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.