Afton 25K race report

This past Saturday, the annual summer gathering of trail people, known as Afton 50K/25K, took place. This event has been going on for decades and is a wonderful way to kick off the July 4th weekend in Minnesota. As always, Rocksteady Running puts on an amazing event, with great aid stations, a well marked course, and a tremendously great vibe that makes you feel great about being there. As my second year at this event, I was very excited to get back to this race, and to these trails.

To say that my running year has been off to a sluggish start would be an understatement. I’m nowhere near where I’ve been in previous years, and my performances are obviously reflective of that. Going into Saturday’s Afton 25K, I had a very tempered expectation for what I would be able to achieve. The only goal I wanted to achieve was to beat 4 hours.

IMG_1176Since I enjoy some statistics, I went back to compare my running year in 2016, with what I’ve accomplished so far in 2017, leading up to this race. By the time I hit Afton 25K last year, I had already logged 745 miles, compared to this year’s 343. This year my mileage has been very low, and Saturday’s race was only the 7th time all year that I’ve logged double digit mileage. In terms of weekly miles, I’ve only run over 20 miles in a week twice this entire year. Last year I didn’t run LESS than 20 miles until after the Zumbro 50. Needless to say, my expectations for the race were pretty low.

I started my day with some volunteering, running down the 50K course a bit to take pictures of the runners as they passed through about a half a mile in. Once that was done I got myself ready and launched with the 25K pack. I had the honor of running alongside my friend Amy for quite a while to start, and we leap frogged each other quite a bit during the first 4 miles. I blew through the first aid station, feeling surprisingly good, just grabbing some water to dump over my head.

Eventually my friend Amy’s ability to bomb the downhills meant that she pulled farther and farther away from me, and I settled into a nice pace for the level of training that I have done. Aid station 2 and 3 were pretty much a blur, though I know I spent too much time chatting with folks at AS3 before heading up the hill to the campground. However, as I looked back at the run, I got to AS3 at exactly the same time this year as well as last year.

By the time I had swung back around to the other side of AS3 which was AS4, I had dropped about 4 minutes from my pace from the previous year. Something that I’m proud of both years is that I ran the 1 mile segment of the River Trail, which is long, flat, and has the tendency to suck out your soul (similar to the road at Zumbro). I climbed up Meat Grinder and arrived at AS5, just a mere four minutes behind my pace from 2016. At this point though, the lack of training was starting to catch up with me.

As I headed into the Snowshoe loop my entire body was dragging. I was feeling exhausted, and despite a MUCH cooler year this year, I was feeling hot and sweaty. As I hit the final hills I felt my legs scream in agony at me, begging me to stop. I didn’t stop, but I did slow down quite a bit. Additionally, at one point I stepped wrong and gave my left ankle a bit of a tweak. I had to gingerly step down hills for the next 10 minutes making sure I hadn’t done anything too serious. However, as I looked at my watch I knew I would easily beat four hours, and so I wasn’t too concerned.

I finally reached the last stretch to the finish line and convinced my body to run the final half mile. I crossed the finish and immediately grabbed some liquid and found a quiet place to sit and lie down. The lack of training caught up with me in a big way during the final 3 miles, and now I needed some rest. Yet, despite all of this, I only lost an additional 8 minutes during those 3 miles, putting me at 12 minutes slower than last year.

Some people would consider this much of a drop in performance a huge disappointment, but frankly, I’m overjoyed. With how little running I’ve been doing, the only thing that really got me through was my years of experience, and general conditioning from running so many miles in previous years. I was thrilled with how well my body felt and performed before the wall hit on Snowshoe. I frankly, could not have asked for a better outcome given the circumstances.

Once I recovered, and saw my wife finish, I grabbed some food and then changed clothes to head down to AS3/4 and take more pictures. I arrived in time to get a good selection of the back-of-the-pack 50K runners as they came into the aid station on their final loop. After about an hour or so, things seemed to be pretty much done, so I headed back to the car and we began the journey home. Overall, it was a tremendous day and a wonderful reminder that I can still do this, despite the setbacks. I feel much more energized and motivated to get back out there and make a solid attempt at Marquette 50K this year. I know I still have a long way to go, but in the immortal words of Monty Python and the Holy Grail… “I’m not dead yet!”

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Trail Mix 25K

This year we decided to add in the Trail Mix 25K race into the Upper Midwest Trail Runners Trail Series. It’s a very popular local trail race at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, and is a great introduction to trail running for beginners. I hesitated on signing up early, and opt’d to just do race day registration.

