Sunday, July 5, 2009

Afton 50K

+ 5 gels, 6 nuun tabs, matching big toe blisters, lots of swearing, a few strawberries and ALL of Nancy’s coke

- taper, buckets of sweat, the idea that I actually like hills, falls (not so much as a bruise) and the ability to get a bad running song out of my head

= Helen’s 2009 Afton 50K experience

This was my third time to run the 50K and despite my many complaints on that second loop I have no doubt it’s a streak I’ll aim to continue for many years to come. The only good thing about the 2nd loop is that it’s the last one.

The morning started out well. After a pretty crazy start to the week with late nights at work and even later nights working at home I finally got a decent sleep Thursday night and was in bed early again Friday night. So when the alarm went off at 4:45AM I was actually ready to get up. Quick shower, got ready while the coffee was brewing and the oatmeal cooking, checked through the gear bag, filled my water bottles, checked the gear bag again, and I was in the car by 5:15AM. It felt pretty cool out and the forecast seemed decent so things were looking up.

And then, as I was having my breakfast, and driving, I switched on the radio to A Fine Frenzy’s Almost Lover. Unfortunately rather appropriate, but a bad, bad idea on race morning... After losing myself in my thoughts for a few minutes I soon changed over to CD and my mood instantly brightened upon hearing The White Stripes - one of my fav running-music-bands. But I never did get that darn song out of my head and so over and over again for many miles in my head went the lines...

Goodbye, my almost lover
Goodbye, my hopeless dream
I’m trying not to think about you
Can’t you just let me be?
So long, my luckless romance
My back is turned on you
I should’ve known you’d bring me heartache
Almost lovers always do

Not quite the tempo I was looking for.

I started out towards the front with probably 20 guys in front of me. Ran a little with Sonya in the first mile and then we caught up with Kurt on the hill. (Before the race I was giving Kurt a hard time about his compression socks – a few hours later as both my calves were cramping in the final few miles I was sorely regretting not wearing my own pair! I am not sure they make a ton of difference but worth trying.) I was sorry to hear Sonya had a rough time later in the race - she is a much faster road runner than me and I’m sure on a good day for her would have given me a run for my money. We’d passed Steve who asked if we had a spare water bottle... Steve... I said the only excuse he could use today was a completely broken bone and actually it had to be a leg. He ended up catching up again a bit later and we ran together for several miles which was fun - or at least amusing :)
Apart from that I didn’t really chat with anyone along the way. For pretty long stretches I was by myself not seeing anyone ahead or behind. This suited me pretty well as I knew in the first loop I had to keep a reasonable pace and if I kept seeing people close ahead of me I’d be trying to catch them... not a good idea that early in a 50K. As for the second loop it would not have mattered – nothing was going to make me run faster :)

The first few miles passed easily enough. I was wearing my 'new' Garmin 405 and tracking the average pace. I hadn’t really decided what I was aiming for but knew I’d be happy with something under 4:45 so I figured I’d try a similar strategy to last year – run the first half a bit faster than I'm totally comfortable with and see how well I could keep it together for the second loop. I am not really sure why I thought this was a good idea given that I have not done as much trail running this spring and had sort of forgotten to taper. But anyhow, along I went watching the average (overall) pace swing between 8:30 and 8:50 depending on the terrain. My nutrition strategy was to take a gel at AS 2, 4, 5, 6 and repeat on second loop. I was carrying a hand held water bottle, refilling at those same AS and adding a
nuun tab every time. I used these electrolyte tabs for the first time on the night run last weekend – and liked the taste. I don’t like most sports drinks but these are mild and I figured I’d try them instead of S-caps to see how they worked. I am not sure they completely replace S-caps. I’ll have to check the nutritional info (maybe would have been a good idea to do this prior to use) as I did get some bad cramps in the last few miles. Though I got those last year also – just a different muscle group today! I would recommend them for their ease of use but the claim that they are not fizzy is a load of crap. It doesn’t last long but you do have to release the gas from your water bottle after dissolving. It could be that the shaking makes them fizz but how are you supposed to run with a water bottle and not have it shake. So I think the spiel on the wesbite about the difficult science it took to remove the fizz is a little wasted on runners.

Anyway... speeding down the hill to AS 1/2 where Maria was running the show, taking care not to twist an ankle, and into the Back 40 loop where the air was pretty thick in the woods. It wasn’t hot like it has been in previous years but the humidity was pretty high. Still, I would say overall more favorable conditions than normal. Back to see Maria and gang a mile and a half later, water refill, and the climb up to the prairie. Passed one guy on the stairs in that section but saw no one else until the end of the Africa Loop where Steve caught up and we headed off down the hill – this is my favourite section of downhill running on the course so I enjoyed that. Then around the back of the gravel loop to AS 3 where Pierre and Carrie were taking care of things. No stop here on my first pass through but I did hear Londell giving me (or Steve? yeah, probably Steve...) a hard time – while taking photos of course! Along here that darn song was going around and around in my head and then funnily enough Steve shared the tune he couldn’t get rid of – can’t recall what it was but I think mine still took the prize for worst running song.

Then it was up what used to be my worst nightmare on this course – the gravel hill – but that mantle has now been taken over by the next uphill. Still, it wasn’t much fun climbing this one either. Ran it the first time around though it wasn’t much faster than a hike. Met up with Dan (?) along here who had very kindly given me pins for my number that morning – I got back to my car after picking up my race packet and realized I had forgot pins. I normally have a stash of them in a random gear bag in my car but actually cleaned out my car recently (not that you’d notice) so I couldn’t find any. Dan was parked beside me and had some spares so that worked out well.

