About three weeks ago I decided to do it. I’d been mulling it over for several months, vascillating between “you would be crazy to do it” and “why the hell not?” My training thus far had made me ready for at least a 2.5 hour trail run, my holiday was open, and I was due for a little competition, be it from me, others, or a nasty hill or nine. That I’d done a 2 hour evening run at the same park, in 85+ degree heat 2 weeks ago, and not succumbed to any of the usual heat afflictions, gave me some confidence, as well. At the suggestion of the race director, during a casual group run, I went ahead and registered for the race. My goals were to get a time up there, for this new distance; to have fun; and to learn a little more about how to manage my fuel and water intake for these longer races.
I woke up at 5:15 on July fourth. For the first time in a year or two, I used the timer feature on the coffeepot so that the smell of brewing coffee might help arouse me from slumber, in addition to the radio. As it turns out, it wasn’t necessary, as my excitement for the day helped me respond appropriately to the alarm clock. Still, it was good to have coffee at the ready, as I prepared my oatmeal.
30 minutes later, having downed the oatmeal, some fruit, a cup of coffee and three large glasses of water, and having visited the toilet an acceptable number of times, I headed out the door after giving sleeping Hubbie a good-bye kiss and a promise to return by noon.
I arrived at Afton State Park just as the 50k began. I was surprised to find a parking spot not far from the registration tables or starting line, but I had an hour to go before my race started. The surprise was unwarranted. I had time to get my number, chip, and also to visit the John three times, before the race was to start. I ran into a friend, Sharon, who is a frequent Pike’s Peak Ascent competitor. I’m in awe of her stamina and enthusiasm for such an undertaking. I found little solace in her factoid that NONE of the Ascent has hills as steep as Afton’s. We’re at near-sea level, today! I’m here to compete with myself, but still, I feel puny compared to most of these people. Some of them do an ultra run EVERY weekend, it seems. I think they are of a different species, albeit a friendly and supportive one.
The furthest I’d run before this was a trail half-marathon, which about 2 miles shorter than a 25k. That race was last fall, and my goal for it was to avoid injury (I easily met that goal). It wasn’t the most noble or competitive of goals, but I was new to this trail running gig, and I was unfamiliar with the course. I knew I could run 13.1 miles. I just wasn’t sure how well I could stay focused on the terrain. Possible exhaustion, dehydration, low salts or fuel, and the new distraction of other racers around me were variables over which I had varying degrees of control. Injury seemed fairly likely.
Then, I had a rough idea of my trail pace: it was 2-4 minutes slower than my road pace. I’d learned during my summer of training that walking up steep hills is a good idea, but it does slow you down a tad. I’d also learned to get down hills differently than I was trained to do while running cross-country in high school. “Swimming down” them is a recipe for nasty sideaches for me- as well as an open invitation for a turned ankle (or worse) if the surface isn’t level. So, my current approach to downhills is to try and keep my normal stride, but to step very lightly and quickly, staying on my toes.
As I found on Saturday, though, my downhill technique has its weaknesses, but my uphill technique has a surprising advantage.
As the starting time approached, I felt a calmness. This was to be just another enjoyable run in the park, but with the added feature of having a specific path to follow for a specific number of kilometers. There are flowers to see and smell, and bird, river and wind sounds to hear. There are quite a few other runners here, but hey, they like doing what I like doing. Let’s do this together for a few hours. Maybe I’ll pass a few of you. Maybe a few of you will pass me.
And, we were off, down the path that I’d run a couple weeks ago at the start of my last long run. A near mile of downhill to relax and establish my rhythm on, before the succession of steeper climbs and descents begin.
The first aid station arrived quite soon, 24 minutes into the race for me, and I still had 3/4 of my water bottle, so I skipped the station.