I had never been to this park before, so I was curious about how the course stacked up to other routes. I did some searching on Strava and discovered that the elevation nearly matches the Elm Creek horse trail loop, meaning that this should be pretty familiar territory for me. Both routes are also around 7 miles in length, so this should be just like doing two loops of Elm Creek.

I arrived early to register and then chatted with other folks that I knew that were there. I snapped a pic of the UMTR folks for our Instagram feed right before we launched at 9:30am. I stuck to the back of the pack, since I’m not a fast runner, and I also like to avoid the crowd at the front. This still doesn’t mean I went out at the appropriate speed, and probably should have dialed it back a bit. Soon the mass of people started thinning out and I was able to set my pace and settle in for a few hours of running.

The course was double-wide horse trail, with a couple of short gravel roads, and two segments of bike path. In other words, this is very similar to anyone who’s run Elm Creek before. The main difference being that I felt like I was on pavement a bit more between a couple of the trail junctions. As for elevation, the hills were much more mellow than Elm Creek. Even with a similar about of climbing, I never felt like I was climbing up anything tremendously steep. However, the downside to smaller hills is that you end up with more of them. You also tend to run up them without thinking, expending energy that you might not have on sharper hills.

Trail Mix is a great race for people crossing over from roads, and one of the benefits is frequent aid stations. The loop is 12.5K long, and there are aid stations roughly every 3K. This means that you’re coming across water and food frequently enough that you don’t have to carry any if you don’t want. I opt’d to not carry any water, and for the most part was fine. There were a couple moments where I felt like I would have liked some extra water, but the aid station was never that far away.

IMG_0863On my first loop I felt pretty good. I ate a lot of food in an attempt to keep my energy up, and made sure I was hydrating enough. I ran more of the uphills than I probably should have, but I wasn’t keeping up an outrageous pace. I came into the start/finish area to start my second loop in just over 90 minutes, which was just fine with me. My training this year has been pretty bad, so I was happy with my time so far. I gobbled up some food and headed out on the second loop.

The second loop was hotter than the first, so I doused my head a bit when I came across water. I also felt my energy wane somewhat so I backed off my pace and started doing a bit more walking. However, I enjoyed running through the mud puddles; prancing my way through, while others futilely tried to stay dry. As I got close to the final aid stations I realized I was pretty much out of energy and so I kept it slow the rest of the way in. My final loop came in around 107 minutes, which considering where I’m at fitness wise was just fine with me. My overall time was 3:19.

I grabbed a bit more food and chatted with folks a bit before deciding I needed a nap and headed for the car. I made my way home, showered and immediately fell asleep for a nap. It’s somewhat frustrating to me that I’ve declined so much that even a 25K has me feeling like my first half-marathon race. I know I can get back out of this but it will take time. It may affect my decision to attempt the Superior 50K in a few weeks. I’m considering just volunteering and work on building myself up for Marquette 50K later this year.

I had a good time at Trail Mix, and I can see myself coming back again next year. It’s a fun, easy, course, and it is very well managed. The was an abundance of aid and volunteer support, making the entire experience fun and easy. The weather was amazing, topping out in the 60s by the time I was done. Thankfully, there was a cool breeze most of the time, so it never felt overwhelmingly hot (I do wish I hadn’t forgot sunscreen though).

If you’re looking for a fun race, especially as a new trail runner, Trail Mix is a great event. Even if you’re experienced in running on dirt, Trail Mix is a really beautiful place to run and get in some solid miles with great support.

Zumbro 17 Mile Race Report – 2017

In yesterday’s blog I shared my experiences at Zumbro 2017 as a volunteer. However, there was still a race to run, and as Saturday dawned I was both excited and nervous about hitting this course for what would be my 5th race loop. My training over this winter has been utter garbage. My highest mileage week in 2017 was 24 miles, and in I’ve only had two runs that reached double digits since early-December. Most of my 2017 has involved fighting off illness, and my fitness has taken a turn for the worse because of it. Plus, tack on an extra 10 lbs. that just won’t seem to shake itself off, and my goals for Zumbro were very muted.

However, the morning of the race, I was feeling quite good. Granted I had been very active, standing around and walking for most of the previous days, but when I lined up at the start, everything was feeling pretty good. John Storkamp gave his usual round race introductions, and before I knew it we were off. I moved to the back of the pack, since I knew how crowded it could be getting up the first hill. I jogged for a bit, and then fell into a nice hike to the top of phone booth. Once I crested the ridge I started running, and felt great all the way down into AS1. There, I quickly grabbed a couple items and headed back across the bridge.

