If you had asked me what I hoped for when I set out for the Zumbro 50-mile run in Minnesota this past weekend, I would have given a one-word answer.
It sounds absurd, right? But it wasn’t. I felt shattered going into this race – emotionally shattered by a year of firsts and lasts, of stops and starts, of all of it. A friend texted ahead of time to wish me luck and ask what my hopes were, and I replied to her that my goal was to be changed.
To come out of those woods different than I went in. For my own personal Walden. To look at everything that was shattered and try to at least recognize some of the pieces, consider how to put them together. Consider how to put me together. To know which pieces to pick up, which to leave there, to try not to cut myself in the handling.
“It sounds poetic,” she said to me.
It wasn’t. It was the emotion of survival, of feeling at the bottom of everything and hoping that however many hours it took me to cover 50 miles would be enough time to figure something, anything, out.
Let’s be clear: I had no business being out there. The last time I did an ultramarathon was in 2013 – the 50K in Omaha that the amazing G.O.A.T.Z. puts on. And that came after running Boston in the spring, a summer of actual, real training and a surprising lack of injury. I haven’t run more than 19 miles at once since then – and that only twice.
That’s three and a half years of pathetic training. In that time I had major surgery that took me out for months, two stress fractures, a divorce and a career change, a reconciliation with my treadmill. But sometimes you get what you need, and my friend Natalie texted me one day and asked for my birthday. I replied, and a few minutes later got a confirmation email saying I was now registered for the Zumbro 50-miler.
I needed something to focus on, and she picked that. She’s a veteran ultramarathoner – one of the first women in Sioux Falls who began doing them years ago. She’s done two 100-milers and nine 50-milers. This race was a training run for her, leading up to a summer of hundreds, and she assured me however I did would be fine. The goal was to stand at the starting line and then, hopefully, the finish.
She did her normal training – her back-to-back long runs, her early mornings over the gravel hills near her house outside of Sioux Falls. I bought a lot of boxed wine, spent a lot of time crying, canceled more runs than I showed up for. I did two 18-mile training runs. I did nothing for nearly two weeks before the race.
My weekly mileage never got over 36, and often not over 30. I would go days without doing anything.
“I would train harder for a half-marathon than I’ve done for this,” I told another friend. “But here we go.”
My friend and ultrarunning partner Chris Anderson agreed to crew for us. He’s done it before, for Barry Hein when he ran the Black Hills 100. He knows me, knows Natalie, wasn’t afraid of the midnight start or the fact that crews for 50-milers had to hike to the aid stations. He printed maps, made gear lists, baked us butterscotch and chocolate chip cookies, picked us up so we could sleep the entire drive out there.
We slept a bit and I woke up in the dark to Chris laughing quietly. “What,” I said.
“I just realized how long I’ve been driving downhill,” he said. The race began in the Zumbro Bottoms campground, and every minute down we knew we would have to come back up, this time on foot, more than once, through the dead of night.
The midnight start was almost more terrifying to me than the distance. I have terrible vision and have since I was a kid. I struggle with depth perception, and have bad peripheral vision. I wear bifocals. All of that over the years has meant that when I run trail runs, I typically run behind whoever I’m with and just follow their feet – joking that they get to be in the Achilles track club for the run, the group that helps visually impaired runners compete. It isn’t that dire, but it’s also not great.
In preparation, I got contacts to wear. I had never worn them for that long, had never tried to run in them overnight on unfamiliar single-track trails. I borrowed a men’s watch from a friend, so the numbers were bigger, and that had a light so I could see it in the dark. That was as technical as I got, and the rest I just hoped for.
My friend Nancy Kirstein, also one of the first women in the area to do ultras, let me borrow a rechargeable headlamp, lighter because it doesn’t have three batteries strapped to your forehead. We had met for a glass of wine earlier in the week and I asked her and Natalie and Karen Lechtenberg to bring all their headlamps. I have three and hate them all.
We sat in the back of Chris’ car for the half hour before the start, the area lit by a few campfires, by runners with headlamps and reflective clothes on, with the string lights and noise and energy of the aid station we would loop through. Chris got us coffee, helped us organize our gear. We sat and stared, and I don’t know what they thought about. What I thought about was how grateful I was for these friends. For people who can see what you need and give it, who know you might take their gift and just destroy it, because that’s how it’s been going. For them to let me just be quiet, for that not to hurt anyone’s feelings. For Natalie to be as solid and easy and patient as she was. For Chris to bring the sense of adventure.
To watch the darkness. To look out and see this atmosphere. This glimpse of who I used to be and what I used to do and hope that somewhere in me, I could do it and be it again.
To be changed.
We stood at the start and listened to the race director remind us to defer to any 100-milers out there, who had been running for 12 hours by the time we started. To recognize they would be slow, their reflexes not as fast, their heads not as clear.
