We kept watching the weather.
Snow, more snow. Wind. Advisories getting longer and more severe.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll go if you go.”
“Should we go?”
It went on for the entire 10-day forecast as Karen, Natalie, Nancy, Kelly and I wrung our hands and wondered if we would make it to the Zumbro Endurance Run, if we would make it any of the three loops the 50-mile course demands and then, almost more worrisome, if we would make it home from the race in eastern Minnesota.
“I’ll do whatever you want to do,” said Patrick, who was driving us and crewing, along with Natalie’s husband. He went out and bought fuel for the camp stove to make coffee and noodles between loops for us. “I’m just worried we won’t be able to get out of there.”
It was a real concern, with an early spring blizzard planning to dump a foot or more of snow, and winds picking up to whiteout conditions on the highway. Add to that the already challenging course and the complete lack of shelter at the campground – where Patrick would be spending the 12 or more hours it took for us to run, and where Kelly would be sleeping in a tent when we started at midnight and she waited for the 17-miler to begin the next morning.
I kept thinking of how cold they would be. The Zumbro Bottoms campground has vault toilets. A pavilion. No real shelter, and while the race organizers do the best they can, there’s only so much you can haul in and so many people who can fit into whatever makeshift contraption you create as the weather bears down on you.
And then the kids.
I had cobbled together childcare for the weekend, thinking I would be home by early Saturday evening. But as we watched the weather, we realized: It may be Sunday. Or Monday. All depending on how long it took to run and then how long it took to get out.
On Thursday, we decided.
“I’m going to go run at Good Earth State Park after work,” I told Patrick. “I’m going to run until I’m not sad anymore, and I don’t know how long that will take.”
“OK,” he replied. “I’ll come out when I get done.”
I headed out, on a gorgeous spring evening that seemed particularly unfair considering what was to come. Karen was already out there, doing the same thing and trying to focus on another race the next weekend. We ran a few miles together, and she left to go cart her kids from one practice to another.
Patrick showed up, ran 5 more miles with me. We walked back to the car. “
“I forgot my headlamp,” I said.
“Were you going to keep going?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I guess not.
I had managed to get in about 12 miles out there, thinking about how the weather for Zumbro was amazing last year, when Natalie and I ran together. Thinking about how transcendent that run had been for me. About how it was some kind of emotional turning point. I had desperately wanted to go back – better trained, better emotionally, better in all the ways that matter -- to thank those trails for what they did for me.
I came out changed, and I owed it all to Zumbro.
It wasn’t going to happen this year, and I told myself it was OK. I’m signed up for the Black Hills 50 in June, and I can just move on to train for that. The truth is I hadn’t planned on going – I’ve done zero preparation with lodging or logistics for that race. I have an absurd amount of travel this spring, and I wanted to just run Zumbro and then coast for a few weeks before getting ready for what I hope is a Grand Canyon run in the fall.
Instead, I got in a long run that Thursday evening, told myself instead I kicked off the Sioux Falls Area Running Club weekly trail runs by myself, and then hunkered down and watched the wind blow for a few days.
We played board games. Made cookies. Watched television.
My son Jack, 9, and I filled a sled with snowballs and sat where the grass should be and pelted the mailbox with them. Viv and I threw them at Patrick while he shoveled. Someone rode a snowmobile down the middle of the street.
I watched all the social media and all the photos and race reports come out of Zumbro, where the race director canceled the 17-mile race because of travel conditions. When you look at the finisher rate of the race, you can see why: In the 100-mile race, 120 of 131 registered runners started – and only 20 finished. In the 50-mile, 175 of 254 registered runners started – and 49 finished.
Videos and photos on Facebook show hip-deep snow and ice and some of the most stunning snowy trees I’ve ever seen. Sunrise and sparkle and ankle-deep creekbeds. You can read all the reasons why here, in a heartfelt letter from the race director.
I know several folks from Sioux Falls who went and started and didn’t finish. I watched them write about it and try to manage their emotions – was the weather that bad, or were they just not strong enough? It’s easy to second-guess yourself. I do it, too. Could I have made it? Was it worth it?
In the end it became a question of what was I looking for. This year it’s not the same as what I was in desperate search of last year. I have another race on the horizon. I already know I can complete the distance. I would love to be able to say that I ran Zumbro the year of the blizzard – that I finished it. I want the mangled feet and frozen smile and car covered in sheets of ice to show how absolutely gnarly I am as a trail runner. I wanted to sit down on the side of the course and say, enough, the trail wins. I wanted the chance to let it beat me.
I’ve run a book club in town for the past decade, and I ran into Annie at it this month. She drove out, started the Zumbro 50-miler at midnight with the others. She made it one loop and stopped. She said she got what she needed – she wanted to see the course, wanted to know what it was like out there, and now she knows for next year.
There was no sense of loss in her story – no lamenting that she just couldn’t muddle through. She said she knew she wouldn’t finish, had made peace with that before the gun went off at the start. So whatever she did manage out there was just fine. I hope everyone else feels that way, too.
One of the deciding moments for me was realizing I could legitimately get injured out there, and then blow my entire summer of running. And I don’t want that. I want to trail run every night. I want long weekends solo, climbing and climbing. I want to quiet the voice in me that keeps asking, “Could you have made it?”
I’ve DNS-ed a few races – most recently the 605 Half Marathon this past weekend, which store manager and friend Greg Koch offered me entry to as a consolation. I was grateful and excited – I thought I’d be too busy recovering from Zumbro to run it when it opened. Instead, I didn’t run because I tweaked my calf in snow the Monday before and had to take the entire week off. I’m sitting here a week later and can walk without cramping, so I think I’m on the mend.
And I DNF-ed one race – the Sioux Falls Marathon several years ago. It was hot. It was my 11th marathon. I felt awful and cranky and like I was getting heat stroke. At mile 16, I sat down on the side of the street and called a friend for a ride to the finish, chalked it up to another nice long run, and never looked back. I told myself I had nothing to prove – and I didn’t want to waste time recovering from a marathon that was going to just be a slog.
For Zumbro, the race director sent a note and asked people to wear their race shirts, to know they still deserved them.
I am. I wore it the other night. Karen went on to run a 50K the next weekend. Nancy and Natalie are doing the Big Horns in June. Kelly just keeps running. I’m looking for lodging in the Black Hills in June.
Maybe I could have made it to the course, through the night, into the morning and slept in the car on the long drive home.
But I didn’t.
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 every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.