Monday, November 18, 2013

New Richmond 5k Fun

Like many of you, I like to run.  While we do have our preferred distances, it doesn't matter if it is 100 miles or 1; we like to run.  Some of us are competitive in the longer stuff, while in the short/fast distances we'll strain a gluteus just to be a mid-packer.  But why then is it fun for long-distance runners to run fast? Until oxygen debt has us drooling and tripping over our own shoes?  5k's are grueling, but not for long.  I think short races are fun because they are short; we're barely warmed up and it's already time to have a Clif bar and a banana.  I had one of those races last weekend.

But this report is not about my 5k race, that would be boring.

Every year, the New Richmond Area Centre hosts a series of (7) 5k races throughout the winter, one a month from October to April.  The whole series costs $20.  It would be challenging to find a single race entry at that price, so I consider it the deal of the century; a no-brainer.  For that price you get a shirt, low-key race vibes, non-certified courses that tend to be a few k long, and more importantly, a reason to run throughout the winter.  Plus they start at 9:00 am.  I can still sleep in!

The November iteration was one I was not planning on attending.  It was too soon after my last 50-miler, and I was still in recovery mode.  And for $20, I can miss a few and still have a clean conscience.  I went though (what the heck), intending on a relaxing 5k tour of the New Richmond Industrial Park.

The start line for this race was in the Family Fresh parking lot, with the course an out-and-back on paved trail.  There were about 100 racers toeing the line that morning, with a great mix of moms and dads, kids, students, dogs, strollers, and a few runners.  Good weather too; at about 40°F, some of us were in shorts and tee's.

After a ready-set-go, we were off, high-tailing it up the trail.  After an initial sorting out, I found myself in the lead pack, consisting of a girl's high-school cross-county team, myself, and a 12 year-old boy in gym sneakers.  This report is about that boy.

He was TRUCKING, having a blast!  Prepubescent arms and legs flailing about just trying to stay with the 6:30 pace.  The contradiction between the smooth flowing stride of the girls with his discordant zombie sprint on Red Bull was joyously evident.  But what he lacked in style and efficiency, he more than made up with zeal.  He would inch into the lead, and then look around with a loopy grin that seemed to say, "I can run faster than these people.  Those are just girls and an old guy, and they're slow.  I'm going to win.  This is easy.  Mom said I was a good runner, and she was right!"  And, of course, the rest of us are cringing for the eventual blow-up.

But he kept this up for far longer that I expected.  After about a mile though, I could tell he was starting to flag.  The periodic forays into the lead had ended, and he was now working hard to maintain pace.  And his smile was unfortunately gone. Compared to the lead group's symphony of rhythmic footfalls and harmonious breathing, he was playing the roll of jazz trumpeter; off beat and blowing like a freight train.  It was a little sad to see, though not really unexpected. Talk about a school of hard knocks.

Eventually, his strain turned to panic.  He was now delving into some serious oxygen debt, and losing his battle with consciousness.  Each time he looked back to gauge the leaders' positions, I could see panic in his eyes.  They now seemed to say "What's happening? It wasn't supposed to be this way?  Why is this so hard?  I can't breathe!  Man these girls are fast!"

And then he was gone, like a parachutist into the slipstream, he just disappeared.  Bummer, I was rooting for him.  It was like the lead group just lost its mascot.  I think he learned some valuable lessons though, like "running is hard", and "racing is harder".  What heart!

I did see our 12 year-old runner at the finish line.  He eventually did cross the line, and he did not look too good.  But his smile was back.  Maybe he'll be back too.  I hope so.  I admire youth with an adventurous, "go for it" spirit.  He'll have the rest of his life to learn to strategize and moderate.

I crossed the line in second place.  I did drop the girls past the half-way point, though some high school boy loped past me just short of the finish line.  Inches from an old-guy win!

Maybe in Decemebrrr.  And I'll be looking for my 12-year-old friend; I've got to meet him, and maybe chat on him a bit.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mary's 2013 Autumn Leaves 50k Race Report

Mary recently ran the Autumn Leaves 50k at Champoeg State Park in Oregon.
Here is her race report.

My cousin Amy, who some of you met (the woman with the green cast, who had breakfast with us at the Oasis ) has been wanting me to do a race in the Pacific NW for at least 4 years. When she lived in Seattle I looked at some races there, but they looked a bit too challenging for me and the timing never seemed right.

Then she moved to Portland. She joined the Oregon Road Runners Club and this summer she suggested the Autumn Leaves Run, which is put on by the club. She had volunteered last year and thought it was a race I would like. The website made it look appealing, so I registered. The race takes place in the Willamette Valley at a State Park which is the location where Oregon became a territory of the US. It is located about 30 miles south of Portland on the way to Salem, the capital.

I flew to Portland on Thursday to get "acclimated" to the rainy humid weather! It's been so dry here in Tucson that it actually felt good. I intended to watch Amy's son in a district cross country meet, but just missed his heat. Was fun to be part of the event though. It was supposed to be sunny all weekend so I didn't even consider an umbrella or other rain gear when I packed. On Friday it started getting overcast and the weather forecast for Sat. which had been sunny and low 70's now turned into 42 degrees at the start and a high of low 50's. Fortunately I had taken an assortment of clothes.

The Race Start Pavilion at Champoeg State Park in Oregon
There were two distances for the event, a 50 miler which started at 6:00 AM and the 50k which started at 7:00 AM. When we got to the park it was pitch dark and I then understood why they said headlamps were essential.(It's light in Tucson by 6:15 so I sort of thought I could get by without.) There was a festive atmosphere at the start since the 50 milers had started already. Some runners were coming in from doing their first loop before we started. The race director reviewed the course briefly and we were off. I hadn't thought about strategy (I'm not like Dave) for this event and was already about two miles into the race when I realized that this was a very runnable course and not your usual trail ultra where the hills automatically allow some walk breaks. So I reverted back to my marathon strategy of walking about 30 sec. every 10 minutes.

