The 2018 Zumbro 100 will be remembered for many reasons. It was the year Mother Nature threw the kitchen sink at the Zumbro ultra community and then for fun lobbed in a Blizzard just to make sure we would never forget this race or that she’s the boss. It demanded the very best of the men and women who organized, volunteered, paced, or ran this race.
Those two days have left deep emotional and physical impressions upon the topography of both my body and my soul. For three weeks I’ve tried to piece together the 31 hours and 55 minutes and 33 seconds I spent out there.
It’s been a complex and surreal puzzle. This is what I experienced as I remember those two days. It will come in two parts because I was gifted with two magical laps with two amazing humans.
This is their story.
I’ve only known Joel a short time. Less than a year. He’s a beast of an athlete in training and in races, but humble and kind when not tearing through the woods or making bucket carries up steep trails look ridiculously easy.
It’s not surprising when someone offers to be there for you when you’ve built up equity through a continual balance of
I’ll be there for you
you are there for me.
Time also has a way of bonding us so closely to another human that the I’ll be there for you card has an unlimited line of credit on it.
When Joel quietly and unexpectedly offered to pace me at Zumbro during a training run one Saturday morning, honestly I was a bit surprised.
What did I do to deserve this offer?
Why would he offer to do this for me?
Why would he want to do this?
I was immediately humbled by the kindness of his gesture and his genuine interest in being part of this race that is so special to me.
At the time, Joel had no idea what my plan was for the race, but his offer was the perfect gift for what I wanted to accomplish as an athlete.
I wanted to go sub 24 hours for 100 miles. Did I just say that out loud?
Having a pacer would give me my best shot at hitting that aggressive goal.
I’ve never had a pacer. I’ve always felt that this race, the 100 mile meditation was a solo exploration, a journey only I could attend. Having someone out there with me was cheating that philosophy and ultimately cheating me of a deeper experience. Going it alone and dealing with the 100 miles in a ME vs ME battle was my path.
As usual, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I wanted to break the 24 hour mark. I had lodged that goal in my mind since November and I knew lap 5 was the key. Lap 5 had been my nemesis. Joel was volunteering to help me slay that dragon out in the woods.
Joel kept saying it’s your race, I don’t want to make you feel like you must have me out there. Maybe he sensed my internal struggle with my philosophical perspective on this race and the goal I hoped to achieve. It was obvious how much he respected this race and what it meant to me.
First lesson. Joel was teaching me and showing me the essence of unselfishness.
I met Joel through Spartan racing.
We were both part of the North Star Spartan community. He was organizing a Spartan weekend training session and he invited me to train with him and some other North Star members. That simple invite opened a door to our friendship. I ran with Joel twice at his stomping grounds at Richard Anderson Park. I had two amazing workouts. His energy and passion is intense and I loved trying to keep pace with him. After those two training sessions I had this deep intuitive feeling I was ready for the Killington Ultra Beast. I remember how genuinely interested and supportive of my mission to go to Vermont and come home with a buckle he was.
It’s truly amazing when someone offers you their belief. It’s a superpower and a simple act that you can’t fake. The beautiful thing about belief is that it spreads like a virus through your body and mind when given to you.
The ultra in my opinion is all about the right mixture of belief and faith, sometimes blind faith and unrealistic belief. Joel is a believer. Joel lifts people and makes others better. Joel was going to be out there for a reason I just had no idea what a big part he would play in me finding the finish line this year.
Second lesson. Joel was exposing me to the power of believing in others.
I saw Joel for the first time at the 50 mile mark.
The Zumbro crew, my wife Pam, and our friends Lisa and Ben had urged me to change everything after 50 miles. Everything was wet or covered in layers of mud. So I took everything off and put on warm, clean, dry, clothing, socks and shoes. Joel easily slipped into the action around me. I’m like a car in the pits at a Nascar event. There is a madness of activity around me. Arms handing me food and water or tending to blisters or helping remove or put something on. Joel jumped right into the fray. Helping remove mud riddled shoes or making sure I was getting the proper nutrition. It was like he had been there the whole day, it felt like he belonged there, because he did.
