Cougar Mountain Trail Run

This post is overdue, but towards the end of June my family packed up and went to Seattle where my uncle and his family lives and we had a family reunion.  At the time I was entering the final few weeks of training before my first ultra trail race, and need to do a few more runs.  I absolutely love to run in new locations, especially if the terrain and vistas are different so I always try to bring running gear with me whenever I travel.

On this trip, I really wanted to run more mountainous trails since the Twin Cities area of Minnesota is pretty flat.  My brother and I were able to sneak away one morning and do exactly that, heading off to Cougar Mountain.

Misty mountains

The day started out as typical Seattle weather with overcast skies and drizzly precipitation.  I had overdressed and wore a long sleeve shirt which proved to be a big mistake.  Although it rains a lot, I worked up quite a sweat throughout the run and wished I had clothing I could take off or ditch.  Despite this, the run was a lot of fun.

Good trails, good times.

There were definitely challenging hills to climb and great single track and wider horse trails to run on.  My brother had never really done trail running before so it was a pleasure to watch him experience the thrill of bombing a hill after putting in the grueling work to get to the top of a hill.  The vegetation in the area is so lush and incredible, the forest seemed so vibrant and alive.

Previously on LOST…

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go quite as far as I wanted because we had to get back to family obligations, but I thoroughly enjoyed the run we did get.  If you’re in the area and are looking for a good run that’s easily accessible from Seattle, this is a great place to check out.

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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.

Trail Run: Minnesota River Bottoms

The old adage of “practice how you play” certainly applies to trail races.  A lot of my training up to this point for the Afton Trail race 50k has been on streets and “managed” paths and yes, even the treadmill. But with the warm weather showing up sooner than expected I’ve been able to get out on some trails and train the way I’ve been wanting to.  I should have gotten out even sooner when there was snow on the ground but it is what it is.

One of many trail heads 

Since it was so warm and beautiful out yesterday I decided to make the short trip from my house and drive down to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge/Minnesota River Bottoms.  I had never ran this trail network before and now that I have, I’m very eager to go back.  Starting at the Bloomington Ferry Rd. access point, I went for a 22 mile out and back.  Because of the quick and drastic snowmelt, the trails were muddy.  Really muddy.  My Scott’s were constantly caked in mud and I was sliding all over the place.  Whenever possible, I tried to run on the “shoulder” of the trail so that my feet could find better purchase in the soft ground.  On multiple occasions it was unavoidable that I would plunge my foot into icy and muddy water up to the ankle and just when I thought it was drying out it’d happen again.  Often times I thought this is what I Atreyu must have felt like in the  Swamp of Sadness.

Despite the trail being in less than ideal conditions (including having to cross a waterway by way of a fallen tree), it was an awesome time.  The undulating trail is relatively flat overall and though there’s not very many steep climbs, the terrain does change.  Transitioning from running on mud, to sand, to hard-pack, to gravel, to dirt service road, and back to mud forces you to not only change your running strategy, but makes you work different muscle groups as well.  The refuge itself is beautiful, and it wasn’t overly packed with people, despite being housed in the large suburb of Bloomington.  In fact, if not for the occasional reminders of a highway I would run under, or a factory I’d catch a glimpse of on the other side of a lake, it’s very easy to forget that you’re in a major metropolitan area.  The trails wind through beautiful trees and marshy areas and there are a lot of migratory waterfowl flying around and overhead.  At one point on the return leg, I saw a pack (herd?) of no less than nine large white-tailed deer out for a forage in the warm weather.

Thank you bridge.
Water crossing option #1
Water crossing option #2
Option #2 it is

Thanks for nothing
This was my turnaround point

Training in all types of conditions and preparing for all variables is all part of the training process.  Whether it be a trail or road race, mountain bike race, backpacking trip, or climbing event, ideal conditions are rare.  It is therefore imperative to put your mind and body into a space so that it can handle whatever, whenever.  Hopefully running on mud trails will put me one step closer (pun intended) to be in that head space.

Running on Glass

Although there’s a plethora of paved and manicured trails in the Twin Cities area, I’m having trouble finding close and accessible trails to my house (I have a 20 month old son at home who needs his naps, which shrinks my optimal running time and distance).  Even though I’m training for the Afton Trail Run, I’ve been doing a lot of running on the aforementioned streets and manicured (crushed limestone) trails and, yes, the basement treadmill.

While I would love to spend every day running outside on trails, that’s just not a possibility at the moment.  Once the weather gets warmer I’ll be venturing out more and experimenting with trails in the vicinity of the Twin Cities (Theodore Wirth, Murphy, Carver) and other parks and trails throughout Minnesota.

