Monday, July 29, 2013

A pictorial guide to Afton (late July edition)

Running at Afton consistently challenges me. With its beautiful, challenging 25K (15.5 mile) loop, varied terrain, and opportunities for steep climbs, semi-technical descents, and a little curvy singletrack thrown in at the end, my runs there always seem epic.

Early Saturday morning, I ran most of the loop -- all but the Snowshoe Loop portion, the last 5K or so. Probably 13.5-ish miles overall. I was tired. (Overtraining? Not enough carbs?) It was challenging. It was easier to stop and walk and take pictures than to run in good style. But the glory of the scenery, and the day, and the experience of a cool, breezy, mid July morning overwhelmed anything negative about this run.

It was glorious.

5:30 am start. I've never seen the sky look quite like this before. First car in the Visitors' Center parking lot. 
Still a little dark at the start, but navigable.
Can you believe we're already a month past midsummer?
A perfect morning for an INKnBURN tech shirt and armwarmers.
The loop covers much of the park, beginning by skirting the Afton Alps ski area and climbing up to a big area of restored prairie, the Africa loop.
I saw at least 11 deer, all over the park, and a startled but dignified wild turkey.

Shortly after photographing this deer, I passed another, much closer.
She (? no antlers) snorted at me -- a sound like a soft sneeze -- then trotted away.
The prairie wildflowers were in full bloom. Everywhere you looked, there were flowers and waist to chest-high prairie grass. It was cool and breezy (55 degrees, no humidity). It felt good to be out breathing the sweet air.
 I turned off on the rocky descent to the Back 40 loop.
The Back 40 is one of my favorite areas. It's a little, wooded loop with moderate terrain and constantly changing scenery. I climbed the steps:
Sun still wasn't quite up, so blurry pics with flash turned off
I passed the Kissing Trees:
 I marveled at how overgrown some of the open areas were, just a couple weeks after hundreds of runners came through during the Afton Trail Run.
The trail follows a brief stretch along Trout Brook...
... then climbs back up to the prairie of the Africa loop. It was overcast and still cool, but I'd taken my sleeves off by now.
A few miles of rolling prairie trails
After the Africa/Back 40 loop (and after a brief excursion the wrong way down the gravel road), there's a gravel road climb to the Northern Hill. The climb begins gently, then gets steep, then suddenly you turn off the road at the northern reach of the park and are in open meadows once again. At this point, the clouds began to clear and there were flashes of brilliant sunlight. It was about 7 a.m.

The remains of an old farm are up here, including some old tools.
Might be my favorite picture from this run. Look at that lighting!
Rebuilt gate posts from the farmstead:
 It's a lonely spot for a farm, but that's a heck of a view across the St. Croix river into Wisconsin.
Up at Northern Hill I saw my first human of the morning, a man who had hiked up to enjoy his breakfast in the lean-to shelter by the farm tools. I didn't see anyone else for quite a while, but by the end of my run I'd seen a few pairs of runners and two larger groups.

I  made a small navigational error coming down Northern Hill, and ended up on the un-maintained trail (that dotted line with the black diamond on the map) instead of the trail used in the race loop. It was a fun, technical, occasionally washed-out descent!
Washed out gully on the left, detour on the right heading over the downed tree.
 It led down to one of the river beaches. A little brisk for a swim, but it does look inviting.
The river was quiet, but I did see one boat with a couple of fishermen.
 A brief straight level stretch along the river brings you across this bridge, then down and around to climb Campground Hill.
 Campground Hill is a series of steep, gravelly climbs separated by more moderate slopes. I think it and the Meat Grinder are the two toughest hills in the loop, though the climb out of the Snowshoe Loop is always surprising (to me), so also mentally tough.

Today, I walked all of Campground Hill, but was rewarded by a close encounter with a doe and fawn, halfway up the hill.
These two crossed back and forth on the path a couple of times, very close to me.
 The last part of the climb up Campground Hill is through a pine forest, then it opens out into meadows.
The obligatory "It's steeper than it looks" picture. Really, it's steep.
 Campground Hill had a fair number of campers. The sites are placed in clusters all along the trail and as I ran through the increasing sunshine, I smelled wood smoke and cooking bacon, and saw campers emerging in hats and fleece. I was going to photograph the campground water pump, where I usually stop to refill, but there was a family using it and I didn't want to bother them. I had enough water, so I kept going, and headed back down the hill.