The race consisted of 5 loops. Each loop was a 10k and there was a 1.2 mile section which was single track trail. There was basically one aid station which you passed by on the way out and  back. It was fairly strategically placed, but I could have carried a water bottle. The bike path started on a very flat path which passed through a meadow area for about a mile. The trail then entered a more forested area along the Willamette river and became just slightly rolling with a small hill as you came to the 3.1-mile turn around point. The out and back course allowed for seeing all the participants many times. It was interesting to watch how the look on their faces or their gait changed as they became more fatigued. I was lapped by the lead woman several times. She was doing the 50 miler and ran a blistering pace. Her name is Pam Smith and she was the woman winner of Western States this year.

The cool weather made for excellent running conditions, but it was hard to figure out what to wear. I started with two layers and capris. After the first loop I took off the long sleeved shirt and grabbed my arm sleeves. After the second loop I was chilled and grabbed my wind breaker jacket. Amazingly I wore the jacket for the next 3 laps and was never too warm.

Since this course was relatively easy to run it was more of a psychological challenge to complete the same 5 loops. I was quite relieved after the 1st loop when I suddenly realized I only had 4 loops left instead of 5. It just took me one loop to wake up!  By the third loop I decided I needed to be distracted and put on my I-pod. This worked amazingly well and the 4th loop flew by. When I finished this loop I thought for sure that I would be able to run under 6 hours and 30 minutes. ( I was really planning to slow down this last lap since I had already run almost a marathon ). Well, my cousin Amy had asked if she could run the last lap since she needed to do a 10k that day for her training program. So she joined me with her heart rate monitor on and we got going. I was amazed that I could still run with minimal breaks. She really pushed me and in the end I ran the 5th loop at the same pace as the second loop. My time was 5:52. I was very surprised to see that I had run under 6 hours.

Mary and Amy at the Start/Finish Area
Since it was a very low key event, we gathered my gear, ate the post race meal, thanked the race director and his wife and went home. A couple days later I checked the results and was pleasantly surprised to see that out of 68 finishers I was 34th and I was the second oldest runner in the race. There was one man who was 68 and he finished behind me. This would not be an event for those who like bands at every aid station and lots of fancy swag, but there was chipped timing, a certified course and friendly people helping at the race and running it. What more could a person want?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013 Surf the Murph 50M Race Report

What a way to end the racing season!  Good friends, perfect weather, hills and 50 miles of beautiful trail.  I went into this race with some distinct personal goals, and I came out wondering how far and how fast I can take this running thing.  In the end, it was a real eye opener for me.

But first-things-first – Surf the Murph is a series of three races set in the 2,800 acre Murphy Hanrehan Reserve in Savage, MN.  A single loop of the park nets a little less than 17 miles, so we get races at a long 25k, a long 50k and 51 miles depending on the number of loops you feel like suffering though.  The terrain varies from dirt road to technical singletrack with about 2,000 of elevation change for each loop.

A few things someone interested in running this event should know:
  • Most all of the hills are encountered in the first 5 miles of the loop; they are a bit relentless, but each no more than 300 ft or so.
  • The event is pretty low key; no laser light shows or paid MC’s.  Costumes are encouraged!
  • Don’t zone out if you are not familiar with the course.  There are so many intersecting trails, that losing track of the flags will get you off-course in a jiffy.  Pay attention at this one.
  • If you like fall scenery, you’re in for a treat.
  • What other race do you get announced at an aid station with a horn?!

Race Goals – As I stated before, I had a few goals for this race.  Last year was a pretty good run for me: a 9:30 goal while actually crossing the line in 9:12 and 11th place overall, while losing 10 minutes on an off-course jaunt.  This year, I felt that an 8:45 finish should help me crack the top-10, so I planned my pace to match, with no unintended off-course excursions this time.

Race Morning – The alarm went off Saturday morning at 4:30 am, so my wife and I could be at the park for the 6:00 am start.  I am so glad that we pack everything the night before; I am pretty worthless for the first 30 minutes each morning (commuters you have been warned).  The weather was a wonderfully clear 43°F with some light winds.  This would be a good start compared to last year’s 22°F start.  Plus, those giant klieg lights in the start/finish area?; they put out an enormous amount of radiant heat.  And I forgot my sunscreen.
For clothing, well, I was afraid of getting too chilled at the start, so I wore two layers, with a plan to remove the outer as I warmed up: technical tee, shorts and arm sleeves underneath, with a sweatshirt and running pants over top.  Add a pair of gloves and a Gore-tex beanie, and I was set.

At the Start
Packet pickup and the pre-start went very quick; the StM team is pretty efficient.  The race shirt was the same as in the previous years (long-sleeve technical with a turtleneck collar), though lime green this time.  A note to the RD: your pre-race pep talk was hard to hear.  Maybe get in the middle of the crowd or get a bullhorn?  No big deal though, we knew the drill.  We all chatted and milled around the start area, waiting for the clock to wind down.  Typical pre-race nervousness.

Loop 1
And then we were off.  After a resounding “runners ready”, we were off down the bunny trail; about 100 bobbing headlamps leaving the well-lit start area.    Into the void.  I started near the front with the intention of staying within the top 10 for the entire race.  I just love the start of races, the opening miles feeling effortless, though always a bit unnerving to think of the 50 miles yet to be run.  Easy running though, keeping the pace under control, and conversations going with those around me.  Until the hills start that is.  After about a half mile the terrain shifted from flat and easy to (pointless) 100-300 ft ups and downs, some kinda steep.  I just kept the heart rate under control and tried to Zen through.  I knew that any over-expenditure here would be paid back three-fold on the later laps; not fun.  I was getting warm though; the extra layers would need to come off soon.