Today I was able to run outside and for the first time experiment with my new trail shoes on some actual trails. These were short and nontechnical trails in some local parks in Minnetonka, but they were fun to run nonetheless. Because the weather has been unseasonably warm last few days and there has been a lot of recent thawing, the trails were mostly covered with ice and very, very, slippery ice, as ice is wont to do.

Icy path

At first I was tentative about this and ran cautiously, but barely over a mile into my run I slipped, fell, and hit the dirt. And that’s when…my run got fun. See, I have the opportunity to run on straight and paved surfaces every single day. I can put ear buds in and listen to music and tune out. All I have to do is follow the pavement or concrete in front of me. But on trails, where the conditions are not always the same and you’re forced to pay attention to your surroundings, its so much more invigorating. When there’s the potential to fall, slip, stub your toe, get muddy, catch a branch or worse, your body is tuned to the environment around you.

Here in Minnesota, we don’t have the luxury of running in mountains, but we do have snow and ice and cold. And if that’s all I can get during these months, I’ll take it. It sure beats running only on man-made surfaces.

It’s Not About the Shoes

The shoes don’t make the man but they certainly can make a run more enjoyable. The only trail race I’ve done has been in a pair of road shoes. Afterwards, it was evident to me how important a good trail shoe is. There are obviously many more obstacles on a trail run but the way your foot moves and cuts is also a lot different. Theres a stability in the forefoot that’s needed that a traditional road shoe just doesn’t have.

About halfway through the Surly Trail Loppett I was resolute that if I ever ran another trail race I would have to invest in a good pair of trail specific shoes. Since I’ve decided to run an ultra trail marathon I also made the decision that I really needed to explore footwear and find the right shoe for me. For every other race I’ve competed in I’ve used one type of shoe only; the Asics Gel Kayano. The last six pairs of running shoes I’ve owned have all been a different iteration of the Kayano line. I love this shoe. I’ve tried other shoes but when I first tried the Kayano on it just fit me like a glove, or, I guess like a sock. Since then I’ve never had to look for a different shoe since each new pair that comes out fits me fantastically. There are some minor differences between models but they all work amazingly well for my foot type.

When I went to my local go running store to try to find a similar type of shoe for my foot I had a preconceived idea that I would find something under the Asics umbrella. I was disappointed to learn for as good of a road running shoe Asics makes, they make pretty underwhelming trail shoes. They might be okay for a very short trail run but nothing that I would consider for a 50k or beyond. So then I started doing some research and I tried on some different types of shoes, narrowing down what I thought would be my top three choices: the Brooks Cascadia 7, the Saucony ProGrid Xodus 3.0, and the Salomon XR Crossmax Guidance.

Allow me first to shamelessly give a plug for my local running store, TC Running Company (I don’t work there and have no affiliation with it other than that’s where I choose to shop). Every time I go in there the staff is so nice and helpful. It’s obvious  that their number one goal is to make people happy first and make money second. They clearly just want to get people out and running to the best of their ability. The previous time I came into the store I had tried on a pair of Saucony and Solomons but this time I was urged to also try two other shoes – Montrail and Scott – in addition two the one I really had my eye one, the Brooks Cascadia 7.  Here’s how all of the shoes broke down for me.

Brooks Cascadia 7


Based on a lot of things that I had read and a couple of people who I had talked to I really thought the Brooks 7 were going to be the shoe for me. I’d heard a lot about how comfortable they were and how they provided good traction and support on the trails. When I tried them on they did feel pretty good, but for whatever reason they felt like they were cut low on my foot. I don’t know how to explain it exactly but my heel didn’t feel that secure and the shoe itself seemed to sit a bit low on my foot. This isn’t the most horrible thing in the world, but I’m the type of runner that likes that sense of security in my shoes. I don’t want to be wearing a hiking boot out there, but I appreciate the feeling of stability. If my foot wear different, I could see myself buying a better of Cascadias (who knows, maybe I will next time) but not this time.

Saucony ProGrid Xodus 3.0


The first time I tried this shoe on I liked it quite a bit. It seemed rugged enough to handle most things thrown at it, but the upper seemed secure without being too heavy and cumbersome. When I came back and tried it on a second time, I couldn’t get past the aggressiveness of the tread on the sole. The lugs seemed to splay out on the sides more and the natural running motion didn’t seem very fluid. Next.

Salomon XR Crossmax Guidance


Salomon is pretty big in the trail running world, so I figured a shoe of theirs would be in contention. Sort of like it would be hard not to at least try on a pair of Nike’s if your were in the market for a basketball shoe. Guided by a TC Running Company employee, I was recommended that these shoes would be similar in terms of stability, cushion, and motion control as the Asic Kayanos I’m used to. They were ok, felt a little heavy and boxy. In reality I’m sure they’re not much heavier than most other shoes in their category, but when you’re logging a lot of miles in for an extended period of time, perception is reality and if they felt heavy and boxy to me in the store, how would they feel at mile 25?

