Sunday, July 7, 2013

Friends: Afton Trail Run 50K

What a weekend! This one ranks up there was one of the best, and like many of my stories, this one starts a few weeks ago.

June 25th. My birthday. As many of you know, I have been transitioning out of a long, but very over relationship and dealing with the struggles of not being around my son on a daily basis. It has been a difficult time for me, but with the help of some friends, I have really made some strides towards becoming happy again and continuing the next chapter of my life. However, on June 25th, the old me, the drinker me, made a return visit, and ultimately, I said something stupid. Now I'll be the first to admit I say stupid things all the time, but this time, a friend was hurt. It was unintentional and ultimately far, far from the truth, but I said things and feelings got hurt.
The next week was a rough one. I carried around feelings of guilt and remorse, and while I tried to make things right, it wasn't my decision as to forgive me or not. And things were leaning towards not. I took this pretty hard, and moped around for much of the week trying to figure out how to make things right. Long story short, I was in a dark place. And one day in particular, Sunday the 30th, was darker than the rest. I was feeling especially down that day and was just about to give up hope. I hadn't made my friend feel any better and was about to throw in the towel. I needed a distraction, and I needed one bad. And then I got the text. The following are actual excerpts from the text conversation:

Shawn: I think Afton is still open. I'll get your registration for your birthday present (NO PACER DUTIES!!!) if you want to do it!

Me: Yeah why not.

Shawn: 25 or 50?

Me: Surprise me.

Shawn: Okay. You're in.

Me: So how far am I running?

Shawn: 50

Me: *giant exhale* alright, let's do this!

Like I said, I was looking for a distraction, and here it was. If Shawn had asked me 5 minutes sooner or five minutes later, I probably would have said no. But at that exact moment, I had a serious fuck it attitude. So here I was, one week away from a 50K I was physically ready for, but mentally a wreck and in no way prepared. The rest of the week was a battle between this being a good idea and this being a bad idea. Mid-week I was psyched, but by race eve, I was completely psyched out. Then, just like before, fate reared its head, and my phone rang.
At around 10:30 the night before my race, my friend, the one I had hurt, gave me a call. We talked a lot about everything, and nothing. For nearly an hour we just talked. It eventually did turn to the race and my doubts and fears about it. How I wasn't prepared, how the heat was making me nervous, yada yada yada. But somehow, even after our differences and misunderstandings, she knew exactly what I needed to hear, and by the time my phone cut our conversation short, not only had I forgot about the race, I wasn't nervous about it anymore either.
So the next morning, things went the same as all my races do. Nothing unusual happened. No great feelings of dread or excitement. Just a bottled up energy that I set aside as I prepped for the day. The race itself was exactly the same, and for those of you hoping to hear some crazy stories from the race itself, you can stop reading. The race went great. I felt great and the body held up. I ran smart, I hydrated smart, and the rest followed. That's it. That's all your getting. Everything from this point out is about the events that followed the race.
Afton was the first race that I have flown completely solo. Yes, I had many friends there, but no one that came with me. No one that I was staying with or that drove with me. I was completely on my own time and could do whatever I wanted. The race ended and I went and sat. By myself. I just sat and took in the event. I was still on a high from a new PR (4:22:39) and a 6th place finish and was just soaking it all in. I had bumped in to a few friends and was waiting for others to finish.  My sister even showed up to watch me finish, although since I had predicted a five hour race, she ultimately missed it by about 20 minutes! Sorry Shannon.

I was recovering nicely and moving around about the time my friend Shannon (from this point in the story all references to Shannon will be of my friend and not my sister), was just finishing running an amazing race as well. I ran over to the finish and congratulated her on her race. While she cleaned up,  I walked backwards down the course a ways and cheered on my friends and fellow runners as they brought home the last half mile. I told Shannon that I was gonna start walking and hopefully run in to our mutual friend Greg and help bring him home. It was then that she told me of his struggles, and that his day was not going as well.