Aid station 1 was located in the hills here, but after only 3 miles, most of us just ran right through.  I had taken no calories prior to the race, and did not intend to do so until much later, letting my fat-burning furnace kick into “sizzling”.  I just had my waist-pack water bottle, which would not need a refill until much later due to the cool temps.

A little different this year, I ignored the standard operating procedure of walking the steep hills, running most of them.  I thought it foolish to train so hard in the hills prior to the race, only to walk them during a race.

After about 5 miles, the hills mercifully stopped, and the trail spit out into the horse camp aid station.  It was here that I met my wife and crew, Beth.  We traded water bottles and I lost the sweat shirt and pants.  After some words of encouragement (I think it was, “well, what are you waiting for?”) I headed out onto some flat land trails, with my headlamp still on my forehead.  The sun was just starting to lighten the horizon by now.

The terrain between the horse camp aid stations is fairly flat and even, so it was time to kick up the pace a bit.  I joined with a group of guys, and the eventual women’s winner, and we kept between an 8:00 and 8:30 pace.  Aid station 3 came and went, and then there were only three of us.

Between Aid 3 and 4 is Smurph village, a couple miles of deer trail that wind through the forest.  Running your own pace can be difficult through this section in a conga line, so I sped up a bit to hit this section first.  This proved well for me as I run well on this type of terrain.  I gapped the other two in this section while I wound my way amongst the Smurph signs; off her meds indeed.
Into Aid 4, I met Beth again, and it was here that I took my first calories of the day.  I traded my water bottle with one filled with UCAN.  This liquid/food/starch stuff seems to provide a steady drip of carbs without tripping my insulin response, resulting in no central fatigue/no bonk.  This stuff works for me.  Unlike a gel, it takes a while before it truly kicks in.

The section between Aid 4 and the finish is a bit hilly, but nothing like the start.  There is one hill (Pikes Peak) that I walked.  Last year I remember a log that needed to be hurdled on the steepest portion of this climb; not so this year.  I think it had decomposed enough that it no longer posed an obstacle.

And then I was into the start/finish for the completion of my first lap.  I had planned on a 2:50 lap, and was just a bit concerned when I saw 2:30.  That’s a lot of time off my goal pace and it left me wondering if I would have to pay the piper for going out too fast.  Beth told me not to even think about it.  I removed my arm sleeves, replaced my beanie with a ball cap and sun glasses, and I was off again.  Feeling strong.

Loop 1:  Goal: 2:50,  Actual: 2:38

Loop 2
I ran out of the start/finish area feeling pretty good about that time, and had decided that if I could finish the second loop under 3 hours, I would gun for an 8 hr finish.  Ha!  I was already writing my victory speech.  I've done that before, and you can guess the end result in those races.  Ah hubris.

Typical Fall Murphy Hanrehan View
The initial hills felt fine on the second loop, and I was still feeling strong.  The quick first loop made me a bit worried about an overdrawn energy account, so I slowed it up a bit.  Just a bit.  I ended up running this section with two guys, Yellow Hat and The Red Rider.  It is tough to run with someone through hills as we all needed to pace ourselves individually.  We all stayed within viewing range, with a little bit of chitchat, but that too can be tough in the hills.

One feature of lap 2 that I remembered from last year was the addition of new trail signs.  Billboards had been erected at a few tricky locations between loops.  Hmmm, some folks must have been taking off-course excursions this morning.  Easy to do.  Gotta pay attention.  I should know.

With a swap of UCAN bottles with Beth, I left Yellow Hat and The Red Rider behind at Aid-2.  For the remainder of loop 2 I worked hard at keeping my pace under control, saving something for the last loop.  I was nearing the midpoint of the race, and from here on in I would not be passed by another 50 miler.  The first three 50k racer came through.  Eric Sensemen was well ahead of the other two and looking very strong.  He ended up setting the 50k CR that day at 4:04.  Smokin’, Eric!  I also started to come upon the back end of the 50k race.  It was nice to have some company on the trails; it can get a bit lonely out there.

As the second loop was drawing to a close, I was still feeling great.  Weird.  I now felt I might be in the position to try for something remarkable on the third loop.  The fatigue I am so familiar with late in races just wasn’t there.  It was at that point that I started to fear going off course, as I have done in my two previous runnings of this race.  I’ hatedthe thought of running so well and then getting lost.  I would search hard for the next trail marker, and feel a sense of relief when I saw one just around a bend.  A few seconds after passing a marker, I would start to doubt my navigation, and would stress until the next trail marker.  Sometimes I just need to learn to relax a bit.  Funny.

Loop 2:  Goal: 3:00,  Actual: 2:42  (Race time: 5:20)

Loop 3
I decided to hammer the last lap; as hard as I could push.  It is not often that I think I can achieve something remarkable while running (my use of the word “remarkable” is relative of course; I by no means consider myself really fast).  But an 8 hr Surf the Murph 50 mile would have been something, and I probably wouldn't get many chances at something like this.  Think strong thoughts!

The initial 5 miles of hills on the last lap went something like this: “I won’t have to do this hill again.  Or that hill, and so on…)  It was like this that I found myself pretty spent but smiling, coming out into the Horse Camp aid station.  That hurt; but it “hurt so good” as John Mellencamp says.

With the keto-adapted, fat-burning diet I have been adhering to the previous year, central fatigue/bonking is a thing of the past.  It is a strange thing to feel discomfort to that level, and to be so completely mentally sound.  But as I get used to that feeling, I learn that I can push my body much harder than my mind lets on.  And push I did, and my body did not fail me.  Almost.

At about mile 40 my left calf started to cramp.  I did not feel this cramp was due to fueling, hydration or electrolytes; I was managing these pretty well.  I think it came from pushing my muscles too hard and for too long, plain and simple.  I started praying for relief.  I did not want to come this far and work this hard only to be brought down by cramping.  If I kept my left foot flexed forward and minimized the push-off, I found that the cramp would diminish and become manageable.  It sure slowed me down, but not too much.