The group of us set off, a line of lights heading up the first climb, a mile of ascent in the dark. The visibility wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be because of the glow of lights ahead of and behind me. I think that helped tamp down some of the panic I had about the midnight start.
Last year, I ran another race that Rock Steady Running puts on, the Afton 25K in Minnesota, and the crowd and chaos at the starting line as we pushed our way onto the single track in the woods had made me panic to the point where I had to hold the hand of my friend for about the first mile. I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t explain what was happening. I worried it would happen again, in the dark, but it didn’t.
The crowd began to thin out and we were able to run, me following closely behind Natalie. The course is three loops, each 16.7 miles, with four stations on it and then the fifth being at the start and finish. We had estimated a finish time well above 13 hours, knowing my training, allowing for the dark and the course, which was hilly and rocky and covered in roots. Natalie had warned me that if we spent even 3 minutes at each aid station, we would waste an hour of our time.
The goal was to be efficient. To get what we needed, nothing more. To power hike up every hill, run every ridge and flat and downhill until we couldn’t, then just relentless forward motion until we saw the finish.
“I promise you, no matter what happens, once you see that the finish line is in reach, you’ll forget all your pain and just be happy,” Natalie said. I hoped she was right.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather for the race – lows in the 40s overnight, not much wind, no rain or hail or snow or ice covering the trails. No terrifying thunderstorm of flooded creek bed.
“I guess I can’t blame the weather when the wheels come off,” I joked to Natalie at one point.
We ran. We did everything she said we would – power hiked the steep hills, scrabbling over rocks and roots. We ran the flats, me close behind her and following her feet and her light. Trail running requires a lot of concentration from me – doing it in the dark even more so. If you want to do something that removes your ability to think about anything except the moment, beginning a race at midnight on trails you’ve never seen works.
The first loop we tried to understand the terrain, how it fit together and how far the aid stations were – because neither of us had bothered to look at all. “My plan is to just show up and run. I can’t manage any other details,” I had told Chris earlier. “I don’t even know where this place is.”
When Natalie and I got to the second aid station, she said, “This has to be like mile 10 or something, right?”
We looked at Chris. He seemed hesitant. “Um, it’s mile 7,” he said.
OK. I drank some Coke. Ate boiled potatoes and potato chips. We adjusted our lights and gave Chris our jackets, the night having already warmed up for us. We headed out and began to climb.
The aid stations were all – it felt – at the bottom of the park, and every run in and out was steep and rocky. We wound our way through and hit our least favorite parts of the course.
For Natalie, it was a mile long stretch of beach volleyball sand, squishy and inefficient and just stupid. “I hate sand,” she would say. “Why is this even here? I hate when people say they like running on the beach. Running on the beach is terrible. It’s never a good idea. You get sand everywhere.”
“Like sex on the beach,” I joked. “Fraught with peril.”
We kept going.
My least favorite part was a downhill we ended up calling the Rocky Horror section – it was between aid station 3 and 4. It felt like the entire thing was a carpet of rocks – and not the kind you can just smash down on. They were big enough that I felt like if I landed wrong I would twist something. Steep enough that I felt like was sliding a little, and my heart pounded enough every time we had to go through it that I had to actually say in my head, “Self, it’s OK. You’re going to be OK.”
It was the only stretch where I seriously considered just sitting down and scooting down the trail. Natalie is better at it, and waited for me at the bottom each time. In the daylight, I was able to see the strip of dirt on the side and run as much as I could down that, but it was never a stretch I was comfortable on. I couldn’t imagine doing it other years – if it were wet or snowy or covered in slippery frost. And I wish I could have seen the frontrunners navigate it – I would love to see how they did it.
The only word for my method was gingerly.
We finished the first loop in four hours, and Chris met us with my son’s Spider-Man Thermos containers filled with ramen noodles he made on a camp stove. We ate that, and we set back off into the night.
The best part of the second loop was knowing the sun would come up. Chris had told me that when the sun rose on the 100 he helped pace, it energized Barry. I hoped that would happen for me, too. To be honest, I didn’t feel that bad considering my training.
Somewhere on the first half of the second loop, my legs started to seize up. We saw Chris around mile 25 and I said to him, “It hurts. Bad.” I had been joking about this cartoon I saw years ago from the blogger Hyperbole and a Half about a real pain scale, not the ridiculous one with the even numbers and slightly uncomfortable faces. Her pain scale is legit. My favorite is the face that says. “I am actively being mauled by a bear.”
That’s what I told Chris was happening. Natalie told him she had ibuprofen. He began digging in the backpack he was carrying that we crammed full of gear. “No, it’s at the car,” she said.
He looked at me.
“If I go, I’ll miss the next aid station. Is that OK?”
Honestly, I couldn’t answer. I wasn’t thinking that clearly – and that was the lowest point for me in the race. It wasn’t the kind of “Oh dear god, what am I doing” that I’ve faced in other races – like when you go out way too fast and realize you can never recover. It was more of just a sort of addled confusion. I just stared at him.