The next hour and a half, Shannon and I hung out at the finish and waited for Greg. We watched as other friends finished, I was introduced to many new, great people, and we continued to wait. Being that we live in different towns, Shannon and I don't get to actually hang out too often, and although the circumstances of waiting for a friend who was well overdue were not the best, it gave us some time to really get in some quality bonding. Eventually, we did find Greg and cheered him in the last half mile, then headed back to the finish to continue to support our friend. We found a nice shady spot, took a seat and spent the next hour or so talking about our mornings, the ups and downs, and all the epicness that happened on the trails. More friends joined us, and I met more cool, new people. We talked about my crazy performance, about Gregs heroics in the aid of a fallen runner (who managed to finish the race thanks to his help) and all the stories of first timers and repeat offenders. It was truly the best way I could have spent my afternoon.

When it was finally time to move on, Greg, Shannon and I agreed that it was time for beer, and we headed to meet up with a few of Shannon's friends who were already out. We met up with them, enjoyed more great stories from the day, made more connections and more new friends. We even managed to make it to the Surly tap room (for those not in the know, Surly is a local brewery that makes amazing beer, and has a tap room with only Surly beer. It's nothing short of amazing) and continued just having an amazing time hanging out together. We talked about what runners talk about. We talked hydration, nutrition (our mutual love of potatoes and salt) and upcoming races. We talked about family and friends. We talked.
But like all great things, they must eventually come to an end. All of us had some sort of a drive a head of us, and we eventually parted ways.

I am always going to remember the 2013 Afton Trail Run. But it's not gonna be the PR or the 6th place finish I reminisce about as the years go by. I will tell the story of this race, with a smile on my face from ear to ear, because I will be talking about my friends. It will be about the new friends I made and the two friendships that were solidified even more. It will be about the support of an upset friend who still cared enough to be there for me when I needed it.  It will be about the love of the sport in which we all curse and praise.
Runners are the greatest people on earth, and I am thankful I am a part of it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Superior Spring Races 50KM

So like most of these race reports, I have no idea where to start. So I'll start at the beginning.

As most of you know, I live in Minnesota, home of the Superior Hiking Trail. And as most of you know, I have taken up the sport of Ultra Marathoning. Until this past weekend, I have not put these two things together. As my interest in Ultras grew (and continues to grow), so does the options to try new trails and see new places. I plan on some day competing in a 100 mile trail race, but have yet to make any decisions as to which would be my first. Locally, the options are limited, but there are a few. The Zumbro 100 is in early April, and being from this great state of Minnesota, this worries me. Winter can be a fickle mistress in these parts, and training for a 100 mile race over the winter can be difficult, if not near impossible. Toss in a year like we had this year, and it's still snowing in May. Zumbro out. This brings us to Superior. The Superior Fall Races has three different races including a Marathon, 50 miler and a 100 miler. It's a late season race so training would work, but the rumors and stories of the brutality of the SHT loomed over my head. Running my first 100 on a course I've never set foot on (with that reputation) scared me a little.

So enter the Superior Spring Races. The perfect opportunity to get a heads up as to what all the talk on these trails is all about. Superior Spring offers two distances; a 25KM and a 50KM. I eagerly awaited registration to open, and the day it did, I was signed up for the 50KM.

The months passed and the training, although off to a slow start, was progressing nicely and I was feeling confident that I would be able to really go for it and see what I was made of. My first 50KM was ran just to finish. I was a rookie and didn't know what to expect. My next ultra was the North Face Challege 50 miler. Again, this was ran just to finish as I had no idea what to expect from a run of that distance. So now ultra number three. By no means am I a seasoned vet, but I figured that I've seen the distance, I've trained for the distance, and I know my body just a little bit better. So this time I was going to test my mettle.

About two weeks prior, Superior began sending runners updates on the course. Included in these updates were some photos:
With the weather forecast for highs in the low 50's and a good chance of rain throughout the coming weeks, I had no hopes that this course would be in very good condition by race day. I wasn't too worried about the snow, but with all the rain added on to the melting snow, the mud was going to be a given. I had no real idea of a time goal for this race being I've never seen these trails, but any goal I may have come up with was surely thrown out the window (I won't even get in to the three week old chest cold I was fighting a loosing battle with). Looks like another race ran just to finish.

Fast forward to race day.