I concentrated on getting down every stretch of trail as fast as possible.  I have never run this hard this late in a 50 mile race.  It is a strange thing to have so much fun while experiencing so much discomfort.  I used each mile marker to remind myself of each manageable distance yet to come.  14 miles, 13 miles, 12 miles…

I’d like to diverge a bit for a moment.  I do not care for the term “pain” when describing what I feel when running hard.  That term gives that feeling too much power.  I feel pain when I break a leg or pull an Achilles tendon.  Pain makes me stop.  “Discomfort” now, that is something I can work through; I am tough enough to deal with that.  I was feeling a great deal of discomfort.

Hammering the remaining miles
(Bryan Cochran Photography)
At the last aid station I ditched the waist pack and pounded home, my cramping calf setting as my speed limiter.  I was passing many 50k racers and second-loop 50-milers at this point, and I concentrated on reaching and passing each one.  That helped take my mind off of the distance remaining.  And before long, I heard the cheering at the finish and I knew I was as good as done.  I was really enjoying this!

Loop 3:  Goal: 3:00,  Actual: 2:51  (Race time: 8:11)

Wow, what a great feeling to have finished so strong.  I had run an almost complete race (except for the slow second loop and the cramping on the third).  And holy cow did the runners get fast when compared to last year!  In the 2012 event I ran 9:12 for 11th place.  This year I took an hour off of that time and ran… an 11th place?  The front runners were smokin’ this year!  Michael Borst ran a 50M course record 6:46, way to go Michael!

Note: Final results put me in 8th place.

It is a strange feeling to run so hard that I start to cramp up, and enjoy the sensation of pushing myself to my limits!  I think that now I better understand my limits and how best to prepare and push past them next season; nothing some specific training can’t overcome.  Next year will be exciting for me!  Steve Quick stated that he would be gunning for the M50 win next year at Afton.  That got me thinking about what I really could accomplish there.  I think a 4:30 is certainly within my reach.  We’ll see!  It is always dangerous to put such lofty goals in print.

At the End with my Jujyfruits Shirt
(thanks Bobby!)
I’d like to finish this blog post on a spiritual note, as this run was certainly a spiritual experience for me.  God gave me this gift of running, and I am grateful.  What gift can I return that is better than utilizing His gifts in the best ways possible; using His gifts to the fullest.  I ran this race as a gift to God, working through my great discomfort for His glory, not mine.  I could have been disappointed for falling short of an 8 hr finish time, or missing the top-10… again.  But that would be making it about me.  Thank you God for the gift of running, I hope you liked my gift to you.

Thank you Beth, as always, for sharing this experience with me, and making my food/hydration/aid stations so easy for me.  Thanks to the volunteers; the aid stations seem to be better each year I run this race.

And now I can eat Fritos and have a hamburger, on a real bun.  With French fries!  Time to relax, get a little fat, and enjoy the holidays.  The Kettle 100 is not too far off!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Ice Age Trail Adventure

On Monday, September 2nd (Labor Day 2013), my wife and I headed north to the Ice Age trail (IAT) in Wisconsin to run a pre-planned 40 mile section of forest, fen and prairie.  The section from Leach Lake Road to our newest park, Straight Lake State Park, was brand new to both of us.  The plan was: I would run and Beth would crew.

As a preamble to this report, I had been in a pretty miserable mood prior to the run; kind of depressed.  The French have the word ennui, pronounced “ahn-wee”, that I like to use because it makes me smile.  Sounds like a treatise on urination; “Ennui; Draining the Sleepy Weasel”.  Anyway, we just saw my oldest daughter off to college, and that, along with not running as much as I’d like, and family financial issues, had me in a major funk by the time this run started.  And the weather Monday morning mirrored my mood.  Real gloomy, Eye-ore type conditions.

At the trailhead (Washburn County)

After the 5:00 am alarm, we gathered our gear and drove north about 1.5 hrs to the trailhead just north of Cumberland, WI.  The temperature was cool (perfect for running) at about 50°F, and the sky was overcast when we found the trail entrance off of Leach Lake Road.  It was not too tough to find, though most non-state roads up here tend to be of the gravel variety, so the going was slow.

Though it was a chilly 50°F, I knew I would get warm quickly once the legs started moving.  I wore a technical long-sleeve shirt, compression shorts, a Gore-tex beanie and some cheap gloves.  I carried water in a single 20-oz bottle on a waist pack, with the section map in a pocket to be traded at each new segment.  This proved to be about just right.

As we stood there in the misty morning, looking at the scant opening in the woods marking the trail entrance, we spotted an otter trundling down the road, inchworm style.  We looked into the forest again, and then with a shout of “epic/awesome!”, I went through the looking glass.

Through the looking glass: Timberland Hills Ski Trails (miles 0-5, Burnett County)

I was immediately engulfed in dense woods.  The trees were mostly deciduous, closely spaced, and with very little undergrowth.  In fact, last year’s leaf litter still blanketed the ground.  I was left to find my way without much of a trail to go by.  The IAT is marked by a series of yellow blazes; rectangular marks on trees along the trail.  I was left to go from tree blaze to tree blaze until a trail finally showed itself.  Without the blazes I would have needed a bloodhound.  This would have been tough later in the fall.

Following my auspicious start, the IAT eventually joined with the Timberland Hills XC Ski Trails; a hilly segment through marshland and some light woods.  I went from a barely visible scratch in the earth to a grassy superhighway.  It was a fantastic change as the trails now were easily discernible and the footing firm.  After about 5 minutes though, I missed the dense woods and the singletrack.  I could have driven my car down these paths, with enough room for oncoming traffic.  Also, there were many trails crisscrossing the IAT; keep looking for those blazes!