“Go get it,” Natalie said. “We’ll see you in two stops.”
We made it through, and my legs didn’t actually seize up like I felt they would. At the next station, one of the nicest volunteers ever filled my hydration pack for me and helped me get it back on. We kept going.
When we saw Chris again, we both decided we wanted out of our tights, and to just wear the shorts we had beneath. You know it’s a long race when you have multiple changes of clothing. Natalie and I both sat for the first and only time on the course and asked Chris to help us.
“I’m not taking my shoes off,” I said. “So please figure out how to get these over them.” I drank two cups of Coke and ate a quesadilla. Honestly, if he had just cut them off me and thrown them away, it would have been fine.
We watched the light come in, the sun come up and stopped to put our headlamps away. We ran up on ridges we hadn’t noticed before, and marveled at the park. It’s beautiful. This is why you trail run: To be outside. To be in the woods. To just remember how grateful you are. It’s the joy. Trail running brings me joy, and I started to feel some of that out there.
At the end of the second loop, Chris reminded me I had now run farther than I ever had. I told myself I just had to start loop three, and then see what happens. Natalie agreed, and reminded me nobody could save me, so we would have to finish.
It wasn’t daunting. I felt good. At mile 41 I felt better than I had at mile 25. Chris looked at me at the aid station and said, “Single digits left. You’re going to do this. You’re doing this.”
And I realized that I was. And it wasn’t terrible. At all.
It was beautiful to see the park in the daytime, and that helped lessen the frustration of the 17-milers, who started at 9 a.m. and began to pass us on the course. I’ll write a post on trail etiquette another day. Most of them were gentle and kind, and it brought a lot of energy to see the frontrunners come through.
Passing the 100-milers was sobering and inspiring. Being passed by the sprinters was exhilarating, for a while. As I grew more tired, I confess to being annoyed when they would ride my heels until I moved. I didn’t mind if they asked to pass – yes, of course. But sometimes I felt like they just hounded me until I moved. “I’m not moving unless they ask,” Natalie said, and she was right. We were tired and every time I stepped up or down off the trail, I felt like it was another chance to twist an ankle. How I made it that far without doing that amazes me.
Still, almost every runner we encountered in any distance was kind, respectful, friendly and fun. When one 17-miler jostled me, he reached back and apologized and said, “Good job, 50-miler,” and that was enough to forgive him.
For me, the wheels began to come off around mile 47. We were on a stretch of trail that was perfectly runnable – that’s one great thing about the course. The first and last segments are pretty good running – a nice way to start and end each loop. But I felt really shaky all of a sudden and couldn’t think straight. I walked for a while and ate a pack of jelly beans, hoping maybe I just needed some kind of straight sugar rush. It helped, but I told Natalie it was likely I would sort of walk-run the rest of the race, and we did.
She was a great partner and would just say, “let’s run to that tree,” and we would, for a while. And our last loop wasn’t our slowest – the middle one was. So who knows how much better we would have done had I been running more that last 5K. It doesn’t matter, really, because I was doing the best I could.
The very last stretch is a dirt road, up a little bend and then into the finish. “Is this the last part,” I asked. She said it was and suggested we start to run. “I’m not, and I won’t until people can see me,” I laughed. My pride would overtake my tired legs, but not until it had to.
But she had been right, and as we came through the park, I stopped being mauled by a bear and instead was just amazed. “I can’t believe we did this, and I don’t know how to thank you,” I told her.
We came through the finish, and I got teary, like I do at the end of all my races, and, frankly, whenever I just watch a finish line.
We finished in 12:35, and Natalie was the first master’s woman across the line. We were 6th and 7th women overall, (and South Dakota’s own Emily Wanless killed the course and won it).
I was happy.
I don’t know if transcendence is what I got. I spent the entire third loop singing two songs in my head – Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet” and a cover of “Mama You Been on My Mind” sung by Jeff Buckley. Natalie and I didn’t talk much. We stared at the trail a lot. We were quiet a lot. And we were fine with it. There wasn’t much complaining at all – less than I complain on a random Friday morning run, to be fair.
We just did it.
Put that way, it doesn’t sound enjoyable. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need. To just get through that part, whatever that part is, and see whatever there is to see when you come out of it. At one point around mile 48, I think, somewhere in that no man’s land for me, I said to myself, “Runner, run. This is what you do, so do it,” and I picked my feet up and began.
I don’t know how that translates. Maybe it just means begin.
EPILOGUE: I woke up in actual pain on Saturday night, after not being able to sleep from adrenaline and being awake for about 40 straight hours. I think I actually was somehow mauled by a bear in the privacy of my own home. Where I had to army crawl around my bed to change positions because my entire lower body gave up on me. Also, I plan to chat with many of our local folks who went to Zumbro, so keep an eye out for those posts.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged.