Race Report: 2012 Afton 25K

Awesome Race!

The Saturday trail race at Afton State Park was awesome this year! We couldn't have asked for better weather. Friday night, Mother Nature delivered to us a reprieve from the heat in the form of rain and wind, and the morning started absolutely gorgeous! Thankfully, the State of Minnesota didn't run in to the same political problems as last year, and we were able to run at the park! The end result was a stupendous experience, almost 30 minutes off my last 25k time, and a chance to cheer on my friends! Suffice to say, I had a blast!

Leading Up to the Start

If you've followed my blogging in the past, you'd know that the last few weeks and months have been filled with challenges and changes. Namely, ITBS from 2010, a pulled or torn Achilles tendon from November, and more recently, a newborn baby! Meghan had been taking the bulk of the feeding responsibilities, since she had still been sleeping on the reclining couch -- she was exhausted, in pain and frustrated. Friday night, it was time for a change -- yes, the night before the race!

We went to bed early, with Meghan taking the first shift of bottles. At 04:20, it was my turn, as Nora's hunger acted a biological alarm clock. I hadn't slept well anyway, with strange dreams of missing high school track meets. Still tired, I was actually grateful for a chance to get up and spend time with Nora. She didn't quite fall asleep after her bottle, so Meghan took over while I got ready for the race. (I learned later that Meghan's fix was to remove the stocking cap from Nora, who apparently was overheating.)

I didn't take much time getting out the door and on the road.

Afton, and the 50k Start

I arrived at Afton about ten minutes before the start of the 50K race. John Storkamp, the race director, was giving instructions about the race and thanks to the volunteers. He also introduced a contest to identify the race number of the man who was sporting a new tattoo of the "Afton Bird" on his person. (I never did find out who it was.)

I looked for Jason Tintes, who I knew was running the 50k, but didn't see him. I would later congratulate him at the finish line after finishing the race myself.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous, atypical for this July race. For the last week, Minnesota was hot and humid across the state. Early Friday night, a storm system pushed through and cooled us down. Morning temperatures were not only tolerable, but cool and the air was relatively dry.

The 50K race started without much fanfare, as the runners funneled on to the narrow trail, and I turned around to make my way to packet pickup.

Familiar Faces

One of the great things about these trail races is the strong community. You tend to see the same faces, time and time again; people dedicated to and enthusiastic about the sport, who volunteer their time to ensure a great experience is had by all. I truly appreciate their effort and enjoy catching up on their lives.

Brian Woods, who recently finished the Black Hills 100 mile ultra-marathon in 19th place, and is one of only 6 people still in the Gnarly Bandit Trail Series, was handing out T-shirts. Later, I would see him manning the barbecue, grilling hamburgers. I hadn't seen him since the last Afton, and the 2010 Zumbro race prior to that. He was in high spirits and smiling, as he always seems to be.

In the parking lot, I ran into a woman I ran the 2011 Moose Mountain Marathon with, Marise Widmer. We had both made a wrong turn toward the peak of Oberg Mountain, and then talked and ran together for the remainder of the race. I would pass her on the downhills and she would pass me on the uphills. She finished that race in 6:43, three minute ahead of me!

Shannon Lindgren from DailyMile was also at the race with two of her friends, Leah and Anne (I believe). Shannon had a chance to run Boston Marthon this year! We took pictures, caught up, and wished each other good luck.

Race Start

With MyTracks engaged and tracking my progress, I started out somewhere in the middle of the pack. My strategy for the day was to keep my pace as comfortable as possible, since this was to be a training run for the Fall Moose Mountain Marathon race in September. There were lots of elevation changes similar to the Superior Hiking Trail that makes Afton a great training area. I obviously wanted to do better than last year's race of 3:20, but comparing the two times is frivolous. They were drastically different courses and the weather conditions weren't even comparable.

I tried not to start out too quick, but found myself moving ahead to gaps in runners, trying to get comfortable. My left heel was feeling a bit sore, but not bad, and my right arch was a bit stiff. The shoes were well-fit with two pair of socks, and I was feeling pretty good. For this race, I hadn't found anyone to pace or run with, so I would strike up conversation with people as we went along.

The first part of the track looped South of the starting line, directly into wider, shaded paths. Turning North, it was largely downhill for the better part of a mile or so, when it turned up into a long climb. MyTracks has a neat feature that highlights the track based on the speed that you are running. My strategy to run the straights, hike the uphills, and bomb the downhills, it's easy to see on the map where the hills were.

I was pleasantly surprised on how relaxed I was feeling for the first half of the race, still able to take three or four step per inhale, with four or five per exhale. I don't really know why I paid attention to that metric, but I found it interesting at the time. I did focus on ChiRunning principles, even though I wasn't running in my Vibrams.

At the Western-most loop of the course, we were greeted by Steve Quick, directing traffic for the runners along a short stretch of shared trail. I said, "Hi" and thanked him for coming out. We met up later again at the finish line and talked about running, asthma, and his new project of hiking the peaks of Minnesota.

It didn't take very long before we had run up on to the sunny plains of the park, but because it was so early and the weather so mild, it wasn't the sun-baking experience I had expected for the day. The Africa Loop/Trail was fun in that you could see far ahead of you over the rolling hills of grass. If you haven't had a chance to run or hike Afton, take the time to do so. It is really a special place.

Hills! I have to say one of the most fun parts of this course are the plethora of hills, which range from easy rolling to long slogs, to the steep and technical. Of these, I liked the technical downhill sections best; I have a tendency to "bomb" them. On a few occasions, I swear I passed a good dozen or more people by removing the breaks and letting my wheels spin. You just need to pick your heels up under your rear and let gravity do the work. Keep your cadence the same and pick your way down the hill. The challenge is land softly enough that you have control and don't jar your entire frame. Land with your feet under or behind you, never in front, or you'll ruin your knees. I love it!

I tried to get in and out of the aid stations as quickly as possible, mainly to just keep moving. This approach worked well, and I avoided some of the bottle-necking that happens there. My phone had quit working at 08:30. (In truth, the display and inputs quit working, but the GPS continued to track my progress.) I decided to schedule at least one tablet of salt and one pack of gel per leg of the race, which averaged 2-3 miles per leg (20-30 minutes). The aid stations were stocked well, and everyone was very helpful!

I felt the most tired during the long road stretch along the river, in the second to last leg of the race. My right quad was starting to tighten up, so I concentrated on keeping good form and tried to relax my muscles as much as possible. I walked for a bit, popped another salt tablet and downed a gel. There wasn't much left of the race, so I had to just keep going.

At the Finish

After the last aid station, we had the snowshoe loop left, a big hill up to the road level, and a quarter mile stretch to the finish. I didn't really want to change my strategy now and increase the pace. I was there for a training run, not a PR.

On the last hill, I ran into a young 23 year old runner by the name of Brandon Veber, a Mechnical Engineer from Falcon Heights. He had recently picked up running again following his completion of college, and this had been his first trail race! We agreed to walk up the last hill, then jog into the finish together. He dropped back a little near the end, but I waved him forward to finish side by side.

There was a wave of excitement shortly after I had finished as the female winner, Eve Rukavina-Rembleski of Watertown, crossed the finish line in 4:21:29, 7th place overall. She looked energetic, as if she could run another 25K right then and there. I congratulated her when she had a free moment and she greeted me like an old friend.

Jason was pretty psyched about his finish (5:31:29) as he reconnected with his running partner for the day, Mike Bunda (5:29:10). I had a training run once with Mike last year in Afton and was excited for their strong finishes.

I really love this sport. I enjoy the challenge of it, the community, and the time you spend talking with others who love it the same way I do. I lounged around at the finish line for a good two or so hours, cheering in runners, talking, and eating a fair share of hamburger, watermelon, lemonade, and M&Ms.

What Next?

Eight weeks of training for Moose Mountain Marathon is next! I recognize that my left heel is still not 100%. Saturday night, I iced it and took ibuprofen to reduce the burning feeling. Perhaps it's time to see a sports physiologist on strategies for recovery.

In regards to training, where I need most of my improvement and work is my uphill strength and endurance, and perhaps getting back into a run following the climb. I don't expect my strategy to change much for Superior, but if I can ascend a bit quicker and transition into a run quicker, I can shave off enough time to make it sub-6 hours.

We'll be renting a room or cabin at Caribou Lodge for a day prior and few days following the Superior run. I don't want to run into the logistical issues we had last year with the vehicle, and how much time I spent at the event afterwards. By mid-afternoon, Meghan had been chomping at the bit to get away from the hotel she was at and wasn't expecting my obsession with hanging out at the race site all day. This year, we need to give my family options and means of escape if need be.


People at the Race