Along one portion of this trail, the undergrowth was about waist-high, blocking sight of my feet.  The footing was pretty even here so I was not concerned while I kept up my pace.  Unknown to me, a family of turkeys was traveling the trail just ahead of me, under the undergrowth.  Once they heard me coming in was major panic time.  Wattles and snoods gobbling everywhere as about 10 turkeys flew into the trees, crap soaring in every direction like chaff from fighter planes.  Funny.  Their crap missed me.

Near the end of this section, Beth met me at the Boyd Lane trailhead with a change of water bottle.  I drank very little during this portion, and really didn’t need the water.  We did this mostly for safety in case we missed each other at a later trailhead.  And then I was off, feeling (just a little) better.

The superhighway continues: Still more ski trails (miles 5-10, Barron County)

After crossing the county line, the ski trails became wider and even better managed.  I think 2 lanes of traffic, each way, could have managed through this section.  Plus, these were lighted trails, with overhead lamps on poles lining the path.  Not really the ambiance I was looking for, and not the IAT character I was expecting.  Thankfully, this section did not last long.

A fantastic section of snowshoe trails broke from this forest superhighway, and I was again immersed in glorious wooded singletrack.  Snowshoe trails tend to be great running trails (without the snow), and this section was no exception.  This is what I came for, and I enjoyed every bit of it.  The path wound over hills and into valleys, along small lakes and through marshland.  It was still cloudy and in the 50’s, but I was starting to have fun as I warmed up.  I could feel my malaise (another funny sounding word, reminding me of a sandwich spread) lifting a bit more.

In no time I saw Beth again for our second meet at County Line Road.  We traded water bottles again.  I think I drank maybe 6 ounces at most all day; I still didn’t need much water.  Then, after leaving the trailhead, I had about a quarter-mile jog down County Line Road, and back into the green tunnel.

Things start to get interesting: Sand Creek Segment (miles 10-15, Barron and Polk Counties)

To paraphrase Bane, Batman’s recent nemesis, “Oh, you think undergrowth is your ally. But you merely adopted the briars; I was born in it, molded by it.”  Oh the undergrowth; a thousand tiny claws tearing at my body as I wound through the charnel way.  The trails entering the Sand Creek Segment of the Burnett and Polk County Forests were highlighted by marsh and fen, with knee to waist-high undergrowth hiding the trail; undergrowth with teeth!  The briars continually tore into my legs, cut my socks and pulled on the fabric of my shirt.

Needless to say, I was having less fun.  At one point, the undergrowth hid a significant rise in the trail.  I fell for the first time at this point, though it was not a major spill.  I fell forward to a pushup position and merely pushed myself from supine to upright and kept motoring.
I’d prefer not to dwell on this section, though I was getting concerned that the trail conditions may never improve.  I can say that once I got out of the marshland the trail became legible singletrack once more, and I bounded out of the woods to meet Beth once again at the County E trailhead.

After the traditional water bottle trade, it was time to search for the trail on the opposite side of E.  It just wasn’t there.  Where did they put it?  The old trail ended, and no new trail began; just a wall of corn.  The map showed the trail crossing the road directly at the trailhead, with no jog down the road.  Our first navigational challenge.  After a journey into the cornfield, and a search up and down the road, we eventually found the opposite trailhead a quarter mile north.  Stupid map.  Whatever; I was off again.

The charnel house continues: Sand Creek Segment (miles 15-20, Polk County)

I was feeling very comfortable running by now.  My legs were full warmed and I was moving at my planned 10-minute clip.  Any faster would have been disaster.  The briars and undergrowth remained, but the footing became more technical.  Hidden roots and hillocks crisscrossed the trail, with numerous creek crossings over shaky log and stick “bridges”.  At one point I ducked my head to avoid some overhanging branches, only to get beaned by the unseen next branch; and then the next.  That hurt, but it was kind of funny in a 3 Stooges sort of way.  I hadn’t lost my sense of humor.  Yet.

By now my legs were getting pretty scratched up, and I was covered with those seeds that have hooks and quills designed to adhere to your clothes.  I came out of that forest looking like Sasquatch, days after getting kicked out of the cave by the missus.

The weather was still cold and gloomy, yet my attitude was perking up; I was having fun.  Though it could have been funner.  And it was time to see Beth again.  At the van I took off my shoes and socks to empty them of the detritus I picked up over the previous 20 miles.  A blister would ruin any fun I was having for sure.  I drank about half my water bottle on the last section, and it was time to take on a few calories.  I grabbed a Hammer Apple-Cinnamon gel (one of my least favorite gel flavors), took a new bottle, and was off into the longest section of the day.

The start of Awesome: McKenzie Creek Segment (miles 20-27)

The end of the briars was evident as I plunged back into the green tunnel.  Glorious forest singletrack!  And it was here that some hills started.  Before the adventure, I had planned on running all of the hills, while maintaining an easy 10-minute pace.  Some of these hills challenged that plan; not with their heights, but with their grades.  These were some steep climbs and descents!  For the first time that day my legs were complaining.  But that was easily overshadowed by the most gorgeous section of trail yet that day.  The path cut through and over ridges, above the Clam and McKenzie creeks; sometimes way above.   It was here that the sun came out, dappling the hillsides and warming the air just a bit.  From reading a plaque along the trail, these creeks were recently revitalized for the trout population, making them Class 1 (self-sustaining) trout streams.  More than once I heard a loud splash, though no culprit could be seen.

It was here that I fell the second time.  My legs were getting pretty trashed from the ups and down, and my metabolism was still mainly carb-burning.  I think a bonk was coming.  It was then that a root reached up from the trail and grabbed my toe sending me face-first into the dirt and rocks.  All action just ceased; the footfall tempo abruptly halted.  I stood up slowly to assess the damage and found two bloody but otherwise unhurt legs.  And I was off again, albeit a bit sorer from the fall.

