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.

Doing some race directing

A couple of years ago I started hearing about winter ultramarathons. These are long winter events that are steeped in the survivalist culture of Alaskan events such as Iditarod. The idea is that you go a long distance in the middle of winter, with only your gear, and your wits, to help you survive.

Modern winter ultramarathons are still survivalist events, but in a slightly more structured environment. Participants traverse a set distance by foot, fat bike, or ski, within a prescribed timeline, carrying all their gear with them as they go. There are no lush aid stations, and you can’t accept help from anyone who’s not involved in the race. The biggest ones in the upper Midwest are the Arrowhead 135 and the Tuscobia 80/160. As the names imply, these are huge distances (135, 80, and 160 miles respectively), and for beginners, they feel out of reach.

I started having conversations with folks about shorter distance versions of these races, and discovered that none really exist anywhere near me. So, I did the next most logical thing for someone who thinks like I do. I created my own.

On Monday we announced our first ever race, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, which will be held on January 12-13th at St. Croix State Park, near Hinckley, MN. This short-course event will give people a chance to see if they have what it takes to even attempt the longer distances. Participants will also need to prove that they can use their gear, such as their bivy-sack and stove. These are key elements for surviving a harsh Minnesota winter night, while traveling 40 miles alone.

I’m no stranger to running things, I do it for my career. I’ve also run multiple aid stations at some of the biggest trail ultras in the Midwest. Of course, none of that is going to make us any less anxious and nervous about stepping up to the big leagues and fully directing a race. However, I’m incredibly excited about this idea, and I can’t wait to show people how amazing winter in Minnesota can be. I want to give people a chance to experience these amazing events in a safe and constructive way, and help them build confidence for the future. I also want to help them learn to respect the history and tradition of these events, and how to give honor to those who are doing even more amazing things than this.

Today begins a new adventure. I’m stoked to see where it all leads.

Review: Into The Furnace

I had recently been introduced to Cory Reese’s books through Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures From The Back Of The PackThis book was a fun, quick read, and compiled a bunch of stories of how Cory became an accomplished ultrarunner. I decided to pick up his latest book about the Badwater 135 race, Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire

I managed to get through the book during my camping weekend, and overall I enjoyed it, but I had a few reservations. Before we delve in to the good/bad, a brief overview of the Badwater 135. Dubbed the world’s toughest footrace, the Badwater 135 takes participants from the lowest point in America, to the highest point in the continental United States. The magic of geography means that these two points are less than 150 miles apart. This book is the story of not just Cory’s adventure preparing and doing this race, but the story of the history of Death Valley, and the first man to ever complete the run, Al Arnold.

What was great about this book

One of the best parts of this book is the way that the stories of Al Arnold and William Manly are woven through the book. Manly was the pioneer who helped guide the first settlers across Death Valley during the California Gold Rush. The inclusion of the story of these early settlers, along with Arnold’s first modern journey, helps to build a wonderful picture of what Death Valley is, and means, to many people. These chapters in the book were some of my favorite, and I loved whenever we got to come back to them and learn more about these pieces of a richer history and tale.

I also appreciated how Cory doesn’t assume the reader knows or understands ultramarthoning. He explains things that might seem foreign to non-running friends, such as aid station frequency, and how the Badwater race turns this on it’s head. His style is conversational and approachable. This means that pretty much anyone can pick up this book and be wowed by the amazing spectacle that is Badwater.

Some critiques

Despite overall enjoying this book, I feel like it was lacking in area of craft. One of the things that I enjoyed about Cory’s first book, Nowhere Near First, was the “blog-esque” nature of how it flowed. It felt like I was reading a bunch of fun stories that just happened to be put together in a single volume with an overarching theme. However, in Into The Furnace, there is a greater narrative that spans the entire book.

The blog-y nature of the author’s writing style detracted from this overarching narrative. Many thoughts and comments were repeated multiple times throughout the narrative, and after a while it started to feel like padding for the sake of word count. The inclusion of the side stories of Arnold and Manly felt more cohesive, and drove the narrative in a way that sometimes overshadowed the story of Cory’s training and racing.

The other aspect that I didn’t care for was the over-abundance of hyperbolic humor. I felt like the author really stepped it up in this book, compared to Nowhere Near First. I enjoyed the humor in the first book, but that’s mostly because it felt the right amount for the stories that were being told. In Into The Furnace I found myself feeling overwhelmed by it. I recall on one occasion there was a joke that went on for what seemed like an entire paragraph, and it simply got old.

Verdict

Despite these issues with craft, I still enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to people who want to learn more about the Badwater 135. Cory’s a fun writer to read, and I feel that with some additional editing, this book could have been even better. He successfully tells the tale of an amazing accomplishment, one that I’ll never even come close to considering. I can’t emphasize enough that completing this race requires an amazing commitment. By including the tale of William Manly, alongside the modern race, we get a true sense of just how special, and difficult, Death Valley can be. It’s not a place for the weak, and everyone who toes the line at Badwater 135 is a special and amazing human being.

Gear Review: Curt Clamp-On Bike Rack

Every since getting my pop-up trailer, I’ve had one niggling issue. I have no where to attach my bikes for traveling. My primary bike rack is a Yakima HoldUp, which is a great way to transport bikes. However, with the secondary receiver hitch that I purchased, it sticks out too far, and would impact the turning radius of the trailer. I needed something that would hold the bikes closer to the car.

A simple hanging bike rack might be a good option, but I wanted to avoid spending many hundreds of dollars for something I would only be using a few times a year. In my search I found the Curt Clamp-On Bike Rack. This is a really unique trailer bike rack that clamps on to the actual hitch, and then acts like a standard hanging rack. It clamps on close to the vehicle, which keeps the bikes close and away from the turning radius of the camper. To top it off, I got it for less than $80.

img_2929What I liked

The rack is light, and super easy to assemble. It’s easy to store on a shelf in my garage when not in use. Sliding my bike on to it was very easy, once you realized how to rotate the mounting points to the side first, and then rotating them into place. The rubber straps that attach the bike seem sturdy, and are relatively easy to attach.

The general construction of the rack is solid, and nothing felt “cheap” in any way. The straps that attach from the sides to the car, felt strong and they secured the rack solidly. The addition of little reflective ends to the bike mounting arms is a nice touch. In general the rack is what it says it is, and feels durable.

img_2928What I didn’t like

There are a couple of issues with this rack, which may actually prevent you from being able to use it. First, in order to extend the rack and secure the clamp, you have to press down in the locking mechanism. I can’t overstate this enough; this requires a great deal of downward pressure and strength. Every time I had to do this, it took all my upper body ‘oomph’ to get it to attach and click in to place. I feel like some form of screw, similar to a scissor jack, would be a lot easier to work with.

Along the same lines, removing the rack is downright scary. To release the crossbar, you need to pull out the pin securing it in place, and then pull up on a release handle. When you do, the stored energy causes the rack to slam closed, like a bear trap. It’s truly frightening and feels dangerous. Again, I feel like this is a design aspect that should be re-thought. I’ve seen pics online of people who have been scratched or poked by the slamming components.

Finally, the biggest issue with this rack is that, even without bikes on it, you had to give up access to your trunk. To get into the trunk of your car requires removing the rack completely. With how difficult and scary it is to do this, it means that you do it as infrequently as possible. This past weekend I found myself using the seat fold-down feature from inside my car to get access to gear. It was just a lot easier than having the mess with the rack.

Final thoughts

My feelings on this rack are somewhat mixed. I love the concept, and it allows me to use it with my trailer easily. It accomplishes what it says it will, despite being imperfect. I think with a couple small design tweaks, this could be a really cool rack. However, it does serve my purposes, and at less than $80, it’s what I was willing to invest in. I feel like it’s probably a good buy for situations like mine, but I wouldn’t want to use it as my only bike rack. It’s just not easy enough to work around for day-to-day use.

Some peaceful camping

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take the camper out by myself. My wife was attending a choir retreat in Decorah, IA, and so I decided to pack up and go camping in southern Minnesota. I could then pick her up on Sunday after her retreat and we’d ride home together.

