Stronger at Afton

When I first started trail running I didn’t make it out to Afton that much. I only made it out there on occasion for the first year or so, and usually had no idea where I was going. In 2016 I finally signed up for the Afton 25K race, and had a great time, and since, we’ve made Afton a pretty regular weekend stop during the summer.

My first year that I ran the race I put in a solid 3:40 effort. The second year I ran the 25K I was going a lot slower, and things weren’t quite where I wanted them to be running-wise. That year I only managed a 3:52. Still sub-4, which is where I wanted to be, but I felt like I could do a lot better. However, I had to take some time to get myself back to where I needed to be in my running game.

I knew I wouldn’t be running Afton this year, as I’ve been spending a lot more time volunteering with races. I was totally fine with that, as I know the Afton course by heart, and frankly, can go run it any time I want to. With my body feeling stronger this year I decided to try and test myself a bit. During a fatass this year I was running with my friend Mike B. As we approached the final section of the course, I looked at my watch and realized that I was on PR pace. I told Mike, “Sorry buddy, but we’re going to run this one in hard.” I managed a 3:34, shaving off some solid minutes from my effort.

Today I decided to give it another shot. I chose to run alone, and just focus myself on doing whatever I felt like I could handle. Maybe it would be a PR day, or maybe it would be a four hour slog. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that if I just focused on running my comfortable pace, I would come out happy on the other side no matter what.

As I made my way around the course I tried to ignore any pace beeps from my watch. I knew that if I tried to do math I’d just end up disappointing myself. I kept my watch on it’s “distance-only” screen, and stuck to the old familiar strategy of walk-the-hills, run-the-downs-and-flats. I committed to running the river trail as always, and as I approached Meatgrinder, I allowed myself to check my time. To my surprise, I was a full 10 minutes ahead of where I was in my last PR attempt, and I was mostly feeling great.

It would be a lie to say that I blew through the rest of the course feeling awesome. Meatgrinder bonked me really hard. I ate some food and drank a bunch of water, and hiked as best as I could. Thankfully, there was a cool breeze and I wasn’t suffering from any heat-related issues. I gave myself permission to recover a bit at the top, and sure enough by the time I hit where Aid Station 5 normally sits in the race, I was getting a second (or maybe third or fourth) wind. I quickly texted my wife that I was entering Snowshoe loop and I would be done soon. Then I put my head down and did whatever I could to get it done.

After the big climb in the middle of Snowshoe I flipped my watch over to a setting that displays time, distance, and pace. I was starting to feel like 3:15 could be a possibility, and if not that, then 3:20. I barreled my way through the downhill section of Snowshoe as best as I could, and cursed every hill that stood in my way. The final climb out of Snowshoe is brutal. It’s a short hill, and only 100 feet, but the grade is double digits, and after 15 miles on your legs, it feels like a slap in the face.

I broke through the top and arrived on the final stretch along the prairie. I looked at my watch and knew it would be close. I used whatever I had left to try and put as many minutes between me and my previous PR as I could. At one point my watch had me cruising at a 8:30 pace as I sprinted for the imaginary finish line. As I pressed stop on my watch and saw my final time… 3:16:08, I was ecstatic. Not only had I made a new PR, I had crushed my old time. Once any standing around time was parsed out, Strava put my actual time at 3:16:19, but either way, that was a massive improvement.

I made my way to the car, exhausted. My wife saw me and asked me if I was OK, because usually I’m not this gassed at the end of a training run. I told her I was fine, but that I needed something more than water. I went into the visitor center and played with the vending machine until it gave me some Powerade. I was wiped out, but I was joyous.

As I reflect back tonight on the run I can’t help but feel good about my running life right now. I’ve committed to running for myself, and it’s paying in dividends beyond just a happier demeanor. I’m spending more time with my wife, despite needing to run a slower pace with her, and that’s helping me put down some really solid performances when it matters to me. I’m not worrying about ensuring I’m following my training plan to the letter, but I’m using it as a guide to allow me to still live life, and do what I want to do, but make progress.

Who knows if I’ll actually ever run this fast on the Afton course again, but at least now I can see what I’m capable of. That’s a great feeling, and a great place to be.

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