I have loved jam bands since I was a kid listening to Phish with my older brother. He’d pick me up from school in his truck, the one with the huge hemp necklace with the beautiful glass mushroom swinging from the rearview mirror. We’d go to his house, make chimichangas (minichangas actually, which we invented) and jam out. A song is sixteen minutes long? Awesome. This one has eight variations and rifts on the same theme? Killer. Live music is the headiest. I’ve spent days and days, sundown to sunup, hopping from stage to stage, show to show. Jam band festivals became my thing, too, and the festie tribe is strong.
I remember pulling into the gravel field parking lot in Chilicothe, IL one Thursday night as the sun glowed pink. I found myself surrounded by openhanded people who immediately loved my patterns and weird jewelry. You smile big as you look around. Everyone is my brother.
Three and four-day-long sets of shows are mostly in the summertime. The rest of the year, at work (and at college) you feel out of place, obscure. You snip off your wrist band Monday morning and go to work, waiting to go back.
I gave up that identity years ago, but I found a way to tap into that old feeling.
It hits me the day before race day.
I pull into a gravel lot and look around. This time, I see Subarus with race stickers, buffs hanging from sideview mirrors and coolers in back. It’s a mistake to undervalue feeling understood. I’m back with the family.
You need to be more than a little eccentric to love ultrarunning. Most marathoners I know sacrifice a lot of time to train, throw their life out of balance for a few months during training, rely on their spouse to pull the extra weight, and feel relief when it is finished. Most ultramarathoners I know run marathons just for fun (sometimes a couple back-to-back) and running is just another important piece of their puzzle. They play in the woods all day and all night. This tribe also knows how to jam.
The Zumbro 50 Mile Endurance Run starts one minute past midnight.
The course is a 16.7 mile loop around the Zumbrota river system in the lower right leg of Minnesota. The region’s name is derived from the French words des Embarras, which mean “hindrance,” and the many bluffs to climb and descend present more than a few of those. There’s a 100 mile race (6 loops), a 50 mile race (3 loops), and a 17 mile race (1 loop).
We pulled into horse camp and sprung our tents as the shadows lengthened. I made spaghetti, reunited with friends at the basecamp aid station, and tucked myself in to let my legs fill with glycogen. You are supposed stay off your feet the day before a big race; I read that once and have tried to follow the advice ever since.
But everyone was awake. Even though the dark was settling, there was little sleep to be found. I turned over, yanking my sleeping bag up to my ears. The 100 milers were out there somewhere – you could hear the cowbells and announcements every half hour, when another one finished the loop and passed through. They had been out there for twelve hours already.
My mind was already racing. I closed my eyes and listened to something chirping loudly in the woods. There are only so many factors you can control in and throughout an ultramarathon. Plantar fasciitis is not one of them. I promised myself my best.
I rolled over again, awake, before my alarm. Camille generously brewed some java at 11:30pm. We switched on our headlamps and headed to the main event. Five, four, three… I handed off my cup and found myself shuffled down the gravel road and out of horse camp.
I hate the beginning of races. I feel like we are all strung together. Someone makes a bad joke and we all courtesy laugh. The first ten miles felt like that to me; I was trying to find my cadence and stretch my legs, but I felt hindered. At the second aid station, I politely dismissed myself from company and began running my own race, alone in the dark.
I settled into the loop and began to enjoy the variations on the theme I call single track on a river bluff. The miles ticked by and soon I found myself on the mile long flatter-than-piss-on-a-plate gravel road. It’s boring to run flat and fast after climbing rocks and dodging roots. There were two runners ahead of me; one had reflective stripes on their shoes. I stared, mesmerized by the rhythm, and noticed that we were in sync.
The runners were two ironwomen chatting, and as I caught them, I joined their conversation. We made acquaintances, finished the first loop, and parted ways in the dark. I ran to my tent to grab Tailwind and started my second loop at 4am, alone again.
“I thought you were going to change into shorts,” I heard someone call behind me. I smirked to myself. This time, my new friends caught me. Unwittingly, we would spend the next thirty-six miles laughing and getting to know each other. The trail tribe is good people; I don’t think I’ve run a single trail race without meeting great personalities or sincere new friends. Selina and Laura were just that.
The second loop brought the dawn. We took it an hour slower than the first loop, but kept a steady pace. My foot hung in there. The factors I controlled, I played well (nutrition, hydration, salt). Our conversation grew deeper and the smiles multiplied. It was exciting to tour the course in daylight. Because it was unseasonably warm, the trail was dry and fast.
We parted again and all dropped a layer at the end ofthe loop. It was only 9am, but the early April day was getting hot. I left my tent and looked around but saw no one. Afraid I had lost my camaraderie, I began the final loop at the same determined pace.
To my surprise (and great happiness) I found Laura and Selina almost immediately. It was time to conquer the part of the race that put the ultra in ultramarathon. Miles 34 to 50 lay in front of us. We all felt some tightness, some fatigue, some of the grit of a race like this sinking in. The best thing to do is acknowledged it as it crops up and let it pass. Even through the final miles we continued to share our lives. Sharing about them, but also sharing those difficult and shining hours with each other. I think the feeling of gratitude for support passed through us all at different times.
Everyone knew the course almost by heart now, and we counted down the hills together. The long gravel road. Checked off the aid stations. The red bridge. The steep descent off the bluff. The final wide trail by the marsh. That beautiful green gate that signaled the exit of the woods, past the tents, into horse camp. The banners welcoming you to the finale.
I’ve never cried at the end of a race, but man, did I tear and choke up hugging those women at the finish. We had become trail sisters. We were a team. Then I found my husband, my hometown friends, friends from last years’ races and old friends, too. Great souls and bright faces. I could hardly swallow.
Back with the family.