Soon enough, I arrived at the 2nd aid station, which was roughly 6 miles into the course. I was looking for a volunteer with a jug of water, to refill my 1/4 full bottle, but there was none, so I grabbed 2 full cups & used them to refill the bottle. I was 53 minutes into the race, so the pacing of this aid stop confused me, with respect to my refueling plans, which were based on minutes run, not on pace, but some quick math clouded my mind with pace thoughts.
I set off; I was 5 minutes past that station before I realized I was due for my first carb dose (my plan was to eat something roughly every 50 minutes), and I’d failed to take a snack from the station. Fortunately, I’d carried along a Gu pack for just such an occasion, and I sucked it down during the next uphill march. The last thing I wanted to do was bonk during the first hour, and I figured that could be very likely during a morning race, when the only fuel in me was breakfast. Often, I run in the afternoons, when I’ve got the benefit of 2 recent meals in me.
Kris, a woman I’d recently met while doing some volunteer work for the race, passed me while I was finishing up the aforementioned Gu pack. We chatted for a few moments. I do most of my training runs alone, so it was especially nice, if unfamiliar, to be even a little social during a run.
A few uphills, and a few downhills later, and I arrived at the next aid station (#3), not far behind Kris. Then, I snacked on some pretzels, refilled my 1/2 full bottle with water, and grabbed 2 Fig Newtons to go. I waved off every attempt by a volunteer to give me Heed. I haven’t tried that particular brand, but I have found with other brands that my stomach does not react well to full-strength energy drink. I’d planned to get my fuel and salts via food, and possibly with the help of a half Nuun tablet that I had with me.
The next stretch proved to get, finally, challenging for me, but in a surprising place: Campground Hill. Despite the fact that I went down it twice, 2 weeks ago, it did me in. I got a sideache from hell that simply would not allow me to dance down that hill, comfortably. As I neared the foot of it, I’d switched between dance and walk about five times. I’m reasonably sure that there wasn’t a photographer at the base of that hill, which was the next aid station, but if there was, he/she would have caught quite a pained expression on my face. Which would have been followed by a grin from the sheer joy of such a perfect placement of an aid station. Respite! And a banana!
Then, onward down the train path, flatter than a pancake. Damn sideache wouldn’t go away despite my efforts to ignore it into submission, after belly- and back-breathing didn’t do the trick. I passed a few people, including the 3 ladies in pink who had passed me on a few descents already, and prayed for the Meat Grinder to arrive.
The prior climb (up the back of Campground Hill, maybe) had revealed to me something valuable: the best thing for getting rid of a sideache is a steep uphill climb. Something about the body mechanics, the breathing, or maybe just the spirit, just blows away that nasty ab cramp.
I’ve never been so happy to see a hill named Meat Grinder, in my life. This may be partially due to the fact that most times I do that hill, I do it in the opposite direction, but still. I went up that hill like a rocket, even if a walking rocket. The sideache vanished just as I shifted into ski-running mode, and I passed a few more people. My befuddlement over the source of the sideache vanished from my thoughts, for the moment. I thought I’d perfected the technique, but I had been foiled. This will be a topic for further research.
I arrived at the top and was excited to be approaching, eventually, aid station 5. As we emerged from the trees, there was a fine mist coming down. How nice, I commented to one fellow I passed, someone set up a mister for us!
I volunteered at aid station 5 last year, so I knew there would be some familiar faces and a jug of water with which to refill my hand bottle. For fuel, at this stop, I chose a PB&J quarter, ate a few more pretzels, got some encouraging words from Nancy, and I was off for the Snowshoe Loop.
I’d never run that loop, at least, without snow on it. And with snow on it, I’d only done it once. It’s a very different loop with green stuff on and around it. At first I was almost wishing I was experiencing the snow version for this race, mainly because it’s easier to decipher the nature of the surface you’re treading upon. This required quite a bit of attention, at this point in the race. I was very glad I was wearing contacts; a year ago I often opted out of any eye correction for my running. My vision isn’t too bad but without glasses or lenses, but my depth perception is not good.
