Monday, July 7, 2014

Afton Trail Run 50K 2014 Race Report

Executive summary:

50K in 6:38:49 on a warm, windy, hilly course. About 35 minutes faster than my "A" goal, and only 10 minutes off my 50K PR. 23rd of 55 women -- my first finish ever in the top 50%! So much sunshine, breeze, and unexpected joy. One of those runs that left me absurdly, inarticulately happy.
This sums it up well. Credit: Afton Trail Run

Prologue: Time to Learn Something New

Every time I run the Afton loop, I learn something new about myself. There's a lot to challenge a runner out there. It's hilly (2300 feet of ascent and 2300 of descent in a 25K loop). It's got open prairie, wooded singletrack, steep climbs (one's called "The Meat Grinder") and descents, and a lethal stretch of long, straight, level railbed along the river. There's sunshine, cool shade, a little sand, plenty of mosquitoes.
I signed up for Afton this year instead of volunteering again because I wanted a hot, hilly, long run before committing to Voyageur 50 Mile later this month. I've been running with a coach for the last 5 weeks: David Roche, with Some Work, All Play. It's been a great way to add some intensity and speed into my run, mostly in the form of pickups and hill sprints. It's a kind of suffering I wouldn't undertake on my own.

Key workouts in the four weeks between Chester Woods and Afton included a tough session of 200m hill strides, short strides or hill sprints after most runs, and a back-to-back weekend with the 25K Afton loop with pickups, and the next day a 14-mile trail run with 4 miles hard, then 1 mile hard, then hill sprints. That one took some recovery! But by race day, I was feeling well rested, healthy, and ready to see what the day brought.

I really wasn't sure what the day would bring. Based on a 25K loop at Afton back in April, McMillan claimed I could run a 7:13 50K... but the temperature that day had been in the 50s. So, with the forecast 20+ degrees warmer, I decided to make 7:13 my pie-in-the-sky "A" goal. My "B" goal was to beat my Superior time of 7:41. My "C" goal was to finish happy, and avoid heatstroke and injury.

Loop 1: Among Friends

I was at Afton by 5:30 and saw lots of familiar faces directing parking, managing packet pickup, and otherwise making thing run smoothly. The sun was up and it was about 70 degrees, with a promise of sunshine and high temperatures in the low 80s.
Rather cool by Afton standards. But still hot.
Lots of friends at the start line. John's pre-race briefing included asking, "Who's doing their first ultra?" Lots of hands went up. So cool! "Who's done Afton five times?" Lots more hands. "Ten times?" A couple of hands. Without much further ado, a countdown, and we're off!

Last instructions and encouragement from the race director
Ready to run!
About 200-250 of us headed out for the 50K. A jog down the gravel road quickly turned into a power hike up to the "Africa" loop, a big open section of prairie.
Beautiful morning for a run.
Along here, I joined up with Harriet, who I knew from several other runs, but had never run a significant distance with before. We'd last met at Zumbro, recovering from hypothermia after a crazy thunderstorm. Our paces seemed to match, and we kept going together, talking about kids, books, summer vacation, and whatever else came to mind.

The loop flew by. Soon we'd run the Back 40 and finished the Africa Loop, climbed Northern Hill and descended again, and along the way picked up Arika and Kevin. They'd met at the Savage 100 race earlier in the year, when Kevin was attempting his first 100 (he made it 80 miles! Badass) and Arika was the "Crazy Aid Station Lady." Together, we worked on talking Kevin into running Icebox 480 in November. Arika slowed down after Northern Hill, but Kevin, Harriet, and I climbed Campground Hill together, ran through the campground and down the hill, and hit the long, flat, straight river road section. A few fast 25K runners started passing up as we climbed Campground Hill. They were flying!

I loved running the open prairie sections on this loop. It wasn't hot yet, but the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and it was a beautiful place to be. Didn't take many pictures, but the few I have capture the big, open sky and abundant sunshine.

The river section is a little over a mile, and mentally, it's hard to keep going. It's flat, so you feel you should run it, but I always have to bargain with myself on it. This time, Harriet pushed the pace, running steadily and a little faster than I would have. I kept thinking about stopping and walking, but I stuck with her and Kevin -- they were good company! I worried a little about whether I would later regret going faster than planned, but it felt okay. Just took more focus.
The view didn't change for a very long time (it seemed).
We reached the end, where it was a relief (!) to turn up onto the Meat Grinder and walk, and I said, "Thank you for pulling me! No way I would have gone that fast on my own!" To my surprise, Harriet and Kevin swore they wouldn't have either. What happened there? Oh well, onward we go.

The Snowshoe loop was beautiful singletrack, and much more lush and green than I remembered. Kevin had pulled ahead. Despite being passed by many 25Kers, we made good time through it and were soon heading through the open prairie, uphill to the start/finish line.

As we approached the start/finish, the race clock read 3:11. My previous PR on the loop (a single loop!) was 3:24. "Oh, shit," I said to Harriet. "This is either going to be really great, or really, really bad."

Loop 2: Really great, or really, really bad?