The next segment is along the river, completely flat, and completely straight. The map indicates it's just over a mile long, but it feels much, much longer.

Out of fairness, it's beautifully shaded, has nice views of the river, and is very very runnable. But after 10+ miles of climbs and descents, it's hard to persuade your body to run that long, or to run fast.

It goes on...
... and on and ON...
... until you reach the turn leading into Meat Grinder Hill.
A sight any Afton runner probably recognizes!
Meat Grinder is a steep climb, though the first part is steepest. It carries you back out to grass and restored prairie. From here, the trail hooks south and goes into the Snowshoe Loop, 5K of winding singletrack in the woods, then slightly-less winding singletrack through the prairie heading back to the start/finish across from the Visitors' Center.

I was running low on time and had no gas in the tank. It was a stupendous day, but it was time to head back and eat something. So I headed back more directly toward the Visitors' Center, through the prairie.

The clouds had largely cleared away and the sun was strong and bright. It was about 9 a.m.
I couldn't believe this sky and this sunlight. It was so pure, and crisp, and big.
What an amazing day.
Just glorious.

I'm going to take it easy this week, eat some more carbs, sleep more and stretch a lot. Every time I come to Afton, it challenges me in a new way. I want to come back ready to run its trails with strength and joy.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Endless Summer Murphy 10K Race Report (or, A Negative Split and Nobody Died. Epic Win!)

I'd hardly gotten back from the whirlwind New England drop kids off/visit family/run a half marathon trip when it was another Wednesday race day!  It was time for the third of four races in the Endless Summer Trail Run Series!  This one was at Murphy-Hanrehan Regional Park, continuing the summer theme of "races at parks I've never visited but should".  Murphy is the site of the late-season Surf the Murph 25K, 50K, and 50 mile races and next spring will host the first 100 miler in the Twin Cities metro area, the Savage 100.  Mark your calendar for that one.

So maybe you've noticed it was hot last week.  Here in Minnesota, on the East Coast, in fact most of the country... if you don't count the Olympic Peninsula, with all those barefoot/minimalist running bloggers clogging it up (see what I did there?).  So, yeah, hot.  As I drove down the highway toward Murphy, the temperature was 95 degrees.  With a dew point in the high 60s, the heat index was 100 or so.  (You live here, you get good with the weather jargon.  It's a survival skill).  But no worries!  Once I turned onto the park access road the temperature, per my car, plummeted to 92 degrees.  Refreshing!  I carried a handheld with Nuun and wore my hottest hot-weather gear: INKnBURN camisole and shorts, and my super-secret, sun-defeating ZombieRunner hat.

Parked close to the start line, doused myself with bug spray (hoping to fend off all the horseflies and mosquitoes I couldn't outrun), peed in the woods by the parking lot.  There were porta potties but there was a line, and hey, if you can't pee in public at a trail race, where can you pee in public?

After the usual pre-race briefing (with a side of "Yes, it's only a 10K. You should still carry water. Don't be stupid.") and a little group cheering
(Credit: Endless Summer Trail Run Facebook page)
...we counted down and were off.

A glance at the map before the race revealed that the course was two 5K loops.  I decided, after a memorable bonk at the last Endless Summer race, to run with one goal only (aside from all those "don't" goals, like "don't get heatstroke"): I wanted to run a negative split.

We took off onto rolling, double-wide dirt trails through the woods.  Aside from a short stretch of singletrack just before the halfway point, and a few short wooden boardwalks, the whole trail was rolling hills, up and down, not much flat.  Fun!  Though I think a few of them got higher the second time around.

With my negative-split goal in mind, I took the first loop easy.  Really easy.  Walked the uphills, jogged the downhills (there weren't many flats), any time I got the urge to go faster I reminded myself: Negative split.  Got to the self-serve water station at the halfway point and everything felt pretty good.  By this time, the crowd had thinned out to a surprising degree, I think a combination of my leisurely pace and the smaller crowd at this race (200-ish runners, instead of 300+ at the others).  Whatever the reason, I had a lot of time on the trail to myself, unusual for a short race.  I found myself enjoying my thoughts, the scenery, the trail.  Occasionally I would pass another runner back and forth, but it felt a lot like an evening's run in the woods, rather than a race.

After a final climb, I heard cheering and rounded a corner to the finish line/aid station area.  At the completion of my first 5K loop, the clock read 37:45.  Yup, looked auspicious for a negative split, all right!

