This is a fun and light-hearted recap of the 2018 Zumbro Endurance Run, an official recap and statement regarding the historic blizzard that occurred during the race and the subsequent cancellation of this year’s 17 mile race can be found HERE https://www.zumbroendurancerun.com/2018-zumbro-17-mile-race-cancellation/, if you are going to read this one, we highly encourage you to read the official statement as well as it provides valuable subtext to this light-hearted commentary and outlines the seriousness of the situation at Zumbro this year and what steps we took to ensure everyone’s safety along the way ~ Race Director, John Storkamp
OK, I’ll admit, there is a slight chance, that maybe this time we finally did it. But don’t forget, this race is always held smack dab in the middle of a campground with a road system that is in the exact shape of an alien’s body – not a big deal. The race shirts had the usual wizards, angels, devils, stars, fires and owls – certainly nothing new there. Sure, maybe, just maybe the fact that this year’s race was held on Friday the 13th is what put it over the top – my friend Jason (wait, does it seem weird to anyone else that his name is Jason) can’t tell me often and strenuously enough about how Zumbro is cursed – I’m still not buying it. And so what if possibly, maybe we were dancing with the devil this year (or if you’d believe some arguments maybe it’s every year) – if that is in fact what it was, then I would like to think of it more as a dance-off with the devil and I am pretty sure once all the dust (and snow) settled, we won, or at a minimum it was a draw. I would put our runners and volunteers up against the devil any day.
Thursday the 12th was quite literally the calm before the storm. Up until Wednesday the ground was still frozen solid, Zumbro still locked in Winter snow and ice even though it was mid-April, a time when the buds should be budding, and the wild-flowers should at least be thinking about blooming. Then Thursday came, setup day and check-in, the mercury rose, and the sun shone, the ground (most unfortunately) softened and as the frost started coming out, we let our guard down, just for a while, just for a few sweet precious hours. Then as forecast, Thursday overnight into Friday I heard the rain falling on the roof of the RV – heavy at times. Come morning the 100 milers huddled, bundled, were rain-jacketed and energetically ready. 120 or 131 registered in the 100 mile showed and started. Given the fact that it was documented how historically bad the course conditions already were leading in and with at least some knowledge but certainly not enough information about how bad they would be become, this was certainly an impressive albeit typical percentage of starters. If we could have stopped the weather and let the race run without further complication, everyone’s best guess was that given conditions at the start, maybe only 40 percent of the field would finish (the norm is 65% to 75%). Normally fleet footed runners that we know by face and name were finishing their first loops unsustainably slow, by the second loop those we know to have constitutions as solid as granite turned to mush like the ground beneath their feet. Then the shit hit the fan, the weather ratcheted up to an 11 (that is out of 10 by the way). It started with ice, a couple of inches of it on top of what was already mud and standing water, then it turned to snow, and the wind, it whipped as furious as anyone has ever seen in our diminutive Minnesota mountains, it turned straight up Alpine on us. One by one they dropped – and hell, we did not know where this was going, we encouraged them to drop if there was no chance of making the cutoffs – we were poised pull everyone off this course at any moment if need be. Our friend Joe who has run well at this race in the past, dead-panned it… “Joe, how do you think so and so or such and such will do?” “They won’t make it.”, how about so-and-so “it’s impossible, he can’t make it.” OK, with the delivery everyone did laugh their asses off, but it was true… they were not going to make it, basically nobody stood a chance.
