It was a "classic" Afton Trail race day, with high temps near 90, humid air, and the ever-present alpine hills. Woo yeah!
I arrived early to pick up my race packet and number. Inside the center I said "Hi" to Keith Krone, then bumped into race director John Storkamp. On the way back to the car I introduced myself to Carl Gammon (very nice guy). I had time to kill before the actual race so I took some time to go relieve myself before the lines got long and later bumped into one of my brother's running buddies, Brad Birkholz.
Finally, it was go time. My pre-race strategy was this: start out slow for the first couple of miles, run a quick pace on the flats and downhills, walk the big hills, and make the most of the cool weather, because once it heats up your pace will suffer significantly, no matter how good you feel. My goal was to finish the race and shoot for a time of 6 hours.
As planned, I started out slowly near the back of the pack and settled into a nice groove. On the first big climb I came up on Zach Pierce. I introduced myself and we chatted a while about the Ice Age 50 and the fantastic pics his wife took there this year (some even of me!). After that climb, I started to work the gently rolling hills and flats of the Africa Loop. The Back 40 went by quickly and it was back to complete the Africa Loop. So far, so good. I was feeling strong, smooth, and quick.
Then it was off to do the Nigel's Hill loop.
The Nigel's Hill loop went by without a hitch and I was off and running along the 1-1/2 mile flat stretch along the St. Croix river up to the Meat Grinder. Oh yeah, the name of the hill lived up to its name. It just keeps gnawing at your quads until you finally reach the top. Brutal fun!! Still feeling solid, I scampered through the pine-filled sections leading up to the final aid station before the Snowshoe Loop. There I was greeted by Tom and Nancy, who refilled my bottle with HEED. I grabbed a Hammer Gel and was off to tackle the tricky singletrack section.
The Snowshoe loop has a few surprises in it, namely roots, rocks, and an occasional snake crossing the path. I was very careful to avoid all of these........most of the way. About 2/3rds of the way through on a descent, my foot kicked up a loose stick, which wedged itself between my legs. Before I knew it, I was sprawled out on my back in the trail with a raspberry on my right knee, another one on my back, as well as scratches on my left arm and back. Duh oh!! Fortunately, no real damage was done. I cursed at the stick and sped off.
Arriving at the half-way point in 2:37:00, the gals at the aid station saw my back and expressed concern for my well-being. I reassured them I was fine, grabbed some more HEED and Hammer Gel, along with a piece of watermelon while they graciously sponged the dirt off my trail-rashed back. Thanks ladies! Off to tackle loop two!!
So, up to this point, things were going great. I was sticking to my plan and it was working famously (except for the unexpected tumble, of course). I had completed the first 25km only 4 minutes slower than when I had raced the 25km at Afton in 2002. That 6-hour goal was looking very doable now. As I reached the top of the first climb up to the Africa loop, I noticed my stomach was starting to cramp up a bit and my fluids felt like they were sitting at the top of my throat. Oh NOES!! This can't be good. I slowed down and walked a bit, thinking it was just from the effort of climbing the hill. My stomach settled and off I went again. However, a few hundred yards later, the sick feeling returned. What the heck? I've never had problems like this before? What did I do differently? Then it hit me. At the past 3 or 4 aid stations I had taken an E-cap. I've never taken them before but I figured I'd try them out and see how they worked. Well, my question was answered.....not so hot.
I continued to struggle on, running as much as I could "stomach it". Finally, salvation came along in the form of Allan Holtz. I told him what was going on and he recommended some glucose mixture with water and a handful of walnuts. I took his advice, thanked him and set off. Sure enough, a few miles later my nausea went away and I got my legs back! Allan, you da man!!