Just as I came into the aid station (drinking water and ice-water sponges!), the first finishers charged up the finish chute.  I stopped and cheered with everyone else for these speedy guys who ran the course TWICE as fast as I did.  What an amazing achievement on a hot night.

Then, doused myself with an ice cold sponge, and headed back down the trail at about 38:15.

Second loop was even quieter than the first.  But I had my mind on that negative split.  No need to run much faster than the first time (I did want to meet those "don't get heatstroke" goals), but bring it in a little faster.  I still walked the big hills, but ran everything else.  Picked up some speed in the second half of the loop and passed a few people, though I still had most of the trail to myself.  As I neared the finish line, I could tell I still had a little gas in the tank.  Picked it up some more and came through the finish line in 1:16:18.

I staggered around and attacked the bucket of ice-water sponges.  After I caught my breath and cooled off a bit, I did some running-addled math: Second split was 76:18 minus 38:15 or so... uhhh.... just over 38 minutes!  Negative split accomplished!  I was delighted.  By no means a fast 10K, but I paced it correctly, got my negative split, and no heatstroke.  An epic win!
Sweaty but happy at the finish!
It was great to be done with the Whole30 and enjoy a cold beer.  I wandered around and saw some friends.  Some were running.  The smart ones were volunteering.

John, King of the Merch Table and volunteer extraordinaire. This man knows 28 different ways to wear a Buff, and can demonstrate them all in under 60 seconds.
Bob, selflessly volunteering a week after a grueling DNF at the Leadville 50. Thanks!
Jim, just a few weeks out from a huge PR at the Black Hills 100k. Another great volunteer!
Bill, loyal volunteer and S-cap dealer
I volunteered at Afton with Mary Beth, but she was running tonight.
Amy had just run the Curnow Trail Marathon, survived the powerlines (twice!) and still ran a great race at Murphy!
The Arnold Palmer strikes again!
This was a fun race.  The after-race party was great, and I won a TC Running Company visor as a door prize.  I also won an entry to next month's race from them.  Thanks, TCRC!  An awesome race sponsor.  As the clock approached 8:30, I gathered up my schwag and headed home.  The last stop of the night?  A late-night dinner at Gandhi Mahal with the husband.  There's nothing like hot vindaloo on a hot night, and everything tasted great after the run!

This was another great summer race.  I can't believe there's only one left -- Lebanon Hills in August.  I'm really enjoying these weeknight runs and look forward to more.  What a great way to enjoy warm (and occasionally HOT) summer nights.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Old Port Half Marathon Race Report (or, An Excellent 4 Mile Run with a 9 Mile Cool Down)

Every summer, I take the boys to visit my parents in Vermont. They spend a week at "summer camp" on Lake Fairlee, they swim, they ride in the boat, they build things with my dad, and big times are had.

This year, we scheduled it to coincide with the Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon in Portland, Maine. A trip to New England and a half marathon with my mother? What could be better?
My mom's a badass. She started running when she was 51 and has done a marathon and a bunch of half marathons. Including one with a broken arm in a sling. BAD. ASS.
So, after a quick visit to Vermont (and a glorious 5 miles around their lake), we headed off to Portland. We arrived Saturday afternoon with just enough time to check in to our AirBnb place a couple miles from the starting line, scope out the start/finish area and parking, and eat stupendous tacos at El Rayo. (The roasted veggie one was particularly mind blowing). The air was cool and crisp, we wandered around the Eastern Promenade a bit, and then off to bed early. Like, 8:30 early. It was awesome.

Race morning! Up at 5:30 after a mostly-decent night's sleep. Coffee provided by our gracious hostess Martha, Mom had a PB&J sandwich on a hot dog bun (hey, I guess if it works...), I had two hard boiled eggs, leftover roasted cauliflower and carrots, a handful of almonds and half a sweet potato. Got dressed, messed around with water bottles and snacks, and out the door by 6:20 or so.

It was a quick drive down to the starting line at the Ocean Gateway Terminal, and parking was free, close by, and super easy. Yay! Huge plus for this race. I did hear traffic got worse a little later in the morning, but we parked like rockstars.

Check-in had been available the previous two days at a local running store, but only from 4-7 Friday and 10-2 Saturday (too bad, we would have loved to check in Saturday late afternoon). But race day check-in was easy and efficient, and the lines moved fast -- even the line for the (very civilized, indoor) bathroom! There were also several dozen porta-potties and the line for those also seemed to move well.

