First of all, I’d like to thank the families of the 200 or so virgins who were sacrificed before the race, providing us with a respite in the recent Minnesota heat wave. Your personal sacrifices are greatly appreciated! The relatively low temperatures at race time allowed many runners the chance to really push the pace and go for personal bests on a tough and hilly Afton State Park course; myself included. After a week of hot and humid weather in the 90’s and 100’s, we were all thrilled to see the forecast for the weekend: race morning was to be in the 60’s, with later highs in the 80’s. The Mayan gods were appeased!
The Afton Trail Run is a 25k and 50k event in Minnesota’s Afton State Park along the Mississippi River. The river cut through this terrain a kabillion years ago creating a landscape of hills and coulees; a wonderful playland for the adventurous. John Storkamp directs this race and does a great job making this a premier Midwest trail race. The 25k loops the park once, and the 50k, twice.
I’ve had this race in my sights since the previous debacle on the Afton Ski Hill course, when medical personnel pulled my chip (RD John Storkamp kicked my ass last year with his diabolical course layout). I was disappointed with myself for accepting that fate a bit too readily; I felt I had some race left in me, but evidently little fight. This year was to be different. My training for the 2012 season started the previous November, with core work at a local health club. To deal with the hills in a more dignified manner, I included weekly lunge sessions at the Willow River State Park falls stairs. In all, I trained like never before, and boy did that pay off at Afton.
This year included a more spiritual preparation as well. Like many folks, I hesitate pushing too hard for fear of the suffering to follow. In short, I listen to my lying brain. My plan this year was to ask for prayers, and then hammer my pace; lifting my suffering and effort (and results) to God, in the hope that my suffering would be pleasing to Him. I sound like a flagellant, I know, but work with me here. As a friend explained: “This brings glory to God, as the motive of our heart says: You are more important to me than food, you are worth suffering with, and for.” Truly humbling; my mantra was to “don’t be a wimp”.
Saturday morning packet pickup was like most others at Afton: a reunion of friends amidst the low-key Minnesota trail running atmosphere. Lots of smiles amidst some serious introspection. RD John Storkamp’s race shirts are still awesome; this year’s with a decidedly Mayan theme. After taking care of last minute victuals and expendables, we made our way to the start line, where 200 or so runners prepared to do battle with the trails. After a quick pep talk we were off at 6:30 sharp, down the cattle chute to the base of our first climb. Honestly, why do we go down just to go back up? Couldn’t they have just built a bridge?
Unlike previous Aftons, this year I decided to start near the front, which meant a bit of jockeying for space as the trail narrowed. No problems though as everyone was respectful, causing no one to go orienteering. Our first climb to the Africa Loop was the usual mix of running and walking. Once on top, it was time to set a pace. I maintained about an 8:00 pace; hopefully the right balance in the beginning. The morning was gorgeous, highlighting the forest-surrounded golden grassland beauty of the Africa loop. I kept expecting to see a lion peek above the grass to pick out a straggler. I tried to look strong.
The Back-40 is a drop down from the savanna to a more lush, tropical loop; one of my favorite trails in the park. Following a rocky decent, I ran past aid station 2, knowing I would see it again in 1.5 miles. It was nice and cool as runners started to group a bit on the singletrack; a good time to meet new people and catch up with friends. After water, a gel and my first S-cap, we followed a very runnable climb back up to Africa to finish the loop. Fast (for me) and efficient.
Leaving Africa happens via an awesome drop down a rocky coulee trail; one you’d love to bomb when you don’t have 25 miles of race ahead of you. Injecting a little prudence, I slowed my descent, but took full advantage of the free speed, past Steve Quick directing traffic at the bottom, to where we get our first sight of the Mississippi river at aid station 3. It is great to see my wife and crew, Beth, at this station, but this early in the race we are all business: gel, water, ice, vamoose. She is awesome.
The climb out of aid-3 is a smooth and runnable crushed-gravel road back to the top of the park. I like running this road because I actually feel energized once at the top. It is at this point where I was completely warmed up and ready to pick up the pace to about 7:30. After a bit of flat on top, we again drop to the river, and past the most gorgeous view in the park. Rounding a bend, if you are not expecting it, it takes your breath away: a view from above, looking south along the river. Enough of that, it was time for an easy descent back to the river, and short jog on a former rail trail.
