Friday night I didn’t have much to put together. I had been picking my outfit out all week and lining things up. Went to bed early and got a good night’s sleep. Yesterday morning I woke up bright and early at 4:30 am. Had plenty of time to take a shower get dressed, curl my hair, decide I wanted it braided instead, make breakfast, remember I needed sneakers, look for sneakers, forget my glasses, go back for glasses, and get to M’s house by 6:00 am.
A two hour drive from the cities to Theilman Minnesota later we arrived at the start of the Zumbro 17 mile trail race. The race starts at the Zumbro River Bottoms campground area. Here is info on the course and altitude for anyone interested. The scene at the start was very laid back. At packet pickup and check in we just gave them our names. No scanning, no code, no ID necessary. People were camping in tents with camp fires. The weather was sunny and mild in the mid 50’s when we got there but was closer to 70 by the time we were done. This race was the shortest distance of the event with 2 ultra marathon races already in progress. 50 miles (3 loops of the 17 mile course) and 100 miles (6 loops of the 17 mile course). 100 milers started 8:00 am the previous day and 50 milers had started at midnight on Friday.
So now that the stage has been set, here’s how this thing went down and what I learned along the way.
The race starts out with a brief flat straight away into the woods that immediately shoots straight up a massive incline which is the first of 4 major climbs on the course. I don’t think I’ve ever been up something quite so steep. I had looked at the elevation prior and realized I had 2 or 3 more of these to go. The first couple miles M and I ran together. She’s done plenty of these including a rim to rim to rim through the grand canyon and a major trail marathon. This is a pretty good depiction of what I’m sure we would have looked like (picture M is Merlin and I’m the wolf):
After the first incline I was holding my own and felt pretty good but didn’t want to hold her back. I was glad she continued on (and met her goal!). Miles 2 through 3 were incredibly muddy. And not a puddle here or there. I’m talking about the super thick, sticks to your shoes nasty muck. The course was full of giant rocks, leaves, roots. Very different than the flat road races I’m used to.
Having just made it out of the mud and happy to be on dry land, mile 4 provided an extra special treat: SAND! It was tough and slippery and I was happy to get out of the sand pits without breaking an ankle.
After the sand fiasco I picked up speed a little and cought up to some other racers. I watched what they did, realizing this trail was definitely a different kind of race animal. I walked as fast as I could up the hills. Hydrated and took a short break at the top, jogged as fast as I could safely on the down hills. Ran as fast as I could on any straight flat areas.
I also learned that trail racers are very chatty and super nice. You can’t pass someone without having a conversation. I tried once – it was super awkward I got a bunch of bad vibes. You can talk about anything: the weather or the difficulty of the run or the nice scenery but you *have* to talk to each other and the pace is slow enough that this is doable. I stuck with a pack of about 6 individuals (at least one was a 50 miler) from miles 6 to the finish.
Aid stations are weird. People are super nice and helpful but it’s not the grab a cup of water or Gatorade and continue on. There was a whole smorgasbord of snacks an beverage options. Water, soda, candy, sandwiches, cookies, pretzels. It all looked very tempting but I stuck to my nothing-new-on-race-day rule and skipped it all. I only stopped at the last aid station at mile 14 for the porta-potty. I probably could have skipped that one too but didn’t want to regret it on the next mile!
Speaking of regrets, my only true regret is not taking enough pictures. As difficult as this race was, it was equally gorgeous. I made the mistake of putting my phone in my jacket pocket. When it got warmer I chucked the jacket in my hydration pack. At the time, I was exhausted and it just felt like a hassle to get to it.
The number one lesson I learned is that trail racing is NOT road racing. At all. I would actually call it a completely different sport. Different crowd, different pace, different expectations, and a drastically different course.
I finished the 16.86 miles in 4:35:40 with an average pace of 16:20. I would have been extremely disappointed with that pace on a road race. However, given the extreme conditions of the course, I’m damn proud of my finish at my first trail race.
Would I do it again? You bet.