Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Like a Freight Train: 2019 Afton 50K Race Report

I ran my third Afton 50K on Saturday. My PR there (6:38) was five years ago, and was a real high-water mark in my running career. Two years ago, I did it in 7:11, a run notable for a negative split and for having WAY more fun in the second half. This year, my training was pretty good (Chippewa 50k, 70 miles in 3 days at Western States Training Camp, most recently a back to back 18 mi/14 mi weekend), but I didn't think I had a new course PR in me. This was actually great news! It really took the pressure off. I had no time goal heading into the race, just the goal of having fun and enjoying the hell out of Afton, the entire way. As it turned out, I ran 7:17, stopping to help a sick runner along the way, had a grand time, finished strong, and accomplished every goal I had.
UMTR group picture, pre-race.
Photo: Fresh Tracks Media
After a brutal 3:15 am wake-up, three of us carpooled out, arriving early enough to get a coveted parking spot in Afton State Park, already a win. Check-in and pre-race was a blur of seeing trail friends, group pictures, squaring away a drop bag, almost forgetting to put on sunscreen. (Spoiler: Should have reapplied at the midpoint. I got a little rosy.) We lined up, John played Beastie Boys, I danced and laughed and any remaining nervousness fell away and never came back. Just like that, we were off.
Bob, Jon, and me, happy at the starting line.
Photo: John Stewart
By Afton standards, the weather was pretty moderate, with temperatures peaking around 81 degrees and lower humidity than sometimes. Nevertheless, when we climbed to the prairie around mile 2 and caught some breeze, it already felt good, and throughout the day, those unexpected little gusts of breeze were a life-saver on an otherwise sweaty course. I rolled through the first loop feeling good, trying to remember to eat as I went, high-fiving aid station volunteers, savoring the overcast early morning before the sun broke through.
Enjoying some early prairie miles.
Photo: Evan Roberts

Cranking on the rail-trail!
Photo: Fresh Tracks Media
By the time I finished the first 25K loop in 3:16 (just 12 minutes off my 25K PR! whatttt?), I was feeling a little tired, and definitely getting toasty. But hey, that's Afton. Dawn and the great aid station folks refilled my hydration pack, I replenished my snacks, and I headed out for loop 2. As I briefly ran with another runner heading out of the start/finish aid station, I commented, "Congratulations! We've done the hardest part of this race — starting the second loop!"
Finishing the first loop, waving to the photographer!
Photo: John Stewart
Although I was tired as I approached mile 20, I was pleased that I could still run nearly everything I'd run in the first loop — and on the downhills, always my strength, I was easily passing other runners. As the day warmed up, I started putting ice into my bladder at aid stations, and filled my buff with ice and put it around my neck. I left the aid stations feeling like I'd been packed in ice, and it was great. At about mile 23, near the bottom of a long, somewhat technical downhill, I passed a little group of three people. One had taken a fall and was reclined against a bank, looking dazed. The other two had stopped to help.
"Hi! I'm Robyn. What's your name?"
"... C," he mumbled softly. "What's your last name, C?" He mumbled his last name. Thank goodness for personalized race bibs. Okay, mildly confused, oriented times one.... "Hey, C, do you know what today's date is?" [long pause] "... no." "Do you know what this event is called?"
[long pause] "... no." I checked his pulse during this conversation. It was rapid and a bit thready — which might have been normal at mile 23, but the other runners told me he'd been sitting for at least 5 minutes at this point. I know the Afton race loop well, so it was easy to decide what to do next. "Okay! We're not too far from a gravel road where they can get a 4-wheeler. How do you feel about trying to walk out, C?" We stood him up, the runners who'd stopped each draped one of his arms over their shoulders and we started walking the rest of the descent, maybe 1/4 mile. God bless the running community — during this time, 10 or more runners had passed us, and every single one of them stopped and offered help in the form of ice, salt, water, food, and to run ahead to the aid station and send word that we needed a 4-wheeler. The runners who'd stopped had already sent word ahead to the next aid station, and someone with cell reception had called them as well. We didn't know it, but they were already mobilizing an EMT crew, as well as a 4-wheeler. I realized I hadn't introduced myself to the two heroic runners who had first stopped and were now walking him out. "By the way, I'm Robyn. I'm a doctor, but I'm a pathologist, but I also do race medic stuff. So, I can fix blisters and I can tell you why you died, but everything in between's a bit of a gray area." Despite this, we worked together to help troubleshoot; they'd started appropriate first aid before I even arrived. We reached the gravel rail-trail road and I thanked the runners profusely. They took off and I waited with C, helping him make phone calls to his family. In the next 10 minutes, help arrived in rapid succession: first, a hiker who brought food and company. Next, Mark, the nearest aid station captain, sprinting in with fresh ice. And finally, three 4-wheelers carrying John Storkamp and an EMT team. That's some awesome support. I gratefully handed C off to the EMTs. Shook hands with everyone who'd come to help. High-fived John. And took off. I didn't look at my watch during that interlude and wasn't using a GPS, but I'm guessing it was a 20-25 minute stop. However long it was, and whatever the reason, though, I felt unstoppable after that. I just got running again and suddenly, momentum was carrying me along for the whole remaining 8 miles. I rolled though the next aid station, where my friends volunteering had heard there'd been problems up-trail. "Hey, it's Dr. Reed! I hear you were delivering a baby out on the trail!" "Yes. That is exactly what I was doing. Well, okay, technically, Mark delivered the baby, but they named it after me."

The America-themed aid station (think lots of flags and bunting) sprang into action, packing me in ice and plying me with cold drinks, then kicking me out. I left at a run, yelling, "GOD BLESS AMERICA!" at them as they cheered me out. The next section started with a mile-plus of straight flat gravel rail-trail. Sometimes, this section can be the most mentally challenging of the course. This time, though? I cruised it, feeling like a freight train myself. Climbed the Meat Grinder, and rolled into the last aid station of the course.
Fresh Tracks Media makes us look more epic than we feel!
"Dr. Reed! How's it going?" "Aid Station 5! You are my FAVORITE aid station!" "Aw, I bet you said that to Aid Station 4, too." "No, I told them 'GOD BLESS AMERICA!' I love all my aid stations, but I love you the most." I grabbed more ice and a potato. 5k to the finish! On the last, humid, wooded leg of the course, I considered my time. I'd wondered, before stopping, if I could go sub-7 hours. Now, I was aiming for sub 7:30. Actually, I realized, it was going to be better than that. I kept passing runners as I climbed the final hill and started the final mile on the prairie. 7:20? Better yet — I hit the finish line after 7 hours and 17 minutes of worry free, joy-filled, purposeful time on the course.
Couldn't be happier at the finish!
Photo: Jamison Swift
Every race has stories. Every race has meaning. Every race has unexpected connections. This is one I'll remember for the welcome, unlooked-for sensation of strength deep into the race, for the lesson that I can run, and run strongly, even when I'm tired, for the relief that great medical support was so close to hand when we needed it, for the realization that after seven years of trail running, my trail family is family.

They're all good days, but this was a very, very good day.