The next climb up to the camp area is my least favorite in the race. Rocky, steep and sandy. When on training runs in the park, I tend to eliminate this section due to imagined time limitations that suddenly seem important. I don’t tend to be a journey person on this hill. I know this climb has a name (Kevin’s or Dean’s hill, or something like that). Once on top, we waved to the campers as we ran though. Being backpack campers, they understood what was going on and kindly wished us well. Of course my least favorite descent should follow that climb. It seems to follow a wide washout, where, if you are running, it is hard to check your speed without quads of steel. The workers at aid station 4 (backside of aid-3) get a great view of runners on the edge of control (and sometimes tumblers having lost all control) as they try to navigate this slide.
After some ice, water, a gel, and S-cap (and a kiss from the crew), we are provided with a few miles of absolute flat. I have learned, in the past, to avoid the temptation of the 5k pace here, knowing the hills and miles to come; but I did try to keep an effortless 7:00 pace along the river. Don’t be a wimp. Now rehydrated and refueled, it was time to climb back up via the Meatgrinder. Despite its ominous name, this hill is not too bad, with the rocks creating a natural system of steps in the steepest section. Plus, it is the last tough climb in the loop, and leads into aid station 5, where the nice folks will dump water on your head and ice down your back. Thanks!
The next section is called the Snowshoe Loop, and provides the best singletrack and most remote running in the park. While bombing through these trails, one almost forgets fatigue. The flats, hills and descents in this section are so short and numerous, that my muscle groups seemed to get frequent breaks. Though a bit more difficult to find, if you have only a short time for a run at this park, I’d recommend this section over most others. Except for one short steep climb and one rocky descent, it is all runnable and fun.
Following the climb out of the Snowshoe Loop, there is about a mile of flat and fast to the start and aid station 1. While the 25k race starts an hour after the 50k, it has been my goal in the past to start my second loop before the first 25k racer arrives. Those guys fly! I think I saw a 1:37:10 time and 6:16 average pace for the eventual 25k winner, Joe Moore. Way to go for the course record Joe! I did my first loop in a more pedestrian 2:16, faster than any of my previous attempts by 15 minutes. I was pretty lit. So now it was time for some plotting: hmmm, I didn’t think I had a negative split in me, though a course PR was definitely in my grasp. In the past I’ve lost 30 minutes to the second loop, which would put me in at about 5:15. I was feeling good. I would try to reduce that loss. Don’t be a wimp.
The second loop looked surprisingly like the first, only without the fresh legs, so I’ll keep it to the highlights. I tried to keep the pace fast (for me) and the breathing and heart rate down. My first bad spot came after climbing out of the Back-40. My brain was telling me to slow down so I didn’t become a lump on the trail. In the past I’ve always heeded this message thinking I was being smart and listening to my body. Listening to my brain is quite another thing, so I tried to ignore it. Keeping my pace was surprisingly easy once I convinced myself that my brain is a liar, and this spell will pass. And it did. I was myself again and feeling strong at the bottom of the Africa Loop, waving to Steve Quick for a second time.
I felt good, running the stone road hill for the second time. It felt good to reach and find I had reserves available. It also felt good to have the hill up to the campground done for the day. My wife Beth, in planning for 90 degree heat and humidity, created a secret pouch for holding ice, made from an old towel. This pouch fit nicely under my hat and provided a slow drip of cold water on my head (Ahhh) as I started the rail road flat at about a 7:30 pace. My mind was telling me I would blow up at this pace, but I ignored it. After a bit I settled in and it felt right.
Following Meatgrinder part 2, my only thought was not to fall in the Snowshoe loop, and to keep the pace. I was dying my second death here and there are so many ways to stumble on that trail. The seemingly easy portions that wind through fields seem to have once been plowed, with the furrows hidden by tall grass, providing a nice tiptoe through the tulips. While the forested sections wind so much that it is sometimes difficult to see the trail more than 5 feet in front.
Now out of the Snowshoe Loop I was as good as done. I ran the last flat and fast section to the finish as hard as my legs would allow. To the 25k runner I passed near the finish chute: sorry, I hope you weren’t too upset with me.
I crossed the line in 4:57. The clock said 3:57 (for the 25k race), and in my delirium I believed it. Wasn’t that a course record or something? Once I came to my senses, I was floored that I had run the course so fast, losing less than 15 minutes in the second loop. What joy after last year’s Catastrophe at Afton Alps. After catching my breath I enjoyed some cool lemonade and some great burgers at the finish party. I never seem to want to leave these events, wanting the Pink Floyd “Comfortably Numb” trip to stay with me forever. Or maybe more like the Ramones: “I'll have to tell 'em that I got no cerebellum!”
Note to self: trust in your training, trust in God, and don’t be a wimp. I can’t wait until next year!
The volunteers are always great at this race, but especially this year. What a great group of people along the trail and at the aid stations! Thanks for volunteering and helping make this race so awesome.