The time for my first ever trail ultra-marathon has come and gone. It’s been a while since I ran 50k through Afton State Park for the Afton Ultra Trail Run, but I’ve had enough time to process the experience (and certainly enough time to recuperate).
Unfortunately, the morning got off to an inauspicious start since I only got 2.5 hours of sleep the night before. For whatever reason, I could not sleep (nerves?) the night before the race despite the fact that I got to bed at a decent time. Since there was no packet pickup prior to the race, I had to be there around 5:30 , it takes me about an hour to get to Afton, so I woke up at 3:30 a.m. Not ideal.
Upon arrival I was able to pick up my packet and race paraphernalia without a hitch and get my warm up in. Stupidly, I didn’t take advantage of the Porta Potty and waited until the race director started giving instructions right before the race. By that time, a long line had formed of people wanting to take care of their “situations” and I was cutting close to making the start of the race. Luckily, everything worked out in the nick of time. The start was interesting because after a few pre-race instructions, there’s wasn’t any sort of National Anthem or grand countdown. It was basically, “Everyone ready? OK, go ahead!”.
At the start of the race, the first small decent got a little crowded while runners were jockeying for position and setting their pace. This isn’t atypical for a race, but it felt a little different since it was harder to pass people due to trees and there were rocks and roots underfoot. Shortly after we went down, we went up and were faced with our first hill.
There were a lot of hills, a lot. So to sum up my basic strategy for the first lap of the 50k, I wanted to run as many hills as I possibly could . I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made for the Surly Loppet and kill myself on the hills, but I figured that even barely running would be better than walking early. For the most part, I was able to stick to this strategy until some of the last few hills of the loop. On my descents, I wanted to bomb the hill as fast as I could, sometimes at the expense of common sense and without regard for personal safety. That was actually a lot of fun, although it could be frustrating sometimes when I bombed a hill and a runner in front of me wouldn’t move out of the way.
I didn’t really have a specific target for when I wanted to finish due to the fact that this was my first ultra. Since I had sprained my ankle just over three months prior and my training was screwed up, I just wanted to finish respectably. About 10 miles in however, I somehow came to the conclusion that I’d like to finish just under 5:30 if I could. I was able to finish my first lap at 2.5 hours (which included a three minute pit stop at a pit toilet) and I felt really good about that. It wasn’t long after that my fortune started to turn. When I passed the food table at the start of my second lap and went up that first hill again, I immediately decided that I needed to start walking up the steep hills. Giving it the old college try wasn’t going to be enough and I was feeling the fatigue pretty good and knew that if I kept trying to force the issue up the hills, it was only going to lead a disastrous conclusion.
Around mile 21 I started to feel cramps in my quads and knew that it was going to be a problem, how much of a problem I could not tell. To counteract this I feebly tried to eat s as many bananas as I could and hydrate much more frequently. By then, however, the damage had already been done. Mile 24 turned out to be my date with The Wall. Against the rest of my bodies wishes, my legs were cramping so badly I had no choice but to stop completely for a minute and try to stretch them out. I got running, slowly, once again and luckily I came to a long descent which leveled out to the flattest part of the entire course for a few miles. The cramps never completely went away but they did recede enough to the point where I could tuck that association with pain into a closet in my mind and not think about too much. At some point around mile 27 I had hit a root coming out of the ground in stride right on my toe and thought for sure I had ripped the toenail off of my big toe. Ridiculous pain shot up through my leg and every time my right foot hit the ground thereafter was horrible. On the descents, I had to try to ball my toes up in my shoe as much as possible so I wouldn’t have to stop and walk.
The final homestretch came up and I just didn’t have anything left in the tank to sprint to the finish line, which I always aim to do. This was the first ruin had ever done where I legitimately had nothing left. I finished at 5:34 and missed my goal, but, all things considered, I was ok with my time. As I was greeted by my wife, son, and friends who had come cheer me on, I chatted with them a little and checked on my toe. Turns out I didn’t lose my toe nail, but it was – and is – a bloody mess underneath.The race was fun and with some adjustments to my training and my food/beverage consumption during the race, I’m positive I could improve my time. I’ve never cramped as badly as I did during that run and I think I should have carried some S!Caps with me and administered them during the race.
For those thinking about trying a race like this in Minnesota, I highly recommend it. All of the volunteers were FANTASTIC and the fueling stations were all well stocked and really well run. There aren’t a ton of ultra trail races in Minnesota, but the Afton Tail Race represents itself really well and puts on a great event.