“Are you two running a marathon or something?” the clerk asked as we placed our goodies on the counter. “Or something,” my wife responded.
We arrived at Afton Alps to find pre-race goings-on in full swing. Packet pick up swamped, and the family of one of my running friends had been there since about 5 am staffing it. My friend’s wife and daughter were volunteering throughout the day and he was running the 50K. Naturally, he was still asleep while they doled out race numbers and swag bags.
My parents were coming down from St. Cloud to crew and watch. It was the first time they had been to one of my races since my first ultra in the spring of 2009, and my wife and I needed someone there because we were both running.
Eventually, we were herded to the informal start. There was no line, just a general understanding of where we all should stand. Race Director John Storkamp stood on a ladder and explained why we were here instead of at the adjacent state park. He advised us to stick to our proper switchbacks, and to not cross over onto another of the same. Then he commented that some of the volunteers who were flagging the route could not run one loop of a course of which we were about to run four.
No one had any idea about what we were to undertake. I could see the slopes to my right and scanned the hill for flags or course markers. I saw none. It never occurred to me that I might be going up to that peak three times that day.
Without warning, Storkamp said “Go!” There was no ready, set, etc. Just go. And we took off.
I jogged slowly in the front of the scrum, trying to find my place in the pack. The first few miles of an ultra are always weird. Inevitably, someone runs too fast, and I have been known to do the same on several occasions. It’s hard to pick a pace and stick to it when you’re going to be running for the next several hours and people around you are going at a certain comfortable speed. It’s even harder when their comfortable pace is comfortable to you, at least for the time being.
I tucked in behind the eventual women’s winner and one other person who was trailing her. I knew we were moving fast, but the pace felt competitive and sustainable. I knew that she was fast, and I usually place at or near the first woman, so I stayed with her as long as I could. The first 4.25 miles of the course was generally held on single track mountain bike trails, and there was a scaled-down aid station (water, gels, and ice were its only supplies) about two miles in.
I stayed with the eventual winner of the women’s race until the first big hill. She ran fast, fast, fast up the hill and jogged what reduced me to a walk. There was nothing I could do but let her go. I went back and forth with a runner I knew from other races. “The third lap is going to be a killer.” he said. I hope he wasn’t right.
I hit the first aid station and dumped all of my water, replacing it with HEED instead and added a little ice to keep my body temp down.
The latter chunk of the lap was almost the same as the first – single track on switchbacks and through wooded areas, or running from one trail to the next through mowed swaths of grass.
But the hills! The switchbacks went up, sure, but the climbs were a less dramatic, curving run. But the slopes went up, up and up some more. There were three major climbs, all of which took place in the last three miles of the loop.
The second and third climbs demoralized runners. On the second climb, you can see runners adjacent to you but on a separate path running down to finish. When you get to the top, you run down and realize that although you are 100 yards to the finish line as the crow flies, you need to climb up to the top again so that you can run down and see racers heading up that second climb.
I came across the first lap in approximately 1:15. I knew at that point that a 5-hour finish was likely out of the question - it was simply unrealistic given how difficult the course was.
I started to put ice under my hat at the start of lap two. At the aid stations, I grabbed a chunk out of the five-gallon buckets of ice water. Into and under the hat it went, and I ended up smashing it down and distributing it around the top of my head.
I never much felt the melting ice water trickle down my head. Much of it was wicked out onto the bill of my cap and escaped off the corners in non-stop drips. But I could tell that the ice was working if only because my head felt drier and hotter when the ice ran out.
The second lap went similar to the first, but this time the 25K runners had started just about 10 minutes before I finished my first lap. It would be struggle to get around them on the single track. Most obliged my requests to pass.
I came across the second lap in approximately 1:21. I had slowed a few minutes, but I felt good. I knew I couldn’t keep that pace, but I needed to try.
My parents were waiting for me at the aid station at the start/finish, like they always had been. They had been great about making sure I was getting gels and salt tablets in me, and they asked all the right questions.
It’s funny when exhaustion starts to creep in; it can add minutes per mile to your pace. It starts slowly and is most noticeable when one starts walking hills they ran up earlier in the race. Gradually it hits you on the flats. It gets harder to pick up your knee and get a long stride. The downhills are the last to go. Normally, they are free-wheeling affairs. When exhaustion sets in, you’re just doing your best not to a) fall on your face from going too fast for lack of control; or b) you fall on your butt or thrash your quads from going to slow (usually because of the fatigue).
