confident, well trained and ready to go for the Zumbro 50-mile endurance run midnight start. Making my way to the starting area with my mom I noticed something was off. Of course, I had waited until the last minute to fill my water bottle with my nutrition mix I had planned on using for the entire 50-miles ahead of me. Walking over to the start/ finish aid station drop area I could not find my drop box anywhere; I began to panic.

   Moments earlier my girlfriend had left to get a good nights sleep to cheer me on in the morning and with no cell phone reception I had no way to reach her. I thought my mom could quickly drive up to an area to call my her and bring my drop bag with all my gear back to the starting area. My mind began to scramble for a solution and for some reason I thought calling my girlfriend would not work and began wondering how I was going to get though the lingering 50-miles that lie ahead in a completely different way than I had planned.

   Beep... Beep beep... Beep. I woke in a panic as I got out of bed and shut my alarm off. As I laid back down and took a deep breath I was relieved it was Monday morning and it was just a dream. It was only the first morning and I was already having dreams about unnecessary anxiety.

   I'm not the kind of person that gets all caught up in over thinking things, which was weird in this situation, but good it happened early on in the week; leaving time to calm my mind. Luckily the next couple days flew by and I was able to relax and focus on knowing what I needed to do and going with the flow instead of fearing what could go wrong.

   The plan was simple: no watch, no headphones, run when I could, walk if I had to and live in the moment.

Lap 1
The Start - The Rush - The Middle Of The Night

   With 20 minutes to the midnight start, runners began to make their way out of their warm cars and gathered around the fire. Race Director John Storkamp began walking through the growing crowd of people with a traffic road cone, directing everyone to the start area as if he were herding sheep.

   For some reason at the beginning of most races I somehow end up towards the front and
of course this race was no different. The 100 plus runners began to gather around the start area where Race Director John Storkamp began distracting us with a short pre-race speech.

Everyone gathered at the start. The calm before the storm.
    "Alright, am I going to hear another wimpy yell or are you going to give me one of those 'Braveheart' yells?!"

   Everyone yelled as loud as they could and at the same time John began counting down from and yelled "GO!". For a brief second everyone just stood there and looked around at each other, confused as if it was really time to go. John's brilliant pre-race distraction worked and we were off.

   Making our way through the winding trail my feet were completely numb from standing around in the chilling 34 degree temp and felt like bricks as I cruised along with the rest of the group. I knew I would warm up quickly within the first mile since it was pretty much all up hill. Snaking our way through the woods to the first overlook over the start/ finish area I glanced over the cliff and for the first time realized I was actually going to run 50-miles.

   I took a second to look back down the trail, headlights littered the trail in a snakelike pattern winding through the dark woods as runners hooted and hollered up the hill.

   For a majority of the first couple aid stations everyone stuck together. Jumping back and fourth over the mud trails, knowing later in the day this would not be possible I did not care. I was living in the moment.

"Live in the Moment"  A reminder I carried throughout the race.
   Well into the first lap, after the last of many big climbs I steadily ran up a slight incline which lead to an open field revealing the biggest-orange-yellow-moon I had ever seen in my life. Absolutely amazing.

   I did not bring a camera with me, as it would just be another distraction, and taking a picture of this amazing experience would not do it justice. Cruising along the trail along the open field, with nothing to worry about as the moon peaked over the hills in the distance, stars scattered even brighter in the sky. This is why I run.

    Down the boulder infested hill to the never ending mile and a half gravel road leading to the last aid station before the end of my first lap I respectively followed a 100-mile runner. Having over 50-miles and 18 or more hours on his feet I followed him as we made our way to the gravel road.

   With no watch and no idea of my pace I thought this would be a great opportunity to take some time to walk and talk to the oldest 100 mile runner on the course, Allan Holtz. He began telling me this was his 40 plus ultra marathon race and numerous marathons he's ran since picking up running at the ripe age of 45.

   I was in complete awe as these are the types of people that have inspired me along my journey to ultra running. To be able to attempt running 100-miles at his young age of 65 was simply amazing to me. The fact that numerous 50-mile runners galloped passed us did not bother me as I knew it was early and I had more than enough miles to get through. I was once again, living in the moment.

   As we continuing on he told me he has attempted the "Barkley Marathons" three times, which for those you that do not know is known as one, if not the hardest, 100 mile runs in the world.

   The Barkley was inspired by race director and founder Gary Cantrell after hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr's assassin James Earl Ray escaping from prison, and making it only 8 miles after running 55 hours in the unforgiving terrain in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. To this day only 14 out of over a thousand people have completed the 100 mile distance, it is no walk in the park.

   As temperatures dropped in the depths of the hills of the Zumbro bottoms in the middle of the night my fingers began to freeze. As much as I wanted to keep talking I know I had to keep moving to warm up. I wished my new friend good luck on the rest of his race and trotted off.

   Shortly after I completed my first lap in 3 hours and 26 minutes, well under my 4 hour goal, I could have worried my suicide pace would catch up with me later, but instead laughed and thought to myself, "that was fun".