I had a very bad start to lap 4. I spent too much time being warm and sitting during this cleaning up process. I had removed 50 miles of battle and I felt like I was starting over. I personally like staying in the muddy, wet, earned armor, but I knew this was for the wiser. I walked into the Winnebago with the course, a wet and muddy circus and exited to find a half-inch of snow covering everything. I walked out into the dark, cold world of ultra racing in a blizzard and I felt the sharp pain of not wanting to be there. Those first few steps back into the woods was like falling into darkness.
The course was now a toxic mixture of extra thick peanut butter mud and freshly fallen snow hiding it. Every step was a surprise. Mostly not a good surprise. The visibility was zero between the dark of night and the snow blowing at and around me up to 70 mph.
It was quiet and lonely except for that one voice that started talking to me nonstop.
The quit voice. It was saying everything and anything it could. What it didn’t know was that Joel was sitting in a Winnebago patiently waiting for me to finish lap 4 and go out on lap 5 with him.
I played the Joel card to the quit voice.
How could I quit? He offered to help me.
How could I quit? He drove down there and is waiting to go out running at 2 in the morning in a blizzard?
How could I quit and say those words out loud to him?
The lessons I have learned in unselfishness and belief were being put into action. When you can shift the focus from yourself to someone else and deeply appreciate what another human was doing with you and for you, you become capable of almost anything.
I never heard from the quit voice again. Joel destroyed it.
I finished lap 4 strong and was ready to get into lap 5.
This was Joel’s first lap at Zumbro.
He had never seen the 16.7 mile loop that we were entering into.
This was my 20th lap. One 50 miler. Two 100 mile races and 4 laps into this race. I had a vivid picture of what we were heading into.
Joel was calm. He moved so easily. It’s amazing to watch someone with fresh legs, body and mind when you are reduced to a slow-motion version of yourself. It’s weird what you remember in the middle of chaos, but I had a simple appreciation for him as an athlete despite the insanity we were both in.
Joel is a kind human being, but at 2 in the morning in a blizzard in the middle of the woods I really had the privilege to see what kind of man and human he truly is. Ultra racing reveals the best and worst of people. This was a window into what a beast of a human Joel is.
The heavy wet snow had turned the trail into an obstacle course. Tree branches had broken off and fallen on the trail or branches had lowered their brown and white arms onto the trail right at head height. The trail was saying go away. I had hit a few branches with my head. I wasn’t reacting very well and bending down and under things was becoming a chore that I was failing miserably at. Joel started holding and removing tree branches without a word being said. I remember being so thankful. It just made it one degree easier and let me focus on something else. One foot in front of the other. That is what you get reduced to. There is such freedom in that moment. It’s simple, but infinitely difficult. It requires no brain power but demands all your strength and will. It’s the most beautiful and bizarre place I have ever been and the only way to get there is to willingly enter the door of suffering.
The uphill climbs were getting brutal. My ankles had been pulverized by the 50 miles in the mud. I had told Joel I never stop on climbs. If I did I was in real trouble. So he kept moving. I would just focus on his shoes. I remember the light of my headlamp and me focused on them moving and as long as they moved I magically would also.
The magnetic pull of kindness. The magnetic pull of friendship.
After every successful climb there was a simple and powerful acknowledgment from Joel.
Great job brother.
Great job brother.
Three words. My entire universe revolved around hearing that. Knowing I had conquered yet another challenge the trail had given us.
I would simply say thank you.
I felt like that exchange happened a million times. And it always felt the same. Amazing.
Joel had never paced anyone in an Ultra.
I’m willing to bet a large amount of money, he did his homework and entered this experience with as much knowledge as he could unearth. He found clever ways to motivate me. Things that really made a difference.
He shared splits with me, which I usually don’t care about in this race but it made me feel like I was moving better than I thought I was. It was magic. Because I would suddenly feel better.
Numbers don’t lie.
At ultras everyone says you look great. I believe a corpse could be dropped at an aid station and it would get a few you look greats before someone realized it was a dead body. But that’s what makes the ultra community so amazing. The positivity and support are like nothing else.
Positivity and support. Joel was exuding it.