17757199_714695161988591_201688565041931774_nThe journey from AS1 to AS2 takes you over a couple big hills with valleys in between, before subjecting you to a huge, sharp climb to the picnic pavilion with a beautiful view from 1000 ft in the air. From there I dropped down to AS2, stopping only long enough to fill my water bottle, before hitting one of my least favorite sections of the course. The portion between AS2 and AS3 contains a lot of deer trail and sand. Because of the really warm weather we’ve been having the sand was exceptionally soft, with no frozen ground below it. This meant that the journey to AS3 was a slow slog that actually required me emptying my shoes before continuing on.

When I arrived at AS3 I was feeling hungry and hot. I decided to grab whatever food I could before hiking up to the top of Ant Hill to replenish myself. I drank a bunch of water and piled food in my hands as I left. I started eating my way up the next huge climb, hoping that when I reached the top, the energy would kick in again and I could get in some running. However, with every step I felt my body getting more and more exhausted. When I finally reached the very runnable section along the top of Ant Hill I was drained and depleted, and I could tell that my lack of training had caught up with me.

17833947_10211516352577675_1107922671049498357_oI slogged my way across the ridge line, and down to the dreaded gravel road. The gravel was hard and unforgiving, causing my feet to protest almost as bad as during a road marathon. I walked my way into AS4 feeling bummed and annoyed that I had fallen apart so badly. I tried a few gentle runs between AS4 and the finish, but nothing really clicked. I managed to jog the entire distance from the trail exit gate to the finish chute, but had nothing left in the tank. I finished in just over 5 hours, sweaty, hot, and sunburned, wishing I could have done something different to have made the day go better.

Despite my under-training woes, I couldn’t have asked for a better race day. The weather was beautiful (albeit a bit hotter than I was used to which didn’t help), and the trail was drier than I had ever seen it before. This meant that the usual mud-fest was replaced with really fast times from runners coming close to breaking the course record. From a weather standpoint it was one of the most beautiful Zumbro races that people could remember.

17880289_10156152301568569_2239197271787689126_oOnce I finished the race I grabbed a little bit of food, and then decided to head back to my camper to clean up and wait for my wife to finish. For as bad a day as I was having, she was having a really great one, and before I could get changed she went blasting past the campsite, throwing down a 5:30 time in her first ever Zumbro. I quickly hobbled back to the finish line to congratulate her and tell her how proud I was of her. She was beaten and bruised, but she did an amazing job.

The rest of the day involved slowly breaking down out campsite, while watching our amazing friends finish their 100 mile races. My friend Troy got his first 100 mile finish after 10 different attempts, and Wendi managed her first 100 with an amazing smile on her face. There were so many incredible runners, achieving amazing things, that I couldn’t feel bad about my own race for long.

Watching 10 year old Ava cross the line in her first every big trail race was beautiful, and shows just how powerful this community is. No one REALLY cares that much what your time was. They were all happy and proud to see you come across that line and achieve something amazing and life-changing. So what, I didn’t make my sub-4 hour goal, but I still got it done when it counted, and gutted it out against one of the toughest courses in the midwest.

What really mattered this weekend was community, and Zumbro is the place where the local trail community comes out of hibernation for a two day party in the woods like no other. There’s no cell reception or internet access, so you have to actually talk with people face-to-face and ‘share’ and ‘like’ each other physically. It’s a place where you learn quickly what it means to be a part of a big trail running family; treating everyone with respect, no matter your political, religious, or philosophical differences. We’re all there for the same reason, to spend time doing something we love, in a place that we love, with the people we love.

Thank you once again Zumbro for an amazing year, and reminding us what it really means to be community.

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2017 Zumbro Report

Strap in folks, this one has the potential to be a very long entry. Last year I ran the 50 mile race at Zumbro, but since I wasn’t ready (or willing) to deal with that type of pain again, I went back to my roots and put in a lot of volunteer time and just did the fun run (17 mile) on Saturday. The 100 milers kick off at 8am Friday, so I decided to get down there nice and early to be a part of the weekend.

I arrived at Zumbro River Bottoms on Thursday, around 3pm. I decided to pull our new camper down and just sleep at the staging area campground. I’ll write up a review of how the camper went in a different post, but suffice it to say, my sleeping was not a problem at all this year.

