Afton Trail Run Recap

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.

Cheering section

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.

*by J. Husveth / Critical Connections Ecological Services Inc.

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.

*Course Map by J. Husveth / Critical Connections Ecological Services Inc.

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.

Into the chute
Exhaustion

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.

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Ultramarathon For Newbies

The desire to push myself further comes and goes.  There are times when I get a bee in my bonnet and I have to do something right away to fill the impulse and need I have to get off the couch and challenge myself.

2008 was like that.  For really no specific reason, I felt the urge to sign up for my first marathon.  Now, I had never done a marathon before and never considered myself a runner.  In addition to playing a lot of team sports up to and including college, I was in track for two years during my high school career.  Not because I really loved running, but because I needed something to do.  Other than that, I held virtually no desire to run anywhere.

Signing up for the Twin Cities Marathon in ’08, it was therefore atypical of me.  Part of the reason I signed up was because my two brothers and father wanted to run as well, so the prospect of it be a family venture was appealing to me. But, I also wanted to challenge myself. I don’t think I’d ever run a 5k previous to this and certainly not a half marathon. Since then I’ve run the Twin Cities marathon and a handful of half marathons and team relays. My first trail race was last fall when I ran the Surley Trail Loppet through Theodore Wirth Park and it was an awesome experience.  I loved it.  It was a lot of fun, very challenging and although it gave me the desire to want to run another trail race it also inspired me to push myself further and more outside of my comfort zone.  If I can already run (and train) for a marathon, what more am I capable of?

Finishing is the goal.

So I’ve made the decision to go all out and try a trail ultramarathon. This should prove to be quite the challenge for me since I haven’t run a full marathon since 2008 and running a trail race is a lot different from what I’m accustomed to. I’ll have to learn how to hydrate and feed my body throughout the course of a 50k and I’ll have to come up with new ways to train myself to deal with the hills I will encounter. Fortunately the race I’m eyeing is in Afton State Park so I won’t have to deal with any sort of extreme altitude gains or mountains of any sort, but there is still a big difference in the way that I prepare for a race. So far the biggest change I’ve seen in my training is that the running emphasis is put not necessarily on distance ran but in logging a lot of time running. Which is freeing in a lot of ways because I care less about my pace and more about the overall picture. To help prepare myself for the grueling pounding my body will surely take I also want to place more of an emphasis on strengthening my core and my muscles. In the past when I would train for a race I would pretty much only focus on the running itself and neglect the strength and nutrition (if I go for a 3 hour run, I should be able to eat whatever I want, right?).  That strategy has worked in the past but this is a different ballgame so for this race I would like to lose some weight.  The less weight I have to carry for 31 miles the better.  I would also like to strengthen my core muscles so I that I’ll be able to be a stronger runner for a longer period of time.

The Afton 50k sign-up isn’t until March 8th, so there’s still time for me to back out and make this all irrelevant.  I’ve told enough people now so that I have some accountability and it’ll be harder for me to not follow through on my (lofty?) ambitions.

Side note: If you’ve ever run a trail ultra before, I’d love to pick your brain.   

Surly Trail Loppet: My First Trail Run

Phew.  This morning I ran my first ever trail race and half marathon, the Surly Trail Loppet held at Theodore Wirth Park.  I’ve run other half marathons and one full marathon, but never a trail race.  The prospect of running a trail race intrigued me.  The more I’m in the woods and on trails, the better.

Leading up to this race, I figured I could train the same way I have been, while maybe mixing in a trail run here and there.  Unfortunately for me, I was unprepared for the beast that lie before me.  I had been training as I usually would for a road race, but a trail race is a different animal entirely.

First of all, the hills are killer.  The beginning of the course featured a lot of hills and I admit I was overzealous on tackling these hills.  Normally, I pride myself on being able to handle hills pretty well so I figured that when the challenge arose, I’d be able to tackle these hills just the same.  Three quarters of the way through the race, I was regretting my early strategy of hill domination, and wished I would’ve taken a more conservative approach.

Tired, tired legs at the finish

My respiratory endurance felt good throughout the race, but it was my legs that failed me.  Had I done more hills during the course of my training, I could’ve handled this better.

The course itself was beautiful and was well run.  The terrain varied quite a bit with steep climbs, steps, paved surfaces, wooded areas, and lots of singletrack through the woods.  Part of the course used the mountain biking trails that wind through Theodore Wirth.  I absolutely loved running through the woods.  At times I had to remind myself that this race was in the middle of an urban area such as the Twin Cities.  There were specific times I can recall, where I was running on singletrack with two other runners right behind me.  As we ran through twisting singletrack, dodging trees no more than two feet apart from each other and jumping over boulders and fallen logs, I was struck with the solitude of it all.  All I could hear was the panting of our breath and the padding of our shoes on the dirt trail.  I’m sure they wanted to pass me, but the sense that we were running through the woods together in unison, was a much different feeling than I’ve ever had during a road race.

The Course

I loved the race, but wasn’t in love with my time.  When I signed up, my mindset was that since I had never ran a trail race before, I was just going to enjoy it for the experience and not try to over compete.  For me, that’s easier said than done once I get on the starting line.  Although I finished a respectable (I think) 44th out of 218 racers (male category), I felt like I could have done better.  But that’s part of racing, right?

If I was to put a message in a bottle and send it to myself before I run this race again, here’s what I’d say:

  1. You need trail running shoes.  Sure they’re not mandatory and people run just fine without them, but I can definitely see how they’d be beneficial.  My feet – and specifically my toe box area of my foot – felt like it was slip-sliding around.
  2. Run more hills in your training.  I know your son was sick that last week before the race, and you can’t always take him out in the BOB after daycare, but isn’t that what the incline feature on your treadmill is for?  Do something!
  3. Sometimes, walking up the hills actually is a good idea.  Don’t scoff when you see other runners do it, because while you’re busy exerting all your energy “running” up the hill, they’re saving theirs waiting to pass you on the way down.  Sucker.
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Hopefully, I’ll be able to put these ideas into practice and run it again next year.