You’ve Got Your Ultra in my Gravel Grinder
Things that may only happen in Minnesota
Ragnarök 105 meets Zumbro 100
By Chris Schotz
I first found myself lined up outside Redwing, Minn., in April, 2014, for the earliest spring ride I could find. The Ragnarök 105 was one of Minnesota’s original gravel bike races and seemed the perfect way to get some interesting miles into my legs, but I had no idea how intense the Minnesota gravel scene had become. It was raining and cold, but I’d driven four hours for some punishment so I wasn’t turning around. I calculated that no one else would show up to ride 105 miles of vertical gravel in a hard rain, but I should have known better because this was Minnesota where this happens all the time. Eighty-eight of us were soaked at the start line, anxious to get rolling before we talked ourselves back into the car.
It started steep and gritty, with a hill that would have been notable outside of coulee country. Descending twisted gravel in the spray showed me that this was no ordinary crowd. All were steady and unperturbed in the misty pack. We wound up and down valleys and crawled up soft B-road climbs. We hauled bikes over snowdrifts in the thunderstorm, and I was convinced that there were no tougher folks than we who would ride all day in this severe terrain of gullies and gravel. By mile 60 we’d followed the course of the Zumbro River valley down and down some more to the wilted lowland where I found that we were not alone. Not alone and hardly the most fearsome creatures in the land.
I’d dropped all that way to the rich Zumbro bottomlands and through a barnyard tractor trail deeper into nowhere. And there they came stumbling out of the trees. The bipeds.
Some had a hobbled run, but most a waddled walk.
Alone and in packs, some were filthy and bedraggled, while others were still fresh and unbroken. For over a mile of narrow dirt path I rode up behind these lost souls in the wilderness, unaware that the Ragnarök 105 had met the Zumbro 100.
This incongruous rendezvous of running and biking was born out of the happenstance meeting of one of the Midwest’s founding gravel bike races and an acclaimed ultra trail run. Since then, Ragnarök director Isaac Giesen has coordinated race dates with Zumbro’s John Storkamp so that the gravel grinder and ultra runner can meet mid-course once again. These events are in no way connected in any official capacity, but they are bound in the spirit of an intense spring adventure whatever the weather.
This year I was back for the ninth Ragnarök, but I brought along my ultra-running brother Eric who could experience the eighth edition of the Zumbro far beyond the means of my short, crooked legs. We were grateful for a break from the cold rains that had plagued our training, but with the temperature sunk below the forecasted 30° it appeared that Norse prophecy of Ragnarök had come to pass with the end of times and dawn of eternal winter. Mercifully the sun emerged, and we managed to procure hydration that had yet to freeze solid. We regulated our layers over skyscraper climbs and wind-chilled descents, and in the end we may have met the bride of Odin himself.
While I set my lagging fitness against 105 miles of cues, Eric was off for the 17-mile version of the Zumbro that seemed a reasonable distance in early April. He would climb over 3,000 feet on his one lap of the course, and he loved how the course allowed spectacular views as it traversed high ridges. While some ultras are so compact in layout that it seems a runner is just going back and forth on a vertical track, the Zumbro was spread out over a huge area that gave Eric the feeling that he was actually getting somewhere. I had hoped to ride up behind him along the river where his mile 13 was my mile 65, but was not quite quick enough this year. Eric and I both managed to sneak onto the first page of our respective race results, but we were awed by how these Minnesotans get so fit so early. Maybe they never let it slide in the first place.
That’s the realm of Rebecca Johannes who runs through winter wearing Yak Traks on snowmobile trails around Pilager, Minnesota. She does three marathons a week, often heading out at 4 a.m. before her four kids wake up, and when things get really ugly outside she might run a Netflix marathon on the treadmill. That’s the commitment she brought to the Zumbro trying to add a 100-mile record to the 50-mile women’s record she broke the year before. Just six weeks earlier, she was one of only three runners of any gender to finish Missouri’s Soggy Bottom 100, a 42,000 vertical foot torture test achieved by what Johannes describes as switchbacks turned on edge to produce the maximum pitch. She applied hands to the ground on the steepest sections and walked downhill in reverse to save her legs. That event left Johannes with three long weeks of pure recovery followed by two weeks of training and a week of taper before Zumbro.
Running the Zumbro 100 meant starting at 8 a.m. Friday and not stopping until the sun came up Saturday and over 18,000 feet had been climbed. It brought runners face-to-face with vertical snow pellets and a bewildered coyote who wondered where all these two-legged critters had come from. Each lap gave runners four chances to overheat on major climbs and four well supplied aid stations where a damp runner might freeze if allowed to linger. Moments of sunshine would lure an eager runner into losing a layer while cold winds lurked around the next bend. More than one withdrew after becoming irretrievably chilled. A veteran of temperature regulation, T.J. Jeannette came to Zumbro from the ultra-running town of Mankato. His jacket was off and on often as conditions changed, and as temperatures dropped to the teens at night he did change into a dry outfit and added a second jacket. For most of the event, Johannes wore capris with her Merrell Barefoot shoes, but she was freezing at 3 a.m. and finally put on long pants, fresh clothes and a warmer hat.
Jeannette described ultra-running as more of a competitive eating event. His stomach went through a rough patch at mile 25, but experience had taught him that he had to force feed himself some real food, nauseous as he was. It took a few minutes for his head and stomach to clear up, but he knew that starving his rebellious tummy would only make matters worth. After that spell he started eating more often, digging into his frozen hydration pack every 20 minutes and stopping at every aid station. He consumed a stomach-turning 60 gels, but tempered it with the hot soups and quesadillas served at Zumbro’s well-appointed rest stops. Johannes tamed her stomach with cubes of raw ginger which were admittedly nasty, but magical to a tortured gut.
As the sun rose Saturday morning, Jeannette felt as if his muscles would be torn from the bone. Johannes was on pace to break April Cole’s women’s record, but the last lap was taking a toll. Zumbro has a beautifully varied course that motivates with its undulations, but that mile of flat road with a handful of miles to go proved to be the most difficult. The straightaway where the cyclists intrude seems to stretch forever on foot. It made Johannes feel like she should be running faster, but on the last lap she would be walking. To break the record she would have to run the last seven miles flat out, but with her intolerable ankles and quads factored into the equation the math just didn’t add up. Johannes missed the record this year, but finished in less than 24 hours, six hours in front of the next woman and just in front of Jeannette, who was the first male over 40.
He’s eager to get back to the North Shore for the Superior 100 that he calls the crown jewel of the Midwest. Johannes won’t be running another all-nighter until September when she’ll be racing for prize money in Oregon. Next year she’s determined to enter the Zumbro fully recovered and ready to break the record. I expect my brother and I will get back to that mystical collection of hills no matter how out of shape we get. I want to be there in person to see the Zumbro record broken.