This year's Afton Trail Run was epic. Because of the MN gov't shutdown which started on July 1, there was a very last minute venue change from the usual state park site to Afton Alps Ski Area right next door.
Having done some alpine ski racing in the distant past, I am somewhat familiar with the hills at the ski area. The Afton Trail Run at the state park has always been known as a challenging and hilly course, so when we got last minute word that the race would instead take place on the ski hills and mountain bike trails, I knew it would up the ante somewhat - at least as far as being hillier. It was. My Garmin measured the 25K course at 5662 vertical feet of total elevation gain/loss. What I wasn't expecting was how technical the single track trails would be! Close to Superior Hiking Trail type of terrain (it would be an awesome training run for SHT races if only runners were allowed on the bike trails). In some ways it was even more challenging than SHT since the wear patterns on the trail were made by bikes, not feet. Kinda like running in the bottom of a bowl at times, so there were some real ankle burners. And lots of switchbacks on the exposed ski runs, so it seemed like we were always running side hills, even when the trail was relatively level.
Anyhoo, the course started and finished in front of the main Alps chalet and was an approximately 7.6 ish mile loop. We were getting ready to start an hour after the 50K, just when the lead runners were beginning to come through the start/finish area at the end of their first of four loops. It was already feeling warm and humid (though not nearly as hot as the previous 2 days when the heat index was close to 110 degrees. Yes, this is in Minnesota). Beautiful sunshine and not a cloud in the clear blue sky.
As soon as Patrick (lead 50K runner who would go on to win that race) came through, RD John started us off on the 25K. We quickly hit a log jam since the trail almost immediately hit the single track. At times, those of us towards the back were literally standing still and would occasionally have to step aside to let some of the other faster 50K runners come through. There was a fairly short section of single track, then the trail opened up on a gravel road for a little bit and people started spreading out. Back into single track (my favorite), we entered a trail that had lots of wet wooden boards (Bridge loop, I think it was called). A little bit slippery on the damp wood since it was also on a noticable incline. Still had to step aside on a fairly regular basis to let faster 50K runners through, (which is a downside of loop courses on single track trails), but we all made it work.
By mile three, my gimpy hip was really getting jacked up. I was already starting to question whether I would be able to pull this race off - something that has never happened in a short race. In other words, it was quickly becoming apparent that this course was going to be much more difficult than I had anticipated. The trail would alternately run through rocky and rooty single track in the woods, then pop out onto the ski trails where there would be switchbacks that we'd either run up or down hill. Even the switchback paths in the grass had rocks and ruts from bikes that made running a little tricky at times. The patches in the shaded woods weren't bad, but the exposed stretches on the ski hills were becoming Africa HOT and very humid. Thank goodness for the ice sponges and well stocked aid stations (as well as awesome volunteers)!
About five miles into the loop we came to the Pirates Cove, then a trail named Manhandler. It seemed like the switchbacks were becoming fewer, and instead the trail went straight up or down the hills. Just when I thought we were almost done with our first loop and was starting to relax, the course went straight up an exposed ski run called the Plunge. Yep, I remembered the Plunge from my ski racing days, but back then we rode the chair lift up and got to ski down. It's probably the steepest ski run at Afton Alps. Today, we had to hike straight up this thing, which was kinda like a "Mini-Me" version of the power lines at Voyageur. By now, the heat was really getting to me and my stomach was on the edge. I remember stopping about half way up the Plunge, bent over with my hands on my knees. I could stick my arm straight out and touch the trail in front of me - that's how steep it was. I looked down the hill behind me and saw another runner with both hands on the ground "crawling" up the hill on his hands and feet. LOL. A few switchbacks on a downhill and lap one was in the books - one more lap to go.
I did not want to do this again. My foot hurt, my hip hurt, and I was feeling sick to my stomach. Spent a lot of time in the aid station rehydrating, cooling off with ice sponges, drinking ginger ale (never occured to me to bring ginger to this race since I rarely have stomach issues), ate some watermelon and orange slices. Tried to think up some excuses for pulling the plug, but quickly realized that I'd never forgive myself for quitting just because I was temporarily uncomfortable. A little misery is just part of this game. I kept reminding myself that things could definately be worse - the race could have been yesterday when the heat index was 100+ degrees, or I could have signed up for the 50K instead of the kids race, or the race could have been canceled with all of the hassle caused by the government shutdown.
Loaded my hat with ice and went out for the farewell loop. At least we didn't have the log jams to contend with this time around! And by now I'd seen the course once already, so I knew what to expect. I just figured I'd have to take it slow enough so that my stomach would settle, pay attention to hydration and eletrolyte balance, and enjoy the trail. Encountered several of my friends who were either running themselves or volunteering, which is always a treat. Eventually made it back to the Plunge (the toughest part of the whole course, for me anyway), though knowing about it before hand allowed me to mentally prepare for it this time. Clear sailing to the finish line after that. Finally! Slowest 25K by far - about 50 minutes slower than my previous slowest at Superior.
Learned that several people had dropped from their race - seems that lots of folks were having trouble with the heat, and there were some sprained ankles (no surprize for either). A few others who were registered decided not to toe the line once they learned about the venue change. Of the 329 runners who were registered for the 25K, only 235 crossed the finish line (97 finished out of 164 registered for the 50K). One. Tough. Race.
Congrats and thanks again to RD John and his crew, the awesome volunteers, and Afton Alps for pulling this race off under extreme circumstances this year! As much as I struggled, I actually kind of like this course better than the state park version. At least we didn't have to contend with the long, straight, flat, dreaded rail trail ;)
If you'd like to thank the folks at Afton Alps for allowing 500 runners to take over their mountain bike trails for the day, you can contact them here. If you'd like to thank the RD and volunteers for pulling off a last minute miracle to save this year's race, you can contact them here. If you'd like to contact your state legislators to let them know what you think about the shutdown, you can find their contact info here.
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