To take my mind off of my sore legs, I began thinking about food.  My mind always seems to dwell on food later in runs.  I developed a yearning for a PB&J sandwich in the worst way.  On Wonderbread, with strawberry preserves and chunky peanut butter.  Then my mind wandered off to work.  In less than 24 hour’s time I would be sitting at my desk in St. Paul doing who knows what.  Surreal.  OK the thinking thing was not going well, back to the forest and trail.

As the sun was finally out, and the hills were keeping the legs working, I felt myself warming up a bit.  I then found the next trailhead at McKenzie Lake and I was out of the green tunnel and met Beth waiting for me wondering what took me so long.  Yeah, that section went slow.  I traded the long sleeve shirt with a shorter version, the beanie with my ball cap, and lost the gloves.  I took another gel (Montana Huckleberry this time, one of my faves) and swapped bottles and set off into the next segment.

Into the Open: Pine Lake Segment (mile 27 to 34)

Finding the next trailhead meant about a mile of road trotting before cutting into some private hay fields.  It felt great to be warmed by the sun, as the cool breeze kept me from over-heating.  The trail meandered a bit before it came out onto another road, with its continuation to be found directly across and into a freshly mown field; obviously private property.  For respect’s sake the trail skirted the outer edge of the field.  It was pretty uneven and tough to run through, with the trail indistinguishable among the mown grass.  I kept expecting the trail to plunge back into the forest at each turn, but it continued around the field perimeter along all four sides, returning the same road as before.  The trail finally dove back into the forest about 20 yards west of where exited.  What was the !@#$ point of that?  Most of the IAT to that point was laid out in a logical manner; up to that point.

Anyway.  It was now time to run through some sunny pasture and along some corn fields.  Unlike the crops near the Twin Cities, the fields around here looked great; lines of tall green sentinels with multiple ears on each plant.  The trail obviously wound along and through private land here.  At one point the trail ran directly between two camper trailers, around the lawn chairs circling a camp fire.  The campsite was vacant, though if the campers were at hand that might have been awkward.  Weird.

About here my legs fully recovered from the previous hills and I had transitioned to mainly fat burning, reducing the chance for that bonk.  My legs felt great again.  A portion of this segment ran along the Straight River; very scenic, though the footing was pretty technical with sections covered in the roots of trees reaching for a river slurpee.  I had yet to have much smooth trail on this adventure, so I was looking forward to the groomed state park paths to come.

After a nice climb away from the river and a slight jaunt along Highway 48, I met Beth yet again.  Time to get ready for the last portion of the IAT that day.

And back into the woods: Straight Lake State Park Segment (miles 34 to 40)

At one of the North Face 50-mile races along this very trail (though 200 miles to the south), I sipped some Mountain Dew late on the course.  I had been running for about 7 hours and the soda was like a jolt to the system; an IV straight to the furnace.  So of course, I wondered what a Red Bull might do?

At the trailhead, I downed 12 oz of Red Bull in 3 gulps (hmmm, I could feel it working already), took my last gel, swapped water bottles for the last time, and set off into the woods once again.  Here the trail wound past a gate with a “Do Not Enter: Private Property” sign (really?), past 3 quaint cabins overlooking the Straight River, across the driveway and lawn of the last cabin and onto the trail again.

Also, I had a plan for this last bit.  Throughout the run my melancholy (another funny name, like the part of a musical arrangement that makes you sad) had been lifting.  By this time it was gone and I was feeling great while drowning in endorphins.  I felt it was time to demonstrate my manhood to my wife.  Enough of this measly 10-minute mile stuff.  Beth was going to show up at the opposite end of the park only to find me waiting for her with a satisfied smirk on my face (and one of those glinty things on my teeth).  She would bask in my studliness as I described throwing down a 6.5-minute pace for the last 6 miles.  Our grandchildren would be raised hearing this story.  They would raise a pint at the pub in my honor.

I took off down that trail on fire, reveling in the smooth surface and relatively flat terrain.  A caffeine-fueled rush of trees, rocks, roots and Red Bull.  What I hadn’t factored in was, that running fast on trail meant keeping my eyes peeled on that same trail, not in the trees where the yellow blazes were painted.  Any look up may have ended in a major tumble

I went down the first errant path right off.  A quick glance up told me I was way off as the trail was about to end at the river.  No problem, a blast back found the trail again after about 200 feet.  I could still do this.  Until I went down the next wrong path.  This one cost me maybe 5 minutes of backtracking before I found the IAT again.  After slowing for some very tricky terrain along the Straight River, I felt my quest was in grave danger.  After the third wrong turn, I knew it was.  So I gave up the quest and just had fun running fast.  Our grandchildren would have to do without.

The singletrack became perfect at the state park entrance sign though.  Now it was easier to keep the blazes in sight as I sped my way to the end of this adventure.  The trails here were very hilly with some steep sections and sharp switch-backs.  No matter, I was Red Bull-powered!  
My legs were pretty beat but I did not let up on the throttle one bit; I was having too much fun.

The last scenic section along this route led along the shores of Straight Lake.  There were a few people along these trails, but without camp sites, the population of humans was pretty sparse for a state park.  The sun was getting a bit lower in the sky as well, but its warming rays were as strong as ever, shining off the water surface and glinting off each ripple and wave.  The lake was fairly large, with absolutely no man-made structures to be seen.  Beautiful, and rare.  I could see the value of saving this park for the people.  And with that I exited the woods right on time for my planned 10-minute pace.  So much for Mr. Studly.  Oh well, what a day!

What a day: Adventure Postscript

Up to this day I had never contemplated running my own race like this, where pace didn’t matter much and I could take as long as I wanted at each aid station.  Though I did miss the competition and camaraderie, I did not miss the entry fee and long drive.  I entered full of ennui, and left inspired to tackle life once again.  The gray weather of my mood lifted, now filled with sunlit possibilities, from the fasted initial 20 miles to the Red Bull-fueled frenzy at the end.

Though I probably could have filled a pack full of water and gels and done this on my own, there was something special in sharing the day with Beth like this.  What a great spouse to give up her day so I could gallivant through the woods, chasing turkeys and bloodying my legs!  Thanks.