When we were entering an aid station he would ask me what I wanted and then quickly get there before me and have it ready when I arrived. Joel wanted to keep us moving, efficiently, with no wasted time or movement.
I deeply appreciated that calm urgency because at that point you can start to give in to comfort. At this point in the program anything is more comfortable than running or hiking those hills. I deeply appreciated even in the moment, in that blizzard, how he managed my movement.
He always turned to me and asked,
You want to run?
A question. Not a demand or a threat or any kind of macho tactics.
How could I say no?
I like running. So we ran.
Joel would also advise me to walk inclined sections and save energy and effort before the major climbs. He would say something and I would do it. No argument or conversation or debate. I trusted him so intensely out there because I knew he had my best interests in mind, it was so obvious. I was allowed the freedom of empty mind. I just indulged myself in the physical battle I was fighting with my body and the trail.
There is a long climb out of aid station 3 leading to the ridge.
The ridge was the home to 70 mph winds and waist deep snow drifts. I remember how much I was bracing myself for this section again. On lap 4 I went through it and didn’t even know I was there until I turned the corner and was going down Ant hill. It was just a long, slow, snow blind journey through the darkness.
When we were climbing towards that section I felt bad, emotionally. I felt bad that I dragged Joel out there. That I agreed to let him pace me. I shouldn’t have subjected him to my insanity. I did everything in my power to move as fast and efficiently as possible. I owed him that effort.
You just don’t find yourself in a situation like this very often in your life and I remember being aware of how it felt like I was watching something out of a movie. I saw Joel step knee-deep in a snowdrift and my mind would say,
Is this really happening?
The wind would blow so hard that I felt like both of us were going to get picked up and dropped into the river carving through the valley far below.
And my mind would say,
How can someone be so unselfish to be out here in this for me? and why?
It was surreal. You know when you have dreams so real you wake up and for a certain amount of time there is no distinction between the dream and what this existence is. That’s how that lap feels to me. It’s more like a dream than real.
We descended down Ant hill and arrived at a service road. We started running. It was more spirited. Side by side. This road lead to aid station 4. Our time out there was ending. I could feel it. I ran as far as I could as hard as I could on that road. I remember stopping a short distance from aid station 4. I apologized. I felt so badly. I’ve never stopped on that road. I run that road, no matter what lap. I always have. I confessed it out loud. I felt like I was failing him but I knew I had offered all of myself on that lap.
We left aid station 4 and we headed for the camp ground.
I remember part of me feeling relieved that I had conquered another lap but as the campground got closer, the harsh reality of lap 6 was breathing fire from its cave. Joel and I didn’t have any long talks or philosophical banter about life and what it all means. We honestly didn’t talk a lot.
We didn’t have to.
Because actions always speak louder than words.
I felt the amazing power of compassion and kindness. The kind forged in real adversity over 5 hours 46 minutes and 9 seconds in the woods in a blizzard. I’ll never truly understand why Joel was there but I’m so grateful, beyond grateful. That by far was my favorite and best lap 5.
We came into the campground together.
Running. Side by side.
And then Joel did two things I’ll never forget and will always admire him for.
He stepped aside and let me cross the line. He lived up to his words. It was my race. It’s one thing to say it and another to show that in such a simple and ego free gesture.
Humble and kind right to the end.
Then Joel became truly animated. The first time I had seen him showing emotion during this entire event. He had been the picture of calm, control and precise.
He told me you have lap 6.
I felt like he said it 10 times, I don’t really know how many times he did but there was urgency and passion in his voice and his face. Joel made me feel like the existence of the universe was riding on me getting through that last lap.
It was exactly the right thing to say,
in the right way,
at the right time.
Thank you Joel. You offered me a gift on April 14th. You showed me what it’s like to be a friend, a teammate, an athlete, and a human on the highest of levels.
It was an honor to share that experience with you. I’m so glad I accepted your gift. The experience was only heightened by your presence. The meaning only made deeper.
It was simply a humbling honor.
I have no idea how to repay you.
Follow Joel @ https://www.instagram.com/jandrychowicz/
Part 2. The 2018 Zumbro 100. Lap 6. Ken Corbett.