The view from the starting line was pretty awesome.
Tugboats to the west...

... rising sun and piers to the east.
It was already pretty warm by the 7:30 start -- I would guess 70 degrees, but with a little breeze in the air. The sky was clear and nearly cloudless. It was going to be a beautiful day, as long as you didn't mind a little strong sunshine and heat (yes, this is dramatic foreshadowing).
Colorful, well shaded, well organized starting line.
The race started a few minutes late, and we were off! The route goes through some incredibly scenic areas of Portland -- first west to the Western Promenade (high bluffs with mansions and beautiful neighborhoods), then east to the Eastern Promenade (similar, even better views), up around the Back Cove, and back to the start.
The one downside to the course is that stretch in between the start and the Western Promenade, along Commercial Street. Long stretch of flat paved road, full sun, and you get to run it twice. It's right along the waterfront, which is nice, but there's traffic on either side of the marked-off path, it's pretty hot, and some of the waterfront businesses handle fish, so the smell, especially at the west end, was not so great.

Pretty soon, though, we were climbing the Western Promenade and taking in the awesome views and water and Gatorade at the well-staffed water stop.
Great day for a run!
It was a mile or so later, around the 4 mile mark, that the sun, the heat, and the fact that Mom hadn't run more than 5 miles at a stretch for six weeks (Achilles/plantar injury) began to take their toll. We took some more frequent walk breaks and focused on running the downhills. Soon, we were back on Commercial Street, heading the other way.

The next leg of the run climbs up to the Eastern Promenade, one of the most scenic parts of Portland. We tried a little more running, but eventually settled into a good steady walk. After a great first 4 miles, it was clear that it wasn't Mom's day to run a great half marathon.
Still felt pretty good, though. Dig the sharp INKnBURN gear!
Oh, hey, did I mention that Old Port provides race photos for FREE? Another BIG plus for this race!
Eastern Promenade has some pretty glorious views too.
We tried hard not to violate the speed limit.
After a cruise along the bluffs, the course drops to near water level again and runs along the coast, up and around the Back Cove. There was a section with two-way running traffic and it was fun to cheer on the speedy folks coming back from their trip around the cove.

The views weren't bad here either.
You don't see a fully rigged schooner every day.
Back Cove was a 3.5 mile, flat, crushed-limestone path around a big round cove. Quiet, by the time we got there. Peaceful. Nice place for a walk.
Most of it looked like this...
... though we also passed the baked bean factory!
Then back onto the two-way trail for the last mile and a half. We were ready to be done! We'd already been out longer than we expected to. I was glad I'd brought a bag of dates and a Larabar, and wished I had some S-caps. Mom was still eating Shot Bloks, but told me her stomach felt full and sloshy -- I think she could have used some S-caps too.

Instead of climbing back up to Eastern Promenade, the return route goes along a railroad grade at sea level. A nice flat finish! We broke into a jog as we approached the finish area, and finished together with a time of 3:20. Not bad for a splendid 4 mile run and a leisurely 9 mile cool down!

The post-race party was a good one. Lots of pizza, two (pretty good) beers per finisher, coconut water, Kind bars. There was ice cream, but only banana flavor when we got there... meh. Live music, cool age group awards (boat buoys), and a really nice finisher's medal. Oh, the race shirt was pretty cool as well.
Good color, good fit. $12 extra -- good if you don't need another race shirt
This was a very well run race. I was especially impressed by the volunteers, who were numerous and who were doing good work at the water stops and the many turnings the course took. They were also cheering, encouraging, and thanking the runners for being there. There were firefighters cheering in front of a fire house near the Western Promenande, and around mile 12, some of them had opened a fire hydrant and were spraying water that runners could go through to cool off. Race support was pretty good -- water stops every two miles or so. One (mile 11) ran out of water, but the rest were well stocked and the volunteers were very helpful.

Would I do this race again? If I were guaranteed a cool, overcast day, I'd do it for sure. The scenery was great, the support was good, the shirt and medal were great, and it was fun. Plus, I love having an excuse to visit Portland, which is a great city. But after this and the Minnesota Half Marathon, I'm thinking maybe half marathons in July are asking for trouble, for runners who don't love the heat. Maybe I'll stick with shorter runs or trail runs in the woods during summer months next year.