I am planning on doing this again someday; maybe along the North Shore of Lake Superior, maybe along another segment of the IAT.  Probably more than 40 miles next time.  Who knows.  What possibilities.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ice Age Trail, Straight Lake Segment 40 mile Lard Ass

A "Fat Ass" is the name given to a low-key, by-invitation run without fees, awards, aid, course marking, guarantees or zombies.  It can be a race, or just a social event.  A course, a date and time, and some friends.  But, if I have no friends, is it still a "Fat Ass"?  Maybe then it's a "Lard Ass" or something.  I guess I'll use the time I have left to make some friends I think.

I guess I don’t care, I’m doing one anyway.

Due to sucky budget issues, I’ve pared down this year's race schedule to the bare minimum, which leaves 16 weeks between Afton and Surf theMurph.  I can’t train 16 weeks for a 50 mile race, I would die a training death of a thousand screams, or go bananas from being so bored.  Soooo, instead of taking the next 8 weeks off, I've planned a 40 mile run along a segment of the 1000-mile IceAge Trail in northern Wisconsin at about the end of August.  I’ll treat it like a race, with base build up, heat and speed training, an injury or two, and a taper.  Also, my wife Beth will provide the mobile munchy wagon, meeting me at key road crossings.

The route I've selected includes about 40 miles of very hilly singletrack on the trail.  This trail travels along the furthest extent of the last ice sheet to bother Wisconsin in the last 10,000 years, and as such, is full of many interesting terrain features, such as eskers, drumlins, kettles and kames.  Read here for more on my experience running the southern portion this trail.  The section I will be running will be Leach Lake Road (mmm, sounds inviting) to the StraightLake State Park parking area.

The Driftless Area

As a side note, just as interesting as the ice sheet boundary in Wisconsin is, the region the glacier missed is even more incredible.  The southeast corner of Wisconsin is known as the “Driftless Area”, or “Paleozoic Plateau”.  Take a look at a terrain map of Wisconsin, and you’ll see what I mean.  River valleys are deeply dissected (up to 650 feet), and are characterized by steep coulees.  The area is so rugged, a portion of it is known as the Ocooch Mountains, with exposed 1.6 billion year old monadnock (not the disease. it sounds like a disease. or a prescription medicine that can cause frequent urination).

The Driftless Area begs for a Superior Hiking Trail-like corridor, but alas, is pretty undeveloped.  In fact, maybe it’s better that way.  If you are interested in visiting this area, I would recommend the following points of interest from personal experience:
  • Camp at a state park:
    • Devil’s Lake – reserve your spot early, this is the largest and one of the most popular of the Wisconsin parks
    • Wyalusing – get one of the bluff tent sites, incredible view, especially at night
    • Wildcat Mountainthe wildcat did growlll
    • Governor Dodge – big and beautiful in the fall, a family favorite
  • Boat the Wisconsin River, east of Mazomanie – camp on a sand bar (no bugs), fish the river (always a huge variety)
  • Bike the Elroy-Sparta – bring a flashlight, this is one of the best rails-to-trails in the country with awesome scenery and several loooong tunnels
  • Canoe the Kickapoo – lazy, winding, beautiful, and a great swim too; lots of outfitter options
  • Have dinner at Di Sciascio’s in Coon Valley – this place is the proverbial “hole in the wall”, the exterior looks like a bar, but the food is fantastic; you won’t believe me when you see it and will be tempted to move on; don’t!
  • Spend the night at the Westby HouseB&B – this is probably the best B&B in the Driftless Area.

But, back to my Lard Ass (run)
I’m not sure what to expect, or how best to prepare, so I think I’ll take a cautious attitude:
  • Since we do not know this area very well and I may miss an aid drop (or get really lost), I’m thinking a hydration pack would be smart, over my usual 20 oz bottles.  Maybe a few iodine pills and Kool-Aid too.
  • Due to patchy logging and some private land crossings, the trail might be difficult to follow in some areas.  I am getting the latest Ice Age Trail Atlas and Companion Guide from our library.  I do NOT want to get (too) lost.
  • I’ll bring my smartphone for sure.  Other than the talky thing, this will be good for pictures at least, and I can use a breadcrumb app to track my progress.
  • Should I go fast or slow?  Slow makes for a more enjoyable journey, but fast equates the race for which I’m pretending to prepare.  Maybe a combination; fast when I feel like it, and then slow when I want to take a picture of a squirrel or enjoy some scenery or something.

Should be a fun adventure no matter what happens!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

2013 Afton Trail Run 50k Race Report

Wow.  Another year passed, and another great Afton 50k in the books.  The years for each of these great races don’t really seem to blend together though.  Each seems to stand out for different reasons; usually due to the weather, or sometimes course changes.  I remember the unreal heat and brutal ski hill course in 2011 (cursed Republicans), the gentle rain which kept things cool in 2009, etc.  This year may not stand out for many though.  The weather was pretty standard and the course had only one minor change.

It will stand out for me.

This will be known as the year that I tried something new on race day when you’re NEVER supposed to try anything new on race day.  This will be the year I had to gut it out, because I made a simple, stupid mistake.

A quick overview of the Afton trail Run…  This race has been held at Afton State Park in Minnesota for the past 20 years or so.  25k and 50k distances are offered, depending on whether you traverse 1 or 2 loops through the park.  The trails range from gravel road to singletrack, from wide open prairie to dense forest, from railroad bed flat to eroded washout climbs.  This year 400 folks opted for the 25k distance, while 200 braved the 50k.

What I like about this race, and what keeps me coming back (aside from the organized crew that runs the event) is that it is challenging: hot, hilly and fast, but not too much of each.  The terrain and scenery changes throughout the course, keeping the day interesting.