My sideache had long vanished, but a new annoyance had arrived: knees and ankles that reminded me of their age and their opinion of the day’s abuses, with every step. This reminded me of some of the mountaineering descents I’ve done, with heavy packs and plastic boots. Every step brought me closer to the finish, but every step was painful and heavier than the last.
The prior night, while setting out my clothing and gear for the race, I decided to go with in my older trail shoes. I haven’t run in them for a month or two; I’ve been breaking in some newer kicks. These old Asics GT-2120 TR’s were 500+ miles into their lives with me; the newer ones (the Adidas Trail Response 14) were working out mostly okay, though I was worried about some heel slippage on ascents, and the back of the outsole has a little extra material on it that I feared might collect mud as I ran.
In mile 12 or so, I was really feeling the lack of cushioning and protection, both in midfoot and forefoot, that these beat-up trainers had, that the new ones most likely don’t have. Ok, shoe Gods, point taken. I’ll be going with the new shoes, on my next trail run.
I ended up really enjoying the Snowshoe loop, partly because I knew the end of the race was a mile or two away, partly because the rolling terrain was downright fun, regardless of my achy joints.
And then, suddenly, I could see a few parked cars. I was within reach of the finish line, and on relatively trustworthy terrain, so I picked up the pace. I looked at my watch and determined that I was going to finish under three hours. Holy wow! 2 hours ago I gave up thinking about my pace, and suddenly I was within reach of a time that was about an hour less than I’d figured it would be. I was perhaps too generous with my prediction, but I wanted to be realistic about my time on a course so chock-full of hills, on a day that could also be chock-full of humidity and heat.
I picked up my pace just a little more, and finished around 2:55. Not a rock star pace, and not even as good as my pace last fall in the Trail Loppet, but hey, I would not be spending any more time on that course, as much fun as parts of it were. Wahoo! Now, I have a PR for this distance. Which means I plan to run it again.
After collecting my medal (one I helped assemble!), and ejecting my timing chip & number strip, I got a few most excellent congratulatory words from familiar volunteer faces, and from Keith. I walked the length of the parking lot, in an attempt to cool down and stave off any cramps waiting in the wings. I didn’t plan to do an ice bath later, but at the very least I could do this, to help my recovery.
For a while I watched the finish line – I was unaware until later in the day that some of the finishers now were speedy 50k runners (WOW!) – to see if I could congratulate Sharon on her finish. I enjoyed some of the post-race treats of hot dogs, chips, cookies, and watermelon, and chatted briefly with Kris, who seemed pleased with her finish, but more pleased (as I would be shortly) to ditch the running shoes. I gave Hubbie a call to update him on my time and my condition; he was very pleased and congratulatory as well.
And, he wanted to take me out for a celebratory lunch at one of our favorite pubs, the Happy Gnome. So, it was time to go. I’d run my first 25k in summer heat and humidity, and not gotten myself into a foolish dehydration or GI situation. I’d gotten a time that pleased me, and it pleased my dad, too, when I gave him a report the day afterwards: “my daughter the endurance runner!”
After stopping in Woodbury’s Trader Joe’s for some decadent post-postrace fuel/reward (in the form of a small chocolatey treat), and after a quick shower, Steve and I enjoyed a great meal at the Gnome that did include one Boulder Flashback Anniversary Ale for me (oh, for yum). Later on I took a nap (or rather, a nap took me), which I haven’t done in a quite a while! Evidently it’s one of the recommended recovery tasks for a longer race – one that is a lot more enjoyable than an ice bath, which I’d skipped.
The Afton Trail Run is an excellent race, put on by a great group of dedicated, enthusiastic people. I’m lucky to be involved in it, and lucky to have competed in it, this year. That park just keeps on giving: I’ve camped, hiked, skied, snowboarded, trained for mountaineering, run, and raced there. It’s a good life.
My apologies for the lack of event photos! Lately I’m in a participate OR document mode, so the camera didn’t join me on the race. It did, however, join me later in the day when I enjoyed the Minneapolis fireworks. :)