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Zumbro campground in the setting sun

As I was arriving people were getting set up for the super low-key Thursday check-in and supper. Zumbro doesn’t have a pre-race meeting the night before, so the Thursday evening event is very subdued, and mostly ends up being a nice time to sit and chat with folks that you haven’t seen for a long time.

In fact, if there was one theme from Zumbro weekends, it’s how much people love this Spring gathering as a way to reconnect after a long winter. Many of us have been in hibernation, doing what we can to keep fit and not lose too much over the winter. Without any races (beyond some winter ultras), there are few opportunities to get together and hang out, and Zumbro makes all of that right again.

I wasn’t signed up to help on Thursday night, but asked Cherri Storkamp if she needed anything and ended up working the check-in table most of the evening. I love volunteering at these events, and at the check-in table you get to see everyone throughout the evening. Because it’s very low-key and only a few people, you can actually stop and talk with folks and contemplate the adventure ahead.

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Some shenanigans around the fire

After some supper, and a beer, it was getting dark and I decided to head back to our campsite to bed down for the night. My tradition is to set up at the far end of the area, near where the runners emerge from the woods. It’s quiet, and it’s where most of my running group hunkers down as well.

I had little trouble falling asleep Thursday night, but as the night wore on I realized just how cold it was going to get. Thankfully, I had multiple blankets and sleeping bags, and as long as I kept myself covered I was nice and toasty. As soon as my head popped out of the covers, I was blasted with frigid air. When my alarm went off around 6 I quickly grabbed my clothes and crawled back under the blankets. As I shimmied into my jeans and shirt I noticed the inside of the camper covered in frost. When I emerged I took one look at my car, covered in a beautiful hard frost, and realized it was a bit colder than I expected. IMG_0738

The forecast brought with it the promise of more moderate temps, so I simply layered up with the intention that I would soon be shedding clothing with the rising sun. I started my day with one of our dehydrated camp meals, that ended up being a lot tastier than I expected. As I wandered over to the start/finish/AS5 area I met up with runners who were eating their “last meal” before kicking off in the 100 mile race at 8am. Many of them were chipper and excited, especially with the predicted weather. This had the possibility of being one of the most mild and dry Zumbro’s in history, and this made people antsy to get out and check out the course.

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100 milers ready to start

My job on Friday was to run Aid Station 5, which is also where the start/finish area is. As a looped course, Zumbro can function with only three aid stations over the entire 100 mile race. Start/finish is Aid Station 5, and out in the woods were two combo stations for Aid Station 1/4 and 2/3. This makes this race one of the best supported 100 mile races around, as supply crews only have to visit 2 locations beyond start/finish. Because AS5 wouldn’t be seeing any runners until after 10am, we were all able to take it easy and watch the 100 milers kick-off and start their adventure.

Once they departed we started moving things into place, locating all of our supplies and arranging tables. I had been given a wonderful crew for the day on Friday, which made my job incredibly easy. I spent a bunch of time helping getting the food and water coordinated, and by 10am we were ready to rock and roll for the lead runner. The first loop can be a bit bunched up still, so we wanted to be prepared for a few “rushes” of runners.

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The AWESOME Friday aid station 5 crew!

Our lead runner (Doug Kleemeier came in hot and never gave up the lead), showed up around 10:40 and needed very little from us. He grabbed a couple refills and was on his way quick as can be. One of the most difficult things for runners on a looped course is passing by your car multiple times, lulling you into wanting to just stop and quit. The best thing you can do is get out of AS5 as quick as possible and get those thoughts out of your mind.

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The PB&J assembly line

There was a slow trickle of runners for the next hour, and then a bunch of large groups arrived. We got them all taken care of and sent on their way. Eventually, the groups stopped, and the final few runners came through the first loop. By this time even more great people had arrived to help out, and there was often a swarm of people, ready to help every runner that came through with the utmost personal attention. We tended to whatever folks needed, and brought in our awesome medical staff when required. As the day wore on, and the warmth arrived, it became one of the most enjoyable days to be out in the woods in April in a long time.

Ultra-running is a pretty low-key sport, and so are the aid stations. I had many volunteers who were there to cheer on a runner and asked if they could fill the time between loops with helping out. I handed them a nametag and they mucked right in, giving attention to some amazing century runners and they worked their way through the early loops of a long couple of days.

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Getting Jeff ready to head out again

My wife wasn’t showing up until after work, and so I kept just working until she got there. My replacement station captain arrived, and I gave him the lay of the land as to where everything was and how we had been running. One thing that I am super proud of is that we had one of the most hygienic aid stations around, with everything separated into little cups, so that sweaty runner hands weren’t digging around in bowls of M&Ms. The team did a great job keeping everything neat and clean (or as much as you can at a campground).

