"You just have to run, dad. You don’t have to win."
Gigi came downstairs early Friday morning as I was making coffee and could tell something was off. “I’m just nervous for the race, honey,” I told her.
Truth is that I had been nervous for weeks; the lingering stomach ache of apprehension to the unknown, the heavy of an x-ray blanket draped over my shoulders, the twitch of a looming deadline.
The Zumbro 50, my first 50 miler, also happened to be the first race of the calendar. I had skipped a few of my winter half-marathons to focus on longer distances, specifically to work up to 50. Now I was 17 hours from the midnight start and I wasn’t wearing it well.
"You just have to run, dad. You don’t have to win."
My smile must have relayed the absolution of worry those words granted me and she gave me a big hug, standing there on the stairs.
Scratch-offs for karma, man.
My friend and training partner Scott picked me up later that afternoon for the 2 hour drive south to the Zumbro River Bottoms State Forest. We had enough gear to outfit a militia, if said militia was really into tight shorts, trail shoes, hydration packs, and body lubricants.
The weather forecast was iffy. A notoriously documented winter mindfuck in Minnesota hadn’t yet apologized into a Spring blossom worthy of mention and rain was in the forecast. Luckily, said running militia gear included rain coats. We’ll be fine, we thought.
After stopping in Zumbrota, MN for the last indoor bathroom we’d see for a while, Scott pulled out a stack of scratch-off lotto cards. Like, 60 of them.
"Aid station karma," he said. "Each station I roll into, I’m slapping one of these in each volunteers hands. Karma, man."
Well now that’s just fucking genius. I felt good vibes just riding shotgun next to this magician. Things were looking up.
We arrived at Zumbro and had the better part of 6 hours to kill before our start. The 100 milers had already been on the course for 10 hours and were slowly appearing, here and there, out of the woods and into the clearing to the start/finish line to log another lonely loop.
I watched these normal people - these moms and dads and students and nurses and teachers and plumbers - I watched these guys come across the start/finish only to take off a sock to bleed a blister, to eat a quesadilla, to stand by the fire while a volunteer refilled their fluids only to head-down start running again without a word on their quest to hit 100; an arbitrary number that held mythical significance to each of them in their own way.
I watched these normal people run and eat and smile and cry and become unknown legends, unbeknownst only to them.
"An inch of rain."
Time crawled until midnight. Scott and I both tried unsuccessfully to sleep a few precious minutes before the start. When 11:45 pm finally came, Race Director John Storkamp called for the 100 or so 50 mile starters and we gathered in the dark.
We were quiet. Eerie quiet. We’d seen the faces of the 100’s and knew we had a slog ahead.
John walked us through his race notes: to always defer right-of-way to those that have been on the trail longer, to help others if needed, to be smart, to have fun.
"And they’re saying we’re getting rain. Like, an inch."
There was no cell coverage in the river valley and, while I wondered earlier what the clouds had in store of us, finding out simply wasn’t an option. Now I didn’t need to.
It was dark, obviously. I had one headlamp on my head and another strapped to my right hand, both woefully losing a battle to oppressive night that gave me 5 feet, maybe, before my light evaporated.
I kind of knew the course, thanks to some winter scouting with Scott and my other trail dorks Julie and John (I made a video of that run).
I knew I had the lungs. I knew I had the legs. Most importantly, I knew I had the stubbornness to get this done.
John counted us down and we were in it.
We were running.
We were racing.
And I farted.
In Ultras (any race over a standard 26.2 marathon, usually on trails instead of pavement), nutrition and stubbornness are 75% of the game. Keeping energy in and negativity out is a constant chore and learning the right way to stay fueled takes time.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to eat for a midnight race. A time when my body, on a regular night, would only be expecting bed or nachos. Sometimes, both at the same time.
I ate clean that day; stayed away from red meat, not too much coffee, lots of water. But the combination off several peanut butter sandwiches and “lightly carbonated” vitamin water had my stomach bubbling. The Itis was happening.
Runners fart a lot. It’s fun. When it’s cold, it’s like a mini vacation to Florida for your ass.
Running just shakes everything up in your body and for the first several miles of any run, whatever air you had in your gut finds it’s way out. It’s science. I think.
But churning up the first big elevation to West Scenic Trail, the normally happy fun farts were scaring me. Not I’m gonna shit my pants scaring me, but more What the fuck is the matter with my stomach we just started this are you kidding me? scaring me.
Long fart story short, my stomach was in knots and I couldn’t eat. I skipped Aid Stations 1 and 2, forcing myself to stop at the 10 mile mark of Station 3 to try and eat a Grilled Cheese square while ascending over Highwater Trail.
I alternated between small nibbles and pulls from my water pack to suck the sandwich slurry down because whatever was going on with me was making me gag when I tried to eat.
This doesn’t happen to me. I was baffled.
I forced myself to eat a cold potato at Station 4. I kept running. The 3 miles to the end of Loop 1 flattened out and the potato seemed to calm the Itis. I spun the bad news in my head to a positive and thought of the fresh t-shirt and shoes in my drop bag that I’d switch to for Lap 2.
