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.

Some friendly deer

This morning when I was out for a group run at Afton State Park, I came across some deer on the trail. This isn’t unexpected, as you’ll often find deer wandering around the park in the morning. What was a little funny was how close the deer let me get.

As I approached on the trail the younger deer got a little skittish, but the mom just stood there looking at me and sniffing. She may have caught a whiff of the food I had just eaten, as the leftover package was sitting in my vest. As I moved slowly forward they moved off the trail and bounded up the hill to the right. It’s a very steep climb, but as they have four legs they managed it just fine.

The mom then just stood there and watched as I walked past. I stopped right under her, and she looked at me as if to say, “I know your puny two legs won’t get you up here.” And at this point in the run, they certainly wouldn’t. But the fact that she stood still meant I could get a nice picture of her while she watched me.

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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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Spring is dawning

Over the weekend, the wife and I headed out to Afton State Park for a run early in the morning. We don’t get out to Afton very frequently in the winter time, but we try to manage a trip out there at least once a month once the weather in nice. One of the beautiful things right now is how everything is starting to green a lot more. I grabbed this shot when passing over one of the creeks in the park, and I love how I was able to pick up the sun glinting in the background. Enjoy!

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Afton 25K race report

First, let me say that I was REALLY looking forward to this race. This is the only one of the Rocksteady Running races that I haven’t yet done, as it usually collided with a 4th of July relay race that my wife and I would do. However, this year we decided to skip that race, and do Afton instead. I was also excited to run this race because I have been nursing an Achilles issue, and I haven’t run for two weeks. I was very ready to get back out there Saturday morning and get some miles on my feet.

We both opted for the 25K distance instead of 50K. The 50K course is two loops, and the idea of looping that course twice in July heat just didn’t appeal to me. Since I hadn’t run much, only one loop also felt much more appropriate. We launched promptly at 7:30 and began heading out to the path near the ski hills before climbing up to the Back 40/Trout Brook loop. I felt good throughout the race, but I knew I had to ease into it, so I kept it nice and slow through this section.

I hit AS 1/2 and simply grabbed a couple M&Ms and some HEED before heading around the small loop. I love the descent from the top of the Back 40 hill, as it’s nice and gentle and really fun to run. I arrived back at AS 1/2 before I knew it, grabbed some more HEED and started the climb up to the brutally exposed Africa loop (after saying hello to a great local runner John Maas). Thankfully, it was a really nice morning out, and the sun wasn’t quite as high yet as I feared. I bumped into someone I knew and the two of us chatted the entire way to AS 3/4, which made the time go very fast.

Out of AS 3/4 you climb a long service road to a short prairie section that eventually turns into a downhill to the river. It was on this descent that I was passed by the lead 50K runner. He came up behind me running so fast I had to stop and look back to see if the sound I was hearing was a poor 25K’er falling down the hill. As it turns out it was simply the winner, Kurt Keiser, barreling down the hill on his second loop, with a commanding lead. I kept moving and didn’t see another 50K runner for at least 5 minutes.

Aid Station 3/4 was special to me because the local running group that I run with was putting it on. I came down before the race started, for about an hour, to help them set up, and planned on returning after the race to help some more. It was a ton of fun to see all of my friends there cheering me on. They took great care of me as I left the “4” side of the station and prepared for the long slog down the river trail. I was feeling physically hungry as I came down Campground Hill, so I took longer at AS 4 than at any other station. I opted for some fruit as well as some PB&J squares. Once properly fueled I headed out for the next section.

This mile long section along the river is flat and straight, meaning you have little reason not to run it, and you can see forever just how far away you still have to go. I locked in a solid 11:15 pace, picking up a couple of people along the way who really liked the speed I was setting. I managed to run the entire section, minus a brief moment at the start of it where I stopped to massage my calves a bit to relieve some stress off my Achilles. I finally saw the turn to head up Meat Grinder hill in the distance and picked up the pace just slightly. It was an incredibly happy moment when I turned the corner and could start a nice solid hike up a brutal hill.

Aid Station 5 was rocking when I arrived and my friend Wendi took care of me with some sponges to cool me down. I got refueled for the final 3 miles to the end, and started towards Snowshoe loop. I’ve never run this race course before, but I’ve seen almost every part of it on various training runs and fat ass runs. The only part I haven’t spent much time in is Snowshoe. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I found were a lot of quick, steep hills that served to sap you of any energy that you had left. My last two miles were some of my slowest miles, and I know it’s partly because of the annoying little hills of Snowshoe.

Eventually, I made it back to the final push to the finish line. Along the way I ran into an old co-worker, so I paused a moment to say hello, but quickly turned to head to the end. I kept up a solid run across the line, and collected my medal as I reflected on how good I really felt. My final time was 3:40, which is slower than I hoped for, but considering my lack of training the past month, and complete lack of running the past two weeks, I am happy with where I ended up. I finished the race feeling positive and in mostly good shape, so a slower time was the least of my worries.

I got in line for some food and chatted with a lot of friends who had also completed their races. After I finished my lunch I had intended to go back to AS 3/4 to help out more, however, as I was about to leave I saw my wife’s pink hat in the distance. I decided to wait a few moments and watch as she crossed the finish line, and help her to get settled before leaving. She ended up with a lot of really bad cramping, so she staying up at the race village while I headed down the station.

I arrived and started pitching in where I could, however like most of these races there are way more volunteers than needed. I planted myself on the AS 3 side of the station and helped the final 50K runners who were reaching that point in their second loop. Many of them were keeping up a solid hike trying to stay ahead of the sweepers, so we got them cooled down, fueled, and back on the path so they could finish. After another hour or so of helping out I was feeling pretty exhausted and I knew my wife was recovering up the hill, so I bid my friends goodbye and headed back to get home. I ended up crashing for a solid hour nap after my shower. I was more tired than I assumed, and it felt great to sleep it off in the afternoon.

I really had a great time at this race, and it made me feel like I was “back”. My Achilles still ached a bit, so I might still try and get some imaging done on my leg to see what type of therapy I need to be doing. However, I’m really happy with where my cardio was, despite needing to drop some weight. My stomach also behaved which is a huge ‘win’ for me in any race.

I can’t wait for the next race I get to help out at, or run. Trail people are amazing people, and I love every minute I spend in community with them. Afton is a great race, and I might make it a regular stop on my race calendar each year. For now, it’s more rest as I get prepared for some fall races to close out the season.