With my gear packed and my trusty crew Chief Justen close behind, we headed towards the check in and the starting line. A quick message from the RD, then I stripped off the hoody, tossed it to Justen, and it was time to go. The race started like any other ultra starts, with a huge rush of excitement followed by an underwhelming take off. There were 167 starters in the day's 50KM, and it quickly spread out to what would be the packs that would hold together throughout the morning. I tucked in the middle of the second pack of runners, and quietly cruised my way in to the trails. At this point, the legs felt like lead, but it was not the tired bad lead I had been feeling all week. This was different, and I knew that all my worries from a horrible two weeks prior were gone. The first two miles of the race wound it's way up the first climb, and I comfortably worked my way up. Being that these hills were runnable and walking wasn't necessary, a grabbed hold of a small group of runners and began working my way through the field. Still taking it easy and not pushing, we made our way to the top and headed toward the decent on the other side. It was here that I made my decision. The same decision I had made weeks prior. I was gonna race this thing. I was going to either have the race of my life, or the biggest blow up I have ever experienced. No matter which happened, it was going to be EPIC!

About four miles in we hit our first significant downhill, which was also my first dose of reality and look in to what was in store for me for the rest of the morning. Keeping in the back of my mind that this was an out and back course, I made a mental note of this spot. This climb was going to be brutal. But that's not what worried me. I was four miles in to a 31 mile race, and my quads were already feeling the downhills. All I could think about was "epic". Still hanging on to the same group of guys (six of us), we wound our way to the bottom and came out at the first aid station, Oberg, in 1:15. Oberg was staged at mile 7.75, or so I thought, but when we arrived my Garmin was just rolling over to mile seven. Later I would learn that between the switchbacks and the climbs, Garmins were basically useless. It was already .75 miles off. Mental note.

A very quick stop for an S-Cap and a GU (have I mentioned I have one of the best crew chiefs out there) and I took off, leaving my six partners at the aid station. I headed in to the next section, a 5.5 mile stretch of "rolling hills" feeling confident and fast. Maybe a little too confident and fast as once again, like all my races, I left the aid station way too fast. I eventually settled back down and in to an aggressive but comfortable pace (again, no idea since the Garmin wasn't accurate), and all alone, made my way towards the next aid station. Alone is where I stayed for the next few miles, until finally working down some switchbacks, I could here some voices up ahead. I worked my way down pretty hard in an effort to catch up, then tucked in behind them for a little recovery before I would evaluate my next move. We hung together as a group for another mile or so, with the lead runner cracking jokes the whole time. This continued on until one of the runners took a little fall. Though he wasn't hurt, he and his friend took a brief stop to collect themselves, and myself and the other runner continued on ahead.  It was a this point, that although I can't be certain, I swear the runner in front of me was trying to break me. Once we separated from the other two, this guy (I would later find out through conversation his name was Marcus) just took off. Being who I am, I went with, and it was on. He was definitely a stronger downhill runner than I was (and also a local who trained on these trails), but I would make it up in the uphills and continued with him for most of this section. It was finally about a half mile or more to the next aid station when he shut it down and I cruised past him to the next section.

I rolled in to Sawbill aid station and searched for Justen, but when I didn't see him I made a quick stop at the food table for a bottle refill. Justen quickly appeared and I grabbed another S-Cap and headed back out for the last little section and the turn around, which was the climb up and then back down Carlton Peak.   *Note: I did not run with my phone of camera of any kind, but Justen and I headed back the next day to hike this section, so fall photos are from this hike*

Carlton Peak started out "'easy" enough, and I was able to cruise around and quite enjoy the trails. I was again alone, but this time I just ran my pace and wasn't worried about catching anyone. We were nearing the turn around also, so this was the section where the leaders began working their way back, and some tight passes where involved.
Gradually, the climbs began and the trails began to become more difficult. I never noticed during the race as my head was constantly looking down to avoid disaster, but Carton Peak was looming overhead. Had I looked up and seen this, I may have quit right there. The final climb to the peak came out of nowhere, and to say I was unprepared for it would be an understatement.
Typical footing for the last mile of the climb

Some humbling trail
From this point much of the course was hiked. Being so steep and so muddy and washed out it was just impossible to even consider running. I eventually reached the summit, and was greeted by something unexpected. Well, it wasn't totally unexpected as I had read about this guy prior to the race, but it wasn't until later that I got the answer I had forgotten.  On top of Carlton Peak was a man dressed as what I can only describe as Wild Bill Hickok. Here's a bit of his story:

 "That was Charlie "Chuck" Hubbard - one of the, if not the best, all time trail-ultrarunner in our state. Charlie is just running for fun now days but if you look back in the archives of Afton, Superior, Trail Mix, Big Horn, Ed Fitz and many other races, Charlie was winning them and setting course records - he was almost unstoppable. Great guy."