Eventually, Lisa arrived and we headed over to the camper to get her settled. We made ourselves a nice little camp meal and then I wandered back to the aid station to hang out with folks for a bit longer. I was sad to see a couple friends like Rob had dropped, but with races like this, it doesn’t always work out the way you intend. Once it got dark I meandered back to the camper and we crawled into bed, nice and early, since we had a big day the next day.

I remember falling asleep quickly, but then waking up to hear the 50 milers launch at midnight. The rest of the night was a bit fitful in my sleeping with occasional voices or noises coming through, but I still work up pretty fresh. Friday night was 20 degrees warmer than Thursday night, so it was much more pleasant outdoor sleeping weather. I’m an early bird, and since I had gone to bed even earlier the night before, I was sneaking out of the camper a bit before 6am. I took care of my toiletry business and then headed over to the aid station to see how the racers were doing.

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Old friends

I was super happy that I found my friend John from Michigan there, crewing for his friend in the 50. We’ve been friends since 2002, and have both gone through divorces and remarriages together, supporting each other despite the distance. I grabbed some coffee and the two of us got a chance to catch up for a short bit before his runner came through on their second loop. I was one of a few people that pushed John into running back in 2010, and John took it to a whole new level, running ultras and trails years before me. Getting to connect at a trail race with him was very special and I hope it’s not another two years before we see each other in person again (which it shouldn’t be with Marquette coming up later this year for me).

Once it started to get light I headed back to the camper to make up another camp meal for my wife and I to start our day. I know some people find these meals a bit tasteless (or the opposite, over seasoned) but after a day of munching on aid station food, they tasted like gourmet meals. Slowly, we started to get ourselves ready for our adventure of the day, the 17 mile fun run. However, I think I will make that a story for tomorrow…

Surf the Murph 25K / 50K DNF

This year I set a goal of completing 3 ultra distance races. I started out my year very early with the Zumbro 50 mile race, which went really well. Next up was Spring Superior 50K, which resulted in a DNF, 7 miles from the finish line. Although a disappointment, I was really pleased with how my race had gone in the first half. My final ultra of the year was to be a return to my first ultra ever, last year, Surf the Murph 50K.

The wife and I awoke at 4am to start getting ready and get some food in our stomachs. We got to the course nice and early, and managed to use the bathrooms, and generally get ready for our race. Unlike last year, which started in the rain, this year was clear, dry and beautiful. The starting temp was around 40 degrees, and it got up into the 50s soon after the sun came up. I knew my training hadn’t been that great lately, so I went out slow and steady, and simply tried to keep it under 15 minute miles.

Soon the sun was shining bright, and I was tucking layers into my vest pocket to stay cool. I got to see friends at each and every aid station, and they greeted me warmly and took care of my needs. The first 10 miles of the race went as good as I had hoped for, which gave me hope for the second loop. However, it was not to be.

img_0016Around mile 12 things started coming apart. My legs started feeling heavy and weak. My knees and ankles were protesting fiercely and my running turned into an 18 minute hobble. Last year I managed my first loop in around 3:25. When I hit the 3:40 mark and still had 2-3 miles to go to finish the first loop I knew I was in trouble. I told myself that if I could get there before 4 hours I would consider going on. I hit the Finish area at 4:14. Despite having literally all day to finish another loop, my body was feeling broken and battered. It was time to call it a day.

Thankfully, at Surf, you can get credit for however many loops you complete. Since I completed the 25K course, I got a 25K medal, and my time will be listed in on the same page as the regular 25K racers. It was half of what I was planning, but I still felt like I accomplished a lot. My wife came into the finish area about 7 minutes behind me, and had an amazing first loop, but also decided she was done.

We chatted with friends for a while and then started the long drive back home to shower and get some lunch. The drive gave me an opportunity to talk and think about how everything came off the rails today. I’m going to save that post for tomorrow, because I feel it deserves its own space. After spending time thinking about everything, I shouldn’t have been surprised that today didn’t turn out the way I planned. I know why it worked out this way, and I’m sure I’ll be able to fix it going forward.

Despite dropping to a lower distance race it was an amazing day to be outside on the trails. The weather was perfect for running and being outside, and the trail was mostly dry, with all the mud being avoidable. You can never complain too hard when you’re stuck outside on an amazing fall day in Minnesota.