Lap 2
The Journey Continues

   I took a second to grab a chia bar from my drop bag and stuff it into my shirt pocket as a fellow 50-mile runner, whom I have ran with before, joined me for the first few miles of my second lap. We chatted for a bit before we wished each other luck as I pushed on.

   By this point I was feeling extremely well. My nutrition was right on and I knew I was close to the first aid station on the second lap. Once I trotted down the hill to the aid station the music was still bumping and the amazing volunteers worked like a Nascar pit-stop, meeting all the runners needs.

   I was quickly on my way, and into the welcoming forest across the bridge. By this point everyone was spread out and I was on my own. As coyotes howled in the distance I took some time to think about not fearing what could be watching me from a distance in the dead of the night, but accepting my surroundings.

   I let my steady breath relax my thoughts, hypnotizing my motion and just letting things flow naturally. Owls hooted in the distance as the darkness of the forest welcomed me.

   Coming up on the second aid, the miles started to catch up with me. I took some time to stretch my legs and warm up for a few minutes by the fire. The next section was one of the flatter sections that would loop around to the same aid station before leading to, what I thought, was one of the hardest and longest sections of the course.

   After gathering myself around the fire I knew I had to get going otherwise I may have stayed there all night. Alone once again the next section quickly passed by and I really began to feel the miles catching up with me.

   An old saying goes, "The Darkest Hour Is Just Before The Dawn," and this definitely proved to be what I was going through just before heading up Ant Hill. Slogging up the rocky incline I glanced over to my left and noticed a subtle orange glow outlining the hills.

   Eventually I reached the top and a group of runners were stopped dead in their tracks peering over the hillside. I made my way towards them and below lied a blanket of fog covering the forest below. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The sun was coming up on one side and spectacular fog hid the inevitable gravel road below. As I looked down at the fog the thought of grinding through the next couple miles to the next aid station completely disappeared. It was just the perfect moment I needed to help turn things around.

   I continued on and ran past another runner whom I had ran with earlier in the year. We quickly exchanged hellos as he stuffed his camera into his vest and we eventually met up again at the end of our second lap.

   This time around I was more on my pace with a lap time of 4 hours and 5 minutes.

Lap 3
The End Of The Beginning Is Near 

   I had debated at the last aid station whether or not to change, but eventually decided everything was going so smoothly I was not going to try and fix something that was not broken. I hooked up with my running partner and thought it would be a great idea to keep each other company through the last lap, melting the miles away, even it was for a little bit.

   After the first aid station I once again found myself running alone, but was in good spirits and moving extremely well despite some lingering cramps in my legs waiting to strike like a coiled up cobra. Every time I felt the muscles tighten in my legs it was a good reminder to drink, which seemed to work throughout the entire last lap.

   I quickly caught up to my running partner and we blasted through the next section before reaching the last aid station. I knew the next section would be brutal, with one last big climb and extremely technical downhill leading towards the flat, mind numbing, gravel road.

   Hiking my way up the hill I caught up to my running partner and he jokingly said he thought he'd get a lead on me, but the hill rendered him useless, especially having over 40 miles on his legs. We chatted for a bit, wondering if anyone has ever run up this whole hill and just as he finished his sentence the first place 17-miler blazed past us.

   "Well, I guess that answers that question," he said as we laughed and continued our long climb. Once we made it towards the bottom of the hill we met up with another 50-mile runner carefully maneuvering his way through the winding trail.

   Feeling good, I ran on as my former running partner and the other guy visited. I quickly filled up my water bottle and slipped on the coolest shirt I own and trotted onto the finish. With just under 3 miles to go, I knew I was actually going to do this.

   I decided to push within my inevitably cramping legs, knowing I only had to suffer a little bit longer. As I made it through the last winding section and back onto the small road, around the corner I could see the white sign directing runners to the trail that led to the finish.

   I let out the loudest yell I could muster as all the pain disappeared and I ran past the volunteer radioing my bib number to the finish line. As I ran across the open field I was suddenly struck with an unwelcoming tightness in my hamstring.

   I knew I needed a moment to stretch this bad boy out and made a dash for the finish as spectators cheered me on. Nearing the finish I quickly located my parents, girlfriend and her parents cheering me on as I crossed the finish line, 11 hours and 32 minutes.

   Everything blurred together at this moment. I think I yelled as I shook John's hand and thanked him for this incredible experience. I was quickly met by one of my running friends, whom I had ran with all winter as she screamed and congratulated me on my finish.

   I made my way over to my family as they too congratulated me on this incredible accomplishment. This is why I run.

Finished in the coolest shirt I own.
The incredible crew I ran with all winter
   The lingering soreness and adrenaline has dissipated, but the feeling of concurring myself and my limits will last forever. This experience has been something I have worked for and wanted for a long time. It's not about the miles traveled, but the experience. I have found that by looking past what many see as impossible, past fear, is everything you have ever imagined.

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