All of that would set in on the third lap, and I knew I was going to be in trouble. That which I ran on laps one and two I walked, and my knees had a hard time rising to appropriate heights.
Just past the second aid station on lap three, there was a long stretch of gradually inclined single track. In prior laps, I had pushed this section to gain time and this lap was no different. But it was. About three-quarters of the way through, my right calf cramped while that leg was mid-stride and in the air. The pain was immediate and searing, like nothing I had experienced before. The rest of my leg froze with the shock of what had happened. With nothing to support me, down I went when my left leg tried to leave the ground during its natural stride.
My body rolled counterclockwise as I fell and I landed flat on the outside of my right upper arm. Upon impact, I rolled a little off trail and into the woods. The woman behind me, a 25Ker, was just shocked. "Are you OK?" she asked with deep concern. I told her that I would be fine, and I rolled back onto the trail and hoisted myself out of a fetal position and into a sitting one. During this entire time, my right foot pointed from the involuntary flexion.
I reached for my calf to work out the cramp. All I could picture was the image from my old Boy Scout handbook of a scout working out a calf cramp while swimming. My calf felt like a 2x4, and I could not cause it to relax. One runner came and offered me an S! cap. I happily obliged, sanitation be damned. He left, and a second runner offered the same but this time I declined. I sat there pounding fluids.
Shortly after I took that S!cap, my calf relaxed. I stood up, waiting for the pain to return. I walked. Then hobbled. I jogged, and then went into a full-on run. I had survived the ordeal.
The calf cramp likely saved my race. A prompt yet controlled adrenaline rush coursed through me as a result of the trauma and perked up my stride. I ran the rest of the loop hard. I came in at around 1:40, a full 19 minutes slower than my second lap. My friend was right - the third lap had been a killer. Now it was on to the last lap. I had to adjust my goals, the only time I consciously thought about doing so.
When I got to the end of my third loop, I was sitting at about 4:20. I asked for and got two more salt tablets, some gels, and repeated my sponged ice bath. I dunked my hat in the bucket and pulled out ice chunks. I switched to water instead of HEED, too. On I went. I wanted to finish, and I only had one lap to do it in.
Loneliness dominated the final lap. Gone were the 25K runners whom I was passing with great frequency. The 50K runners had spread out for the most part and put several minutes between each other. I had no idea what place I was in, but I was comfortable.
On that final lap, I took note to avoid the pitfalls of my Spring Superior Trail races 50K – I needed to run what I could, and not slow to a walk to manage difficult, technical terrain. For the most part I succeeded, even though many of those sections were taken gingerly.
When the big climbs came, the race became all about not giving up. I power-hiked them with as much gusto as a person who had just run 30 miles could. On the last and steepest of the three, both calves twinged – were they going to cramp up? – but the pain subsided. Such an event likely would have put me to the ground, and then rolling down the hill.
As I was coming down the final hill, more folks had gathered at the finish than there were on my last lap. I finished strong, with the obligatory arms up and promptly laid down in the hot grass. My parents, wife, and friends rushed over to me.
For the most part I was OK. Until a second cramp assaulted my right calf. Water, HEED, and two salt tablets, STAT! Oh, and some Coca-Cola. Gradually the cramp relaxed and I was ushered to the aid station, into the shade of a canopy and given more ice-soaked sponges than I knew what to do with. A cheeseburger soon arrived in my hands, and life that day was complete.
I ultimately finished in 24th place of 97 finishers, and I was the 20th man. Overall time was 6:02:17, an 11:41 average pace (unofficial as of 7.17.11).
Of particular note were the finishing times of the top runners. Only two runners managed to go sub-5 hours – the top finisher came in at 4:30 and change and the second place runner was at 4:52. Other runners, including folks who have placed high and run very fast times on the State Park Course were approximately 50 minutes to an hour off their top Afton times.
Overall, I was very pleased with my race. I was OK with my splits even though I tanked hard on the third lap - I think most folks did, as evidenced by the fact that I was only passed by two people on laps during the latter half of the race.
I successfully dealt with the heat, calf cramp notwithstanding. I learned a lot about what my body needed in order to successfully manage hot weather, and I managed to stomach gels with frequency.
Up next is the Voyageur Trail Ultra, a venerable 50-mile race from Carlton, Minn. to Duluth, Minn. and back. It is over some fierce, technical trail that forms the lower portion of the Superior Hiking Trail, and none other than Scott Jurek holds the course record.
I chose to run Voyageur because it is a full six weeks before the Sawtooth 100, and I am using it as a tune up for what will be my first 100-mile race. More on this later.