Saturday, July 5, 2008

Afton 50K

I learned something new about racing today. It's meant to hurt. ALL the time. Not just the last few miles. As someone who swears by negative splits I generally start out very conservatively. Of course on the trail it can be hard to judge pace with the varying terrain, but my motto is to start slow, pick it up around halfway and hammer it home. Today I decided to race from the outset.

Did it pay off? I guess so. Did it hurt? Hell, yes...

With Kami and Pam at the finish
(and Patty's dog Chloe out of picture!)

Even though I was feeling a bit lethargic this week having just got back from a 2 week trip to Ireland which involved long hours at work, late nights catching up with family and friends, a diet of rich food, wine and chocolate, and two triathlons (not all at the same time), I decided on a new strategy for today's race as I figured I had nothing to lose. If it worked, great. If not, at least I'd know I'd tried.

So I took off from the start as if I was racing the 25K. It felt pretty good for the first several miles. The hills were mostly runnable through the early sections. I was very well hydrated as evidenced by the number of bathroom breaks yesterday and through the night (and two more during the race!) and generally don't suffer too much in the heat so I wasn't overly worried if the weather predictions of mid-80s came to pass. Rather than fill up on munchies as I usually do at trail races I stuck with a gel every hour taking the first one 30 minutes in and 1-2 Clif blocks on the hour, along with electrolyte tabs. It was quite a novelty for me to run through the aid stations and not sample a range of treats! I decided not to carry a water bottle given the regular aid stations and also because my shoulders have been pretty bad the past few weeks. Though a massage yesterday definitely helped loosen them up.

A few miles in I was running a little behind a guy who had a beautiful running stride. His upper body hardly moved as he ran. I tried to keep him in my sights for the next few miles, falling back on the uphills and catching up on the flats/rolling hills (I did apologize at the finish for practically breathing down his neck from time to time!). By about halfway on the first loop the field was pretty well spread out so for many miles it was quiet and I know would not have kept the pace up as well had I been alone so I was very grateful to have him as a focal point. Later on the second loop as I found myself doing the same thing with another guy - he was about 20 feet ahead and every time we hit a hill I would make myself keep running until I saw him stopping to walk. There were a few hills he didn't walk at all and I'll be honest I wasn't too happy with him at the time! I hope at some point in the race I was able to encourage other runners in the same way. It is one of the things I love most about trail running - the feeling that we are all part of something larger than ourselves.

By the time we hit the river trail on the first loop I was well and truly warmed up and enjoyed stretching it out along this flat section. My legs were feeling strong but I was a little worried about the various aches and pains I'd felt during the week in yoga. Particularly my hamstrings. The triathlon last weekend was an Olympic distance which normally wouldn't have taken too much out of me but the bike course was extremly windy and the run course hilly, so I'd worked my legs pretty well. Added to that a 45 mile bike ride last Tuesday which felt good until about mile 30. My quads and hamstrings complained for the next 15. Things felt much better Wednesday night during a relatively easy 8-mile run around Medicine Lake but I was sorry I hadn't scheduled the massage earlier in the week as yesterday was too close to have deep tissue work on my legs.

After the flat comes the Meat Grinder - aptly named. This slowed me down nicely but I was able catch a few people so I figured I was still doing ok and I knew that the next aid station wasn't far away and would be around mile 13. After that we entered my favourite part of the course - the Snowshoe Loop. It could be just that I rarely run this section when I come out to train here so it feels like a new trail each year. But also there is some technical single track which I love. The grassy sections are less fun but at least I didn't catch my foot and go tumbling down as I have in previous years... in fact, there were no falls at all this year!

Reaching the end of the first loop in just over 2:13 I was delighted to be told I was second female. And had a good laugh at being told I should try to catch Eve. Yeah, right. It would be all I could do to keep a similar pace on the flat and downhills, knowing I'd need to walk a lot more of the uphills. But I figured at that rate I would make 5 hours, assuming no major issues.

As I set out on the second loop there were a few guys up ahead but after skipping off the course for a bio break I ran alone for the next few miles through the first aid station. Catching sight of my hill-running friend up ahead I managed to keep a decent pace through this section until we emerged out onto the prairie for the Africa Loop. Definitely a few degrees hotter now but thankfully the breeze was still there. This is such a beautiful section of the course - acres of meadow interpersed with wildflowers, the St. Croix below in the distance, and a clear blue sky overhead. Despite not being a fan of loop courses, I could run this part any number of times. And the mile or so of rolling hills allowed my heart rate to settle and my legs to relax before hitting a steep downhill. I wasn't wearing my HRM but I would safely say I was in the low 170s for most of the race, climbing above 180 more than once and dropping into the 160s a few times on the less steep downhills.