Race morning started like most: the beeping alarm, zombie motions out of bed, getting into some snappy getup I laid out the night before, a quick drink of water, and a spoonful of cream cheese.  Actually, that last part was new for this year.  I read somewhere that a bit of fat before a workout stokes my fat-burning furnace and allows me to hit the trails harder minus the sluggishness.   Hmmm.  We’ll see.

Check-in was as smooth as ever.  The volunteers at this race are pros (except for the lady who tried to give me someone else’s timing chip).  No early morning food though.  With the diet I have been adhering to recently, I avoided taking on calories before the race; I wanted to get that fat-burning furnace going.  I did have a slight knot in my stomach though; must be pre-race jitters.  We then ambled towards the start area about 15 minutes before the gun.  I carried a single 20 oz. water bottle on a waist pack; simple and light.

Following a quick pep talk about Afton State Park (a portion of our race entry fee is donated to the park) and hydration (it might get pretty hot out there), I worked my way towards the front of the pack of runners waiting for the start.  I’ve found that things can get pretty crowded near the back as the trail narrows a bit.  I found Chris Lundstrom grinning and greeting other runners; I was unexpectedly next to trail running royalty!  And then we were off.

Three things were evident as we started down the initial chute:
  • I was right where I needed to be in the pack, as runners started to spread out a bit in front of and behind me.
  • The heat was noticeable from the start.  I think it was in the low 70’s F, which was a bit warmer for 6:30 in the morning than in the days leading up to the race.  I was hoping heat would not be an issue until the second loop.  Not so this year.
  • That knot in my stomach exploded into full Alien mode as I was jostled on the quick descent.  Pre-race jitters generally go away when the gun goes off; this was something different.  This was that spoonful of cream cheese.  Crap!  Well, the pain wasn’t debilitating, so I kept the pace.  Maybe the Alien would hatch and go infect someone else.  Ha ha.

In past Aftons I tended to run a pretty strong first loop, while flagging the second loop by quite a bit.  This year I decided to hold back a bit initially saving for a stronger second loop, and hopefully a faster time overall.  It was 5 minutes into the race and I was sweating already.  Dang.

Following the initial drop, we climbed to the Africa loop, a forest-bordered prairie-like section of parkland complete with swaying grasses and flitting microfauna.  A slight breeze kept the runners from getting too hot as we circled the southern portion of this trail.  Warmup over, I got my pace up to about 7:30 miles as the runners spread out along the path.  Me and my cream cheese grenade felt good.

Unlike my previous Afton race reports, I’ll skip the course blow-by-blow.  Please read here for a description of each course section.

During the first loop, I kept a nice even pace, I felt good (though a bit warm), though my stomach was killing me.  Any time I pushed the pace, or bombed a downhill, I was reminded about how the crew aboard the spaceship felt in the movie Alien; the ones stupid enough to want to get a close look at that nasty thing with crab legs.  It was a weird feeling to have that much pain, while all other systems were functioning fine.  I successfully pushed Alien aside for the moment, but it did take some of the fun out the moment.

It was now that I noticed another mistake: It was evident I ran too hard 3 days prior to race day.  The Wednesday speed workout in the heat went too hard, and for too long.  Those specific muscles that ache after those types of runs were still hurting.  Oh well, not much I could do about that at the moment; something to add to the “don’t do this again before a race” list.

I took on no calories during the first 15 mile loop, running mainly on my onboard store of carbs and fat.  I did, however, keep the ice in the water bottles, and took several electrolyte tablets.  I came in to the start/finish for a quick turn-around, and then was down the chute for my second go-around.  First loop went at about 2:20.

On the second loop, heat became more of an issue.  To combat this, my wife/crew Beth handed me frozen bandanas to wrap around my neck, and frozen washcloths for placing under my hat.  Near the end of the race, I started pouring ice down the back of my shirt as well.  This strategy worked well for me as I suffered no heat-related issues or central fatigue during the race.  The temperature did get up to the mid-80’s I think.

It was on the second loop where I started to take on some calories.  Not much though.  I think I had 2 gel packs and a packet of UCAN in one of my 20 oz bottles.  I’m still experimenting with limiting my carb intake during races.  Fast-acting gels tend to provide a good hit during faster/shorter 50k’s, while the steady drip of energy provided by the UCAN seems to be more effective in the longer, 50 mile+ distances.

Another feature for this year was that, I was running alone for most of the second half of the race.  In previous Aftons, I almost always had someone nearby on the trails.  This year there were times I felt I was lost.  I saw very few 50k racers following Aid 2  There was a portion of the Africa Loop where I could see no one in the front or rear of me.  I did start to catch the back of the 25k pack after Aid 3 though, so I must have been on course.

After climbing out the Meat Grinder for the second (and last) time, and looking forward to another go at the Snowshoe Loop, I started to have some fun.  The Cream Cheese Alien was still snarling, but I had, by then, mentally pushed that issue aside.  My body was aching, I was hot, and I was ready to be done, but I was still running strong.  By now I could smell the roses, but part of me did not want the run to end.  Besides, the Snowshoe Loop is a blast to bomb.

Coming out of the Snowshoe Loop, there is about a half mile of straight and flat to the end.  I poured on the speed here and ran strong to the finish.  Unknown to me at the time, I was very close to breaking 5 hours.  I’ve never been cheered like that into a finish.  That was fun.  I came across the line at 4:59:22.  Not a PR, but I was still very happy with the result.  Thanks Mary and Mel for coming by to watch the finish!

Stillwater Runners Wayne M., Dave M., and Tom A. all completed the 25k race.  What can I say about Chris Lundstrom?  3:40 is a rockin’ time and a course record.  That’s a 3:05 marathon pace with 4,600 or so feet of climbing.  Simply awesome Chris!

Thanks again to the legions of great volunteers who put on this great race.  Thanks to Afton State Park for allowing the event to take place in their beautiful park.  And thank you Beth for sharing these experiences with me and getting me through the aid stations quickly.