I have yet to get through the 25K loop without major cramping during this race (though I can pull off 20+ miles of hill repeats on other days without that problem). This year was no different. I guess you could say that the score thus far is:
Afton Trail Race - 4
Kel - 0
This year's course was tweaked slightly because of some trail closures, but I honestly think the new version is an improvement! The start is the same: run down a gravelly horse trail for almost a mile before climbing up to the Africa Loop (my eyes were already stinging with sweat pouring down my face at this point. Yeah, it was humid!). The "old down" is the "new up", so getting to the turn off takes up almost the first mile. Steve Q was there directing traffic to make sure nobody pulled a Surf the Murph (you know who you are - and I admit I'm guilty too).
As soon as I got up to the Africa Loop, I noticed about a dozen turkey vultures circling. I hate it when that happens, especially this early in a race. Tried to pick up the pace a little to discourage the buzzards, then descended down to the Back 40. Proceeded without stopping through AS 1, did the little ups and downs of the Back Forty, then refilled my hand held at AS 2. Back up to the Africa Loop for more relatively flat, open meadow running past the blackberry bushes; then a descent down a single track path that runs parallel to a creek. A short, easy, flat run back to where Steve was directing traffic, but this time we would run down towards the St. Croix River and AS 3. I decided to top off my hand held here even though I still had about half - this would turn out to be a good decision.
Started the long climb up a runnable gravel road towards more open meadows atop the bluffs. Instead of descending via Nigel's Hill, we were rerouted to the Northern Hill and a magnificent view of the St. Croix River valley (my favorite addition to the course). Thankfully, there was a nice breeze all day long or the open meadow runs would have been unbearably hot!
Heading towards the Northern Hill - Photo courtesy of Matt
The Northern Hill drops out of the meadow and back into the woods with some steep downhill switchbacks, then pops out onto the (dreaded) Rail Trail for a short distance before we do a loop-de-do left turn that takes us under the railroad bridge and up the difficult Campground Hill. I love the smell of the pines near the top of the Campground Hill - makes it very tempting to linger ;)
The top of Campground Hill is an easy exposed run with more awesome views of the river valley, then a deceptively tricky descent back to AS 4. By now, I was starting to have some muscle twinges in my calves and knew I was getting a little dehydrated. Even though I was drinking well and taking S-Caps, I was sweating faster than I could reabsorb fluids. Refilled the hand held, had some orange slices, and was treated to the best tasting popsicle I've ever had! Gave me a good excuse to start the longer portion of the (dreaded) Rail Trail walking so I could eat my popsicle ;)
Finally got to the Meat Grinder, a short but albeit nasty climb back up to the top of the bluff. The new course trimmed a short section of somewhat meaningless trail in this section to make up for the changes earlier, so we were soon headed to the last AS shortly after reaching the top of Meat Grinder. Another refill (with some ice in the bottle this time), more orange slices, and I was off to the snowshoe loop. Nancy and I had been playing leap frog on the trail all day long, and we left this AS at about the same time.
The snowshoe loop is my favorite part of the course: narrow single track that can be tight and twisty. It was somewhat overgrown in places, so it could be difficult to see what you were about to step on (rocks, roots, snakes). It was also loaded with poison ivy encroaching upon the path in some places. I was having noticeable problems with cramping by now and would have to slow to a walk even when I had the energy to run.
Finally made it out to the last little bit of trail that parallels the state park road towards the start/finish area. Made the final left hand turn towards the finish chute - the line was probably less than 100 feet away - when both of my legs cramped and I was stopped dead in my tracks. Thought for a minute that I was going to have to lay down and roll across that flippin' finish line, but was finally able to hobble home. My slowest Afton Trail 25K ever, but still a blast seeing everyone out there and sharing a good part of the trail with Nancy and Mike.
Now comes the really funny part!
This year's Afton race was also the first ever USA Track and Field Minnesota Trail Championships. Prize money would be awarded to the first 3 finishers who were also USATF-MN members (this would be a key factor) in the open and masters categories for men and women in both the 25K and 50K races. In fact, RD John mentioned at the start of the race that the prize money would be enough to retire in the Bahamas :)
Those of you who've run with me know that I am slow enough to be in peril of showing up to a race and getting a bib that says "maintenance" instead of a number. I've already told you about the buzzards. So imagine my surprise after spending a few hours at the finish socializing and eating cheeseburgers when one of the USATF reps asked me if I wanted my check sent to the address that was on file with my membership. I was second fastest old woman and scored $50! In reality, I was about 20'th fastest old woman, but only 1 of the 19 in front of me were USATF members. Bahamas, here I come! Hehehe.
Many thanks to John, Alicia, and all of the volunteers that make this event as awesome as it is! And thanks to Nancy and Mike for sharing a good portion of the trail with me during this year's race! Looking forward to spending more time with all of you out on the trails!