Montrail Fairhaven

Fairhaven

I’ve owned exactly one pair of Montrail’s in my life. They were pretty good for quick hikes and they had a Gore-Tex lining which was nice, but I wold never consider taking these guys out for a long trail run. So when I saw them on the shelf my brain completely tuned them out right away. At the urging of the guy helping, I tried on the -—. Although I didn’t buy them – (the uppers seemed stiff and there was a weird, bulbous, cushioning spot right in the middle of my forefoot) i was genuinely surprised by how much I liked them. They did have good stability, the treads seemed right, and they were decently comfortable overall. Montrail seems to be making better quality shoes than I’ve been giving them credit for the last five years, since I bought my last pair.

Scott eRide Grip2

Scott wasn’t even on my radar when I went into TC Running. I hadn’t heard much about their trail shoes and I didn’t have anything to compare it to. So when they were suggested to me I agreed to try them on with some hesitancy. Much to my surprise, they were really comfortable and offered everything I was looking for. They felt stable yet flexible. The lugs on the sole looked to provide the right mix of traction and comfort. There is a noticeable hell to toe drop which initially concerned me, but it kind of forces me to run more on my forefoot instead of heel striking, which is a good habit to be in. Because of this drop, it also provides a good transition from foot to foot. Although the shoes doesn’t look very sexy (unless you’re an extra in the Matrix I suppose) it seemed to provide everything I needed. Bought!

Good construction
Solid soul

One of the cool things for me while training for the Afton 50k is learning about any activity I do and all of these little things about trail and ultra running that are so different from road races. At the moment am so absorbed in not only trying to get my body in a position so that it can handle a 50k, but wrapping my mind around nutrition, the importance of training my body in different ways, and understanding the equipment I’ll be using and how best to use it. These are the things that I get geeked out for whenever I go on a trip or start a new adventure outdoors. For me, the better I plan and understand what it is I’m about to do, the better the experience will be for me. Picking out trail shoes for an ultra marathon certainly won’t be the most difficult decision I’ve made over the past year, month, week, or even day, but understanding the mechanics behind what the shoe does and how it might affect my body is worth it to me put in the research and ask the right questions. Although the shoes probably won’t be the ultimate determinate of how I perform, it’s just part of the process of doing my due diligence to prepare head to toe.

Then again, it might be all about the shoes….

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.   

Trail Run: Hyland Park

Next weekend I’ll be running the Surly Trail Loppet through Theodore Wirth Park.  I’ve ran a few half marathons and one full marathon, but have never ran a trail race before.  I’ve been training for a little while on paved and crushed limestone trails, but haven’t run on any “real” trails.  So, to help me train further for this, I decided to do my long run at Hyland Park.

I’ve been searching for good trails to run around the Twin Cities for a while and haven’t yielded many results.  One of the last times I was in TC Running to buy myself the newest Asics Kayano, I asked an employee who was helping me where the best trails to run around the TC were.  Hyland was all he could come up with.  So, with this half-hearted recommendation in mind, I decided to check it out.

After parking in the Richardson Nature Center parking lot, I hit the trails not really understanding where I was going. My goal was to run 11 miles at a moderate pace.  I wasn’t really trying to push myself too hard, just get the mileage in.  Although it was overcast, Hyland is a beautiful park and it had no shortage of locals barbecuing, tossing a frisbee around, biking on the paved paths, or out for a leisurely stroll.  I saw only one other person running the trails with me.  Not sure if that’s telling or not.

Check out my run here.

Generally, it was a lot of fun to run the trails as opposed to the paved paths and crushed limestone paths I’m used to.  I love the sense of being more out in the wild and running on natural surfaces (yes, I know I’m still in a suburban park, but it feels different).  The trail surfaces ranged from running on grassy areas, wood chips, hard packed earth, and soft soil.

Careful, don't take one of these trails into someone's backyard

My one complaint is that although the trails are marked and there is occasionally a map on the trail, they’re still not marked that well and it got confusing where to actually run.  As a result, I ran 12.5 miles instead of my goal of 11.  One time, I saw a narrower trail off the main path and I thought, “Alright!  Even more off the beaten path, I’m there!”.  Nope.  Ran into someone’s backyard.  Sorry.

If you’re looking for an alternative to constantly tuning on your typical path or streets, I highly recommend changing it up and try out trail running.  Hyland Park is a good place to start.