At the start/finish, I hit the bathroom, re-loaded snacks and water, and put on more sunblock. "Ready to go?" asked Harriet. "I guess I am!" I said. We headed out. I didn't look at the time, but we spent 5-10 minutes at the start/finish.

Loop 2 was getting warmer, and the Africa loop and Back 40 felt slower this time. We stopped at the aid stations for cold wet sponges. I drank water and started drinking Heed and Coke and eating salty potatoes. Coming out of the Back 40, I was a little queasy but things settled down as we walked the climb back up to the Africa loop.

"I love this section," announced Harriet as we ran the Africa loop. I looked around. The sky was huge and perfectly blue. The air was dry and the breeze ruffled the tall lush grass and carried away fatigue and soreness. The trail stretched ahead and we were moving steadily. Some days the Africa loop is a struggle for me. But today, I found I loved it too. 
So much sunshine.
Maybe it's because I know the course well, but everything just seemed doable, even though we were many miles and hours into the run. I enjoyed running the downhills. I could run the flats without suffering. I could hike the hills. It all just felt fine. I kept waiting for something to stop working, and assumed that it would at some point... but it never did. Wow.

Harriet and I got to the river road again. We hadn't been talking much, just focusing on moving along steadily. We ran the river road. No conversation, but we were moving. We passed people. I focused on the shade, the breeze, the steady rhythm of my breathing. It took concentration. My right hamstring tried to cramp up and I took more S-caps. At last, we reached the end of the road. I was inarticulate but joyful. "Damn. Wow. Shoot. We did it. That was amazing," I said. Once again, we'd run it faster than either of us had planned, or would have done alone.

At the top of the Meat Grinder, I ventured my opinion: "I think we're going to make it!" "Of course we are!" she agreed. "I think we're doing pretty well," I elaborated. "I was thinking that if I PR'd this, I might do Voyageur," she said.

Just before the Snowshoe loop, the amazing people at Aid Station 5 pulled out all the stops for us. What other sport has so many volunteers who are incredible badasses in their own right? Multiple-time Barkley racer Alan squeezed ice water over my neck and back. Christy, who has won every ultra she's entered this year (and saved me from hypothermia at Zumbro), filled my hat with ice. John, who's run dozens of hundred-milers and never gets injured, draped a cold wet towel over Harriet's shoulders. I drank ice water, Heed, and Coke. We ran out onto the last 5K of the course refreshed and renewed. I couldn't believe how good I suddenly felt.

Snowshoe loop flew by. Harriet and I stuck together for the first half, and then I began pulling ahead. I passed a few people. I ran with a few others and encouraged them. Landmarks ticked by, one by one. Suddenly, I was out on the prairie, climbing the last hill, running the last, always unexpectedly long section along the road to the finish line.

There it was. The finish line clock said 6:38. I could hardly believe it. I crossed the mat, grinning from ear to ear. Again, words failed me. "Wow. Damn. Holy crap. I can't believe it."

Two minutes behind me, Harriet charged in, looking amazing. I cheered like a crazy person. We shared a sweaty hug. "What was your PR?" I asked her. I couldn't remember if she'd told me. "Um, THAT!" she said, pointing to the clock.
Who needs words?

Epiloge: Damn. Wow. Holy crap. And other deep thoughts.

So, yeah. This was a breakthrough run for me. I performed far better than I imagined I could, in hot conditions, on a difficult course. So many things went well.

Working with a coach: I know we've only been doing this for a month, but, um, I think it's working. Whether it was physiological or psychological, I always felt like I could keep going at a greater intensity than I would have believed possible. I blame all those hill sprints.

Hydration and nutrition: Lots of people who dropped or had a tough race did so because it was hot (even if low 80s is cool by Afton standards). Whether by luck or practice, my combination of Larabars, Picky Bars, Gu, Shot Bloks, salty potatoes, and S-caps (plus water, Heed, and Coke) worked well for me. I dropped my two Roctanes at some point on loop 2, which was sad, but I always felt well fed and fueled.

One thing that went very, very well: all the fantastic people who made this happen. So many volunteers cleared the trail, marked and swept the course, checked us in, kept us all fed, hydrated, and cool (I'm looking at you, Aid Station 5!), and provided medical support and more great food at the finish line. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Race directors John and Cherie Storkamp put on incredibly well organized, challenging, fun races, every single time. My husband, when I told him my time said, "That's badass! Hey, at this rate, you'll be winning your age group by the time you're your mom's age!" (And I think he meant it.) My kids manage to live without me every Saturday morning when I run long.

Finally: I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) have gone this fast without my race friend Harriet to pull me along the hard parts and share my joy in the good parts. Thank you. It was a little piece of race day magic.
A moment of bliss. Credit: Ninja Runners


  1. Well done Robyn! You had a great day on Saturday. Thanks for the great race report too,

  2. What a great, wonderful post! Well done!

  3. Congratulations on an incredible race! It was a joy to read this tale of your race and new friendship. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. This was a great post! You've made me more confident about doing my first Afton Trail Run next Saturday. Thank you!