Before long we were back at the gravel hill, my least favourite part of the course. Forced to walk much more of the hill the second time around I focused on keeping my upper body straight and shoulders relaxed. I remembered back to last year climbing this hill with Kami and Pam and a Brazilian guy we'd been running with for a few miles. He was living in St. Paul while studying here. By the time I'd recalled our conversation about The Beautiful Game (kindered souls in this foreign land!), I found myself at the top of the hill and back on solid earthen trail.

Feeling like things were going pretty well, I carried on through the short prairie section before heading down Nigel's Hill, enjoying having to concentrate on the technical terrain as I made my way to the river. Just one more climb now, followed by a serious downhill and then a mile or so of flat along the river again. I'd held off looking at my watch for quite a few miles so I was pleased to see 3:44 soon after leaving the second to last aid station. I figured I could make it home in an hour if nothing went wrong.

The Meat Grinder was a killer second time around but the grassy section at the top was almost worse as it wound its way around and around. I badly wanted to see that last aid station! Reaching it at around 4:09 I knew I was in pretty good shape. The last section had taken me around 27 minutes on the first loop. Things continued to go well for the next mile or so as I enjoyed being back on the singletrack. However, as I climbed the first of the significant hills on this section my left hamstring started to cramp pretty bad. I'd never had this happen before and was surprised since it's the right one that has been bothering me. I got such a fright and thought for a few moments that my race was over. I attempted to stretch it but knew immediately that was a bad idea so I sort of shuffled up the hill and once out in the grass again I ran slowly and cautiously for the next several minutes.

Finally it seemed to loosen up and I was able run the section along the creek at a good pace. Searching for that last climb before it opened up into the meadow, I just prayed the muscle would stay relaxed. As soon as the trail began to steepen I started to walk but that made things worse so I tip-toed up the hill trying to stretch my hamstrings as little as possible. A half mile to go. Feeling it relax again I picked up the pace, and followed the trail as it curved around the edge of the woods. A few hundred yards to go, several supporters out along the end of the course. Time to smile! Crossing the finish line is always a great feeling but today really was something special. The 25K out here was my first ever trail race back in 2005. Every step of that race I knew I was running towards something more than a finish line. And today, several hundred trail miles later, that feeling was even more intense.

As always it was great fun hanging out at the end in the glorious sunshine and light breeze. I love the buzz that surrounds these races as everyone catches up on each other's recent endeavours, plotting and planning the next one. Despite the pain and suffering on this hilly course, rarely do you hear "never again"! Congrats to Matt on a PR and to Keith and Julie and all the other now familiar faces. Delighted to have encouraged a few to try it out for the first time, including fellow Plymouth club runners Paul and Eric who ran the 25K. Another Plymouth runner Josh was also out there testing his endurance - a good addition to his IM training schedule. And great to see Patty at the finish - thanks for making the trek out there!

A huge thanks to John for an excellent job in his first year directing this event. Hopefully his pre-race tips ensured no one got lost... Stick to the course. Don't get lost. But if you do get lost, find your way back and let us know you got lost! The medals, awards and finishers shirts that John himself created added to the uniqueness of this wonderful event. Also the volunteers - I can't thank these guys enough for their help and encouragement, they are an integral part of our success.

Needless to say I am very happy with today's race. So many times I have crossed the finish line knowing I had something left in the tank. Those were good days too and I love the feeling of knowing I have room for improvement. But attacking an ultra distance from the outset was a different kind of challenge for me and I'm glad I had the confidence to try it today.

Would I do it again? Sure. Every race? Not a chance. Any day I can finish within a half hour of Eve is a good day. And I look forward to many more good days, knowing there'll surely be a few bad ones along the way (seriously Susan, there will be, I am human). But there's only so much suffering this girl is willing to endure!

2nd Female
14th Overall

end of post.


Matthew Patten said...


You tore that up! I got winded just reading that.

It's even more impressive with the Tri last weekend and the biking/running this week. Olympic tris are still a lot when you put it all together.

That's some more hardware to put on your mantle.

keith said...

Wow. That is an impressive performance! I can barely even comprehend what it must have felt like to tear through that course at pace you ran. One time around was plenty for me!

SteveQ said...

Great race! Yeah, there's a good kind of hurt that comes with extreme effort. There's also another kind that comes from overextending that I know too well; hope you never learn about that one.

Kel said...

Great job Helen! The snow shoe loop is my favorite part of the course too - even though I'm usually cramping by the time I get there ;)

WynnMan said...

Helen, superb job out there. What a great run and thanks for the kind words. What a great year you are having. Looks like you are creeping on Eve's records! Keep it up!


Jason said...

Awesome job! You should be very proud of the effort you put forth. I met you briefly at the end, no need to apologize-if I helped in any way, that's great. You are definitely one of the strongest runners I know! Good luck on your next race-
Jason K.

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