Making decent time, I worked my way towards the aid station before at the start of the Nigel’s Hill loop. On my approach, I saw a runner with a large patch of dirt on his back and hobbling quite badly. As I got closer, I recognized the injured soldier as none other than Steve Quick . Oh no, this can’t be good. Me catching up to Steve at this point of the race? He must really be hurting. I overtook him before the aid station and asked if he was okay. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to ask him that and he was obviously not doing so well, but I asked anyway out of courtesy and respect. “Don’t ask what happened” he replied. I understood his frustration, given the bad luck he’s had this year with injuries. I shared my crash experience with him and continued to run along with him. We parted ways at the aid station but rejoined again at the base of the Nigel’s Hill climb following the flat section along the river.
This time Steve was more talkative. He informed me that he dislocated his hip during a fall. Holy crap, he’s running on a hip he dislocated?! Craziness!! He then told me how he had withdrawn from the race following his spill, but then reentered the race 10 minutes later, resolved to finish the race since the injury might cut his running career short. We continued to talk while he grimaced with almost every stride. “I’m okay on the flats” he remarked, “but it really hurts on the uphills and downhills.” At the base of the big climb, a runner came up on us and noticed our matching sets of “trail rash”. “Looks like you guys have been having too much fun” he quipped. “It’s a Steve thing” I smartly replied. Chuckling, he sped on. At that point, Steve decided to “get mad” at his pain and just push hard through the pain. We separated again at the top of Nigel’s Hill, only to briefly rejoin again just before the next aid station.
Steve pushed on through the aid station, while I took a minute to refuel and hydrate. Before I took off, along came the “Pink Lady”, Julie Berg. She was looking good and stopped only for a few seconds to grab an Espresso Hammer Gel before taking off to hunt Mr. Quick down. I followed shortly thereafter, running along the long flat stretch along the St. Croix for the second and final time. It was somewhat of a surreal experience for me that mile and a half stretch. You can see down the trail almost the entire length and here in front of me 25 miles into a 50 km race were two of Minnesota’s finest masters ultrarunners, Steve Quick and Julie Berg. Somehow I felt like I didn’t fit into this picture.
I managed a decent pace and ran the entire stretch leading up to the second ascent up the dreaded Meat Grinder. During that stretch I saw Julie catch and pass Steve. I managed to gain some ground on Steve, but never saw him again after that. The Meat Grinder chewed me up and spit me out. By now, the heat was in full force since it was nearly noon. I struggled my way to the final aid station, walking stretches to get my heart rate down out of the red zone. I lumbered in to Tom and Nancy’s oasis. “You’ve only got 3 miles to go!” Nancy said encouragingly. “If you run 10-minute miles you’ll be at the finish in half an hour.” I looked at my watch. 5:24:00. If I wanted to make it in 6 hours, I was going to have to run 12-minute miles. That meant no walking except for the big climbs and that felt like a daunting task considering I had been walking some of the small rises the past couple of miles. “Screw it!” I thought to myself. “It’s only 3 miles. Just keep running until you can’t anymore. There’s no use saving anything in the tank now.” I thanked Tom and Nancy for working the aid station after gulping down a couple of cokes and set off to attack the Snowshoe Loop.
Surprisingly, I was able to maintain a decent pace and rhythm through the winding singletrack. The shade of the wooded sections were a relief and I continued to press on towards the finish. I emerged from the narrow paths and passed underneath the bridge still going strong. “I just might make it now,” I thought. “Gotta keep pushing and bring it on home!” The final big climb out of the woods forced me to walk, but for the last time of the race. Once I crested it I was in hammer mode and put the pedal to the metal. Determined and focused I pounded my way across the grassy fields along the wide path. I could see the clock up ahead “5:59:00”. I was going to make it…..at least close enough! Out of breath, I broke the finish line with the clock showing 6:00:15. WHEW!! Great finish!! I was happy with the way I ran and met my goals of finishing the race in 6 hours.
A special thanks to John Storkamp and the volunteers who did an absolutely amazing job organizing and running the race. The aid stations were well-run and well-stocked, and the volunteers were extremely helpful. In addition, the awards and race shirts were nothing short of jawdroppingly awesome! I’ve got Afton fever bad now, and plan to spend as many Saturdays as I can now training its beautiful, but beastly hills.
Happy trails, y’all!!
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