This was not going to be a day for runners, it was going to be a day for runner-survivors and as the quite normal shuffling of the deck at the front of the pack was done, no longer were competitors racing eachother, they were racing mother nature, they were racing us the race organization because there was a good chance we were going to have to call this thing. I have had the fortune of toeing the line at the Arrowhed 135 Winter Ultra 13 times, I know bad conditions when I see them, and these conditions were bad and certainly were not for the masses, not for the numbers that Zumbro has grown to in recent years. The guy that won last year with the third fastest time ever on the course, dropped. The guy who just won one of the toughest Winter ultras in the world on one of the toughest years it had been held, dropped. The guy that had been doing 100+ mile weeks for months, dropped. The woman who had finished all 9 Zumbro 100 mile races until this point, was going for her 10th and has over 100, 100 mile finishes, pulled from the course because for the first time ever, she wasn’t going to make the cutoff – Susan later told us that in all of her racing, these were the worst conditions she had ever seen. By this time the 50 had started, I did not want to send them out but most of them got there many hours in advance, before the weather and roads had really turned for the worse – but I knew it would be worse to send them back on the roads than to let them run a loop or two on the trail, so we let them go, we told them if after a few miles it was not something they wanted to do, that they thought was possible, to turn around and walk back to the start – you know what, some did and then guess what happened, most of the others dropped too. The county was not going to be plowing roads until sometime the next day – we found and woke a private plow guy, paid him a small fortune and he made a pass of the local roads so we could start getting people out safely before the roads deteriorated anymore. The Minneapolis airport was closed, some of the main highways leading to the Zumbro area were closed due to major accidents, there were hundreds of accidents on local roads, the sheriff who we were in close contact with said these were the worst road conditions he had ever seen in the county. In the 11th hour, after holding out some hope we could still run it, we canceled the 17 mile race, there was no possible way to justify letting that many people drive into the Zumbro valley on those roads, they would have later charged us with homicide. As Saturday wore on, we were visited by 50MPH winds at the start-finish area – Zumbro claiming a half-dozen pop-up tents. We heard reports and later saw video of estimated 75MPH winds and knee deep drifts on the high ridges of the course – and no, these are not the kind of 75MPH winds and thigh deep drifts you make up in your story to make it sound more dramatic – they were real actual 75MPH winds and thigh deep drifts (which were obscuring course markers by the way), something that you basically never, ever see in Minnesota. Somehow, despite all of this, in the 100 mile, Trail Transformation athlete Scott Coles of Washburn Wisconsin kept doing the loops and somehow he got the win in under 30 hours. With Thursday volunteer karma on her side and Winter Ultra experience in the form of the Tuscobia 80 Miler, the ever optimistic 100 miler Angela Freedman of McFarland Wisconsin won for the women, she had been the 5th woman in 2017 and was only about two hours slower this year. Of 120 starters in the 100 mile race, only 20 finished, that is a 16% finish rate, a normal average is 65 to 75%. In the 50 mile race, Jacob Gallagher of Lisbon, ND (likely no stranger to wind, hailing for North Dakota) came in first for the men while last years Superior 100 Mile winner Gretchen Metsa of Buhl, Minnesota was first for the women and third overall. The 50 mile saw a 28% finishers rate – normally it is around 80%.
Have you seen any of those scenes in Game Of Thrones where the army of White-Walkers are in pursuit of the warriors of the Knights Watch and Khaleesi, the unsullied and all those guys and they just barely escape before the White Walkers close in and put and end to them all – well basically the weather, trail and road conditions were the white walkers and we were the Knights Watch (I am pretty sure I was Jon Snow on rugged good looks alone, you can go ahead and pick who you want to be from rest of the characters). That is what it was like getting out of Zumbro, we got as many people off of the course and as many volunteers out of the area as possible, allowed the last few 100’s and 50’s that actually had a shot of finishing to finish, packed up the final stuff and got on the roads before we met our demise. A wise man once said, “never surrender, unless you have to surrender” and this time, we had to surrender – it was the only way.
Kudos to all the 100 and 50 mile runners that made awesome decisions for themselves throughout the race, we did not have a single serious medial incident. Congratulations to those 100 and 50 mile runners that finished, these were runners that possessed all the right fitness, breadth of experience and specific skills to handle these types of conditions and probably had a little luck on their side as well. A heart-felt thank you to all of our 17 mile runners that supported our decision to cancel the 17 mile race , knowing what we knew then it was the right decision, knowing what we know now it was the only decision and I would make it a million times over – as one 17 miler put it in an email to me, “you saved us from ourselves”. In over 200 emails we received and nearly 400 social media comments, we only saw one negative comment, we thank you all for your maturity and support. Thankfully for all of the racers and volunteers cars that ended up in the ditch or sliding off of the roads, nobody was hurt. Finally, we had over 215 volunteers scheduled to help throughout the weekend because that is what it takes to put on an event like this but due to the conditions many could not get to the race and many, smartly and thankfully did not even try – that left us with a skeleton crew on Saturday and many of our volunteers stepped up and worked two, three and four shifts, forgoing sleep for up to 30+ hours because as trail / ultrarunners themselves, they wanted to see those that had invested 4 or 5 loops into this years race make it to the finish if at all possible – this is called selflessness and is yet another reason why Minnesota trail / ultra races have a reputation that is second to none.
Just like the storm that wreaked all this havoc, the 2018 Zumbro Endurance Run will go down in history never to be forgotten. While I don’t mind dancing with the devil once a year, let’s just hope he is in the mood for a slow dance next year.