My intention for the weekend was to relax. It’s often hard for me to unwind and stop doing things. Often times I’ll chill out for a bit, and then antsy and decide to go do something, or go somewhere. It sometimes drives the people in my family crazy with how I can’t just stay in one place forever. Yet, this weekend would turn out to be a bit different.

First, I’m stuck here for two nights. I don’t have many places to go, as Lake Louise Park is kinda in the middle of nowhere. Second, I ended up coming down with a head cold, and being sick is one thing that will get me to sit still for a while. Finally, it also rained most of Saturday evening and night. That meant that I had to sit in my little camper and spend time doing relaxing things like reading a book.

I did manage to get some exercise though. Despite feeling a bit out of it, I headed out for a run first thing Saturday morning. I started meandering through the various trails, and just wasn’t really feeling it. I could tell I was starting to get sick. and I just wasn’t in to it. Then a couple miles in to my run, another runner comes down the trail towards me. I immediately knew that I had seen him before, and he knew me on sight. It was Chris D., one of the 50 mile runners from Zumbro who ran much of the race with my buddy Mike B.,.

img_2941It turns out that he lives down here, and he was more than happy to show me around the park. As we chatted, what started as a miserable run that I probably would have quit after three miles, instead turned into a great 10K around the park. Most of the trails are horse trails, which means uneven footing, but with someone else to chat with, I was able to just shift in to auto-pilot mode and get it done. We had a great time, and I felt rejuvenated when we got back to the campground. He headed out for more miles, and I decided to switch to the bike.

The Shooting Star State Trail goes through Lake Louise State Park, and so I hopped on that for a while. It’s a mostly flat, paved, trail that goes through farm fields, and a few random woods. I made it to the town of Taopi, about 8 miles out, before deciding to turn around and head back to get cleaned up. It was a really nice casual bike ride that makes me glad I brought it with. This is despite having to come up with a different way to haul my bike while towing the trailer. More about that product in a different blog.

img_2948After I got cleaned up I decided to head over to Mystery Cave/Forestville State Park, about 25 minutes away. Lake Louise doesn’t have a staffed park office, so if I wanted to get the traditional patch and pin, I had to head over there. I stopped in to the historic village briefly, and then my body was telling me it was nap time. I got back to the camper, had some lunch, and took a very hot nap. The temps have been in the 90s (or higher) for the past few days, and today was no exception. I managed to get in a bit of sweaty sleep, despite the uncomfortableness.

Thankfully, with the evening rain came cooler temps. I spent Saturday night just curled up with a book in the trailer, resting my body, and trying to kick this head cold. Because it was pouring rain, I couldn’t do much of anything else, and that was OK. It was good to force me to slow down a bit, and take it easy.

Unfortunately, my night of sleep was interrupted by horrible sinus pain that apparently had me clenching my teeth, causing my entire left side of my jaw to scream in agony. I reached for the ibuprofen and found that the bottle was empty. Thankfully, the gas station in town was open until 11pm, and I was able to get some more to try and get some sleep. The rest of the evening was uneventful, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of rain hitting the roof all night long.

img_2938Sunday morning brought more of the same, with gentle rain and cooler temps. I spent the morning finishing a book, and doing a whole lot of nothing. Eventually the rain subsided and I decided to start packing up. I had a date with a couple of taprooms in Decorah, IA, and I figured it would be best to start getting ready to go before more storms blew through.

The rest of the day was nice and easy with lunch at a Chinese buffet, a couple taprooms, and the concert that my wife was participating in. It was a peaceful afternoon, on a rural college campus, that brought back all kinds of ‘feels’ for both of us. Once the concert was concluded we got some ice cream and began the journey home.

Overall, it was a good weekend of rest. I’m still suffering from this head cold, hoping it will pass soon, but it still didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment. Spending time away from home, in a little camper in the woods, is good for the soul. I was able to just read, relax, and decompress. My wife wants to go back to the choir retreat next year, so I’m already thinking ahead about returning to Lake Louise for another weekend of simple pleasures.