I tell you what, that was probably exactly what I needed to see. I had completely forgot about that ridiculous climb and as tired as I was, I was ready to head back down. It would have been nice to hang out a second and check out the view, but some pretty think fog was rolling in, and mixed with the rain we were getting, visibility was pretty low. I did manage to make it back up there the next day however:
The trek back down was pretty uneventful and slow, and not much to report. After reaching Sawbill on the return trip, Justen's first words for me were "How was that for you?" I could only answer the same way I was on everything else...BRUTAL!

Nothing really changed much through the next 5.5 miles either, and things didn't really get too difficult until I reached Oberg for the final aid and the final push to the finish. At this point, the end was nearing and I began to think about where I might actually finish this thing. Remembering it took 1:15 to get here on the out trip, I checked my watch (I also had a watch going in case of Garmin malfunctions). If my hazy math was correct, I had 1:22 to make it back in five hours, a goal that I had in the back of my mind but thought would be near impossible on these trails.  Oberg was also the turn around point for the 25KM that started two hours after us, so it was hopping with activity. Being that time was now a precious commodity, I sucked down two S-Caps while Justen topped off one of my bottles, and I bolted out of Oberg after barely a stop. I had two GU's in my pocket and if they were needed they would be taken on the run. 
I headed in to the final 7.75, ready for that climb. Turn after turn I expected to see it, but it never came. I was so focused on remembering this climb, that I had forgot about the 1-2 miles of flat before it. Finally it came, and just as I remembered it, it was brutal. Ironically, although a slow hike, this was probably one of my strongest points in the race compared to other runners. I put my hands on my knees and my head down and started pushing. Step after step I climbed higher and higher, but it never seemed to end! Eventually I reached the top and again looking at my watch, was ready to make that push. Unfortunately, my body wasn't, and one of a runner's most annoying hold ups hit me. A side stitch. Off all the things that could have gone wrong; painful falls, muscle cramps, malnutrition and hydration, I was done in by a side stitch? I don't fucking think so! I'm blaming this thing on my chest cold and the fact that some major fog had just rolled in, but it wasn't much for consolation. I fought that bitch up and down to the final climb before I managed to get rid of it enough to run again. Probably two miles of walking. So much wasted time. I had no solid idea as to how far the finish was and I had pretty much given up hope on a sub five hour race. The night before, I went out for a little 2 mile leg stretcher, so I know where one mile to go was, and corner after corner, it never seemed to arrive. Ten minutes to go, not there yet. Nine minutes to go, not there yet. Shit. 

Then something amazing happened. I rounded a corner, and there in front of me...the bridge.
This bridge crossed over the river one last time, and was the end of the trail...less than a mile from the finish. I looked down at my watch again. Seven minutes! I would have to run my last mile in nearly seven minutes, but dammit, I was not getting this close and not making it! The final mile was all gradual downhill, and I used that gravity to run as hard as I could to the finish, rounding that last corner in to the snow and mud patch that blocked the loop around the pool. In to the open now I looked up and saw the clock. 4:58 and some change. If I had any energy left, I would probably have started crying from happiness. Officially, I crossed the line in 4:58:46 and found a nice quiet spot to lay down and take off my mud caked shoes. I had just ran the Superior Hiking trail, and it kicked my ass. But not before I tore it a new one! 

The rest of the day was spend showering and heading back to the finish to watch my friends come in. Shawn Severson, running her first ultra ever, came in ninth overall, second in her age ground and was the 2013 USATF-MN Masters Ultramarathon Champion! Kaboom! Mind blown! My friend Greg also conquered the SHT and had a very solid race, only minutes off his lofty goal! Everyone got cleaned up and rested and joined together for some beers and to rehash our war stories. It was probably one of my best days I've had in a while. 

So, will the SHT be host to my very first 100 miler? Probably not. Will I ever run 100 miles on the SHT? You better fucking believe it!