I farted one more time. And smiled.
As the 50 was a 3 lap deal, I had thought ahead of time of this race as 3 separate races. Lap 1: The Warm-up. Lap 2: The Slog. Lap 3: The Victory Lap. I was most worried about The Slog.
After a quick shirt and shoes change at the start/finish, I headed back into the woods. It was 3:09 am. My headlamps were still losing the war against darkness, but I had planned for a second wind when the sun would rise, because why not, right?
Oh right. The rain.
At 4 am, I started feeling rain drops and seeing flurries before an area called Ant Hill. I had my rain jacket on, so I wasn’t worried and pressed on.
Mile 20. Mile 24. Mile 28.
The rain increased, as did the wind. The sun-up I planned for didn’t happen. But I was feeling good, still trying to nibble here and there for fuel.
The rain was now a steady sprinkle as I hit Mile 30 (“Selfie time!” Seriously though, I took a selfie. I immediately hated myself.) and though there was no beaming sun rays, I could see without my headlamps and promptly Fuck You’d to both of them into my jacket pocket.
I passed several 100’ers who all cheered me on as I slowly passed them. Yeah. Cheered me on. These people who were entering their 23rd hour of running. They were simply beautiful in their exhaustion and faces and unsteady legs. I wanted to hug them but probably would have inadvertently knocked them over. I thanked them instead.
I hit the open field of the start/finish, the 33 Mile mark, at 6:39am. I knew The Slog was over and it was Victory Lap time. My wife and daughters would be there when I entered this field the next time and then it was Fresh Clothes and IPA City and Cheering On Everyone Else Time.
But as I made my way through the clearing to the start/finish, I saw two little girls in the pack of volunteers and other runners refueling for another lap. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had gotten them up a 4 am for the drive down and surprised me early.
I almost cried. I don’t cry much, but I did everything I could not to cry when Lolo and Gigi ran out to hug me as I finished Lap 2 of 3. They were to be my beacon of completion. My trophy. But seeing them now, I just wanted to stop.
I kissed my girls, my wife, my dog (who ended up kissing/licking everyone else who crossed the Finish line… “free salt face!”), changed my shirt again, put on a new headband and said I gotta go, I need to finish and be done.
They cheered me on and I left.
There are 4 Aid Stations per lap. I hadn’t thought much of the distance between each, until now. What had been my original mental plan of running 3-races-in-one became a more granular race of “just get to Aid Station 1” followed by “just get to 2” and so on.
Achievements were measured in tenths of miles versus 10’s of miles.
And then the rain.
The sprinkling had been bad on Lap 2, enough to make 9-10 miles of the previous lap mud-laden and slow. But doable.
Around 7 am the sprinkles stopped fucking around and turned to hail. Then a down pour. With lightening. The kind of lightening where it was thunder at the same time because Jesus Christ we just might die out here.
My victory lap was getting tenuous and when the wind hit and the rain was so intense it was going down the back of my neck, soaking my shirt and compression sleeves, the shivering started.
It was around 45 degrees when I was running the Coulee Trail between Stations 2 and 3 and I had to clench my jaw while running to stop my teeth from chattering.
I passed some people on the trails who didn’t look too good, but they just kept moving, as did I, knowing that stopping wasn’t an option.
I took personal inventory and rationalized the situation. How was my head? Still clear. My nutrition? Wobbly stomach was in control; good there. Any injuries? None. Then keep going because you’re just cold ya dummy.
So I kept going.
The trails were now a total wash-out. I was “running” in ankle deep water because the sides of the trail ruts were too slick/too deep in mud and bog hopping was the best option. Plus, I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, so why the hell not?
Get To 4
My game of Aid Station to Aid Station survival was working like a charm and when I hit Station 4 I blew on past it WAIT you didn’t “blow on past” anything REDACTED when I hit Station 4 I hobbled on past it and keep going (happy, dick?).
2.88 miles to the finish, my girls, some beers, and best of all, the chance to cheer everyone else on behind me.
I was running with 3 guys the past few miles and they kicked it into a gear the last mile that I didn’t have. Also, the women’s eventual first place winner overtook me at this point like I was standing still. See was flying. I got goosebumps. It was rad.
I hit the final field, a quarter mile to the finish, all alone. Happy as fuck. Tired as everything. And grateful that I had the opportunity to try this crazy race.
I waved to my girls from the distance and they started cheering. Sarge, our 5 month old Golden Retriever started barking. My friends Julie and Bob (who had volunteered ALL NIGHT to help other runners) started clapping. And my dad popped out from behind everyone with a huge smile to tell me how proud he was.
Did I mention that my dad had chemo last week for recently diagnosed lymphoma? AFTER a triple-bypass heart surgery a few months ago that none of us saw coming? Yeah, he said he was proud of me.
It took everything I had not to start crying by all the beauty that was around me at that moment.
I finished. It was beautiful. And I can’t wait to do it again.