It was great to run with my mom. All the races we've done together have been really special, and it's always a joy to run with her. As someone who came late to the running party, she runs with a special joy in every step. It's great to share that energy. I hope we can do another one soon. Maybe the Polar Dash would be cool enough?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Afton 25K/50K Trail Run Volunteer Report

When I was planning my running season, I considered running Afton. I even briefly considered doing the 50K as my first ultra, before settling on the Spring Superior 50K. But its reputation for heat and humidity (it IS in July, after all) was a bit of a deterrent, so when a running friend mentioned that he always volunteered at Afton instead of running it, it sounded like the perfect solution. A chance to be out there on race day, to see all the local runners doing the race, and to begin to pay back the incredible volunteers who made my races this spring so great.

So on Saturday morning, I got up bright and early.
Okay, not so bright. But definitely early.
Threw some hard-boiled eggs and roasted veggies into the car, grabbed my water, snacks, sunblock, hat, and sunglasses, and out the door by 4 to get to Afton by 4:45.

There wasn't much traffic on the way there (go figure!), but things were already bustling at the Visitors' Center. John and Cheri Storkamp and an army of volunteers had already been out at Afton for days getting things ready. The trail was marked and checked, tents and equipment were up at the start/finish area, tables were set up for check-in, timing chips and bibs and T-shirts were sorted and ready to go. There was even fresh coffee. Working at registration, I felt like I was jumping into a well choreographed dance.

About 8 of us worked registration, first for the 50Kers, then the 25Kers. I handed out T-shirts. And saw lots of friends from Lebanon Hills, Zumbro, Superior, and the Endless Summer races. So much fun to work in a spot where you can see everyone!
Way down on the end. Photo by Todd Rowe.
 By the time the last 25Ker had come through (two minutes before race start! Hope you had a good race, Gale!), it was 7:30. We broke down the registration area, put things back in boxes, folded up tables, put the Visitors' Center back together. A quick snack at the car (hey, when you get there at 4:45, you get rockstar parking), and down to the start/finish area to help out there.

Start/finish area. All the runners are out on the course. It got WAY busier later!
Finish line area -- the last part of the race is across that prairie.
Timekeepers, ham radio operators, and race officials working in the tent.

50K aid station and drop bags. The fastest 50Kers were
just coming through the first of two loops. 
 I helped set up for the after-race picnic. It was a pretty good spread -- burgers (meat and veggie), chips, aid-station snacks (brought in as the aid stations closed), drinks, and watermelon.

Two 50-gallon containers of watermelon. That's a LOT of watermelon.

Amy was a watermelon-butchering machine. She cut up
watermelon for HOURS. And it went fast!

Cooking burgers on the prairie. That's an industrial-strength
fan on the right, blowing the smoke and heat away.
Mary Beth and I set up the drinks. Water, lemonade, iced tea, and our personal touch, Arnold Palmers (half lemonade, half iced tea).
The Arnold Palmer went fast.
Once the runners started getting back in (fastest 25K runner finished in under 1:40! Blazing!), things began to get busy. I appointed myself the master of the drinks, and keeping all the containers full was, for a while, a full-time job. And hauling around those 7-gallon carboys of water was excellent physical therapy for the elbow!
Time to make the lemonade. Photo by Todd Rowe.
I also located ice, found chairs, hauled boxes, cheered for finishing runners, and saw lots of friends who were running or volunteering.

By the time I had to leave at noon (gotta get home to the boys), the post-race party was in full swing for many, some of the early finishers were heading home, and the slower 50Kers were still out on the course, some of them for several more hours. The thermometer in my car read 90 degrees, and the sky, which had started out cloudy, was clearing up. You could feel the humidity rising. It wasn't the hottest Afton ever, but it was hot enough. All the runners out there have my respect. It was an epic day to run the Afton trails.

Volunteering at Afton was a great experience. I was really glad to be able to give some time and energy to making such a great race possible. I was really impressed by the incredible amount of work that went into making this day as perfect as possible for the runners, and by the amount of time and energy many of the volunteers (and the race directors) gave to this race. 

Trail running really is a pretty special thing. A group of like-minded people come together in a remote place, build an entire, temporary village dedicated to a single purpose, give everything they have to that goal of running 25K or 50K, or beating a personal best, or placing in the top 20... and then pick it all back up, pack it into a truck, and head home till the next one. 

Thanks, everyone, for the great day. And congratulations to all the runners! See you next year!