Continued along through the prairie and down Nigel’s Hill – some sweet downhill running here also. Out onto the river trail and before long we were heading up my new worst nightmare hill. It’s not named on the map but I’ve heard it called KOM. I have no idea what that stands for but I came up with a few new names for it on the second loop. Back through prairie and down Campground to AS 4 where I refilled again and took off for a mile+ along the flat river trail. This felt great as I got the average pace down to 8:30 where it would not be again! I caught up with a guy who’d flown past me down the Campground hill only for him to again fly by me as we started up the Meat Grinder – he commented to Steve “it’s only the flats that get me!” – not a bad complaint for a race like this. For once I actually found the Meat Grinder pretty kind and emerged with enough energy to settle into a nice pace all the way around to AS 5 where Jeffrey refilled my bottle – a quick hello to Nancy and Tom and off I went to hit the single track in the Snowshoe loop. Oh what fun – I love love love this section. If only the race was run on this and the MTB trails then I’d be happy! I made it back to the half way point from AS 5 in exactly the same time as last year – 27 minutes – to come through in 2:12 at 8:32 pace. I think about 2 minutes faster than last year. I dropped my water bottle and picked up a new one that I’d filled with water/ice that morning so it was still nice and cool.

Off I went on the second loop after a quick pit stop to tighten my laces. I was feeling good. Knowing that I would definitely slow some I thought that it still might be possible to beat last year’s time of 4:36. At this stage the time was more important to me than winning. Sure, I wanted to win but I had no idea who was behind me or how close they were and knew I wasn’t going to find that out so I figured I could only run my own race and not worry about whether anyone was going to catch me. As it turned out the guy who had passed me on the last climb out of the Snowshoe loop was the last to do so. After that I ran alone for the entire second loop apart from meeting a few 25K folks and two 50K guys I passed in the final few miles.

The first climb wasn’t so bad and as I continued on through AS 1 things were going fine. Not exactly feeling great but my legs felt strong. No aches or pains yet. I had a quick bathroom break before the stairs and continued around back to AS 2 where I took a few strawberries. I was a little behind on my gels/nuun but felt like I was getting enough calories. Ran the hill back out onto the prairie – the last of the bigger hills that I would run! I enjoyed the Africa loop as it gave my legs a nice break before the downhill and another pass through AS 3. I should really have topped up my water bottle here but kept moving. The gravel hill was tough but not a complete mind crusher. By the time I was heading down Nigel’s Hill my left knee was hurting pretty bad. I’d had a few twinges earlier but now it hurt every time I ran downhill. It’s the IT band pulling on the outside of the knee – a problem I’ve had for a few months. I was getting PT for a while and the foam roller helps but of course it hasn’t been sore for a few weeks now so I’d abandoned the foam rolling. Nice time to be reminded of that.

Along the river and then back up my nemesis... the overall average pace had fallen to 8:50 earlier and before long it was close to 9:00. I couldn’t believe it – how quickly it seems to slow and how difficult it would be to take it back down again... especially since I couldn’t go all out on the downhills with my knee bugging me. In an attempt to get rid of the song that was still going around in my head I tried to come up with a new mantra to deal with these hills. It was no good just complaining or getting annoyed with how quickly I seemed to be fading. Running angry does not suit me. Guessing that he wasn’t an ultra runner (though I am sure someone will correct me) “What would Jesus do” wasn’t going to work and then I remembered a training run a few months back with Duke, Eve and John where I’d been in complete awe of how easy Eve made this hill look... “What would Eve do” – now this was what I needed to be thinking. The only reason I was in first place at all was because this lady was not running so I figured I’d draw some inspiration from the performances she’d put in here over the years. It worked. At least for a few minutes. Up that beast and through the campground and back down to AS 4 where I got refilled, a few more strawberries, coke, lots of coke, and a request for new legs that was quickly dismissed by Pierre. And off along by the river again. Oh how I was looking forward to walking/crawling back down there after the finish to soak...

I was tired now. And just in case I needed another reason to moan a blister had formed under each of my big toes. It was a struggle a get my pace back down in the 8’s. A lot of calculating what pace I needed to keep in order to finish under 4:40. I figured an overall average of 9:00 minute pace would be 4:39 something so that was my goal. And since there was no sign of anyone behind me I decided I definitely wanted to win also! That put a spring in my step for all of 30 seconds as first my body resisted and then my mind... Why oh why could I not just be happy with running for the joy of running????

I was glad to finally hit the Meat Grinder so that I would legitimately walk! It was tough but at that stage the countdown was starting and I was just focused on getting to AS 5. Didn’t run nearly as much of this hill second time around though I made a better effort once out on the ski trails and felt like I was picking it up a bit by the time I hit the AS. Refilled and took a few strawberries and downed 3 cups of coke in less than 5 seconds which amused Nancy! Complained about my IT band to Tom who I think was just surprised to see that I hadn’t fallen at all...

4:12. OK – if I was going to hit 4:40 I had to put this baby to bed in 28 minutes. I think last year it took 29 on the second loop so I wasn’t sure it was going to happen but off I went with a mission. Made good progress through the first mostly downhill section – knee was sore but not awful. Through the ravine at a decent pace and then it was time to turn uphill. Uh oh... this was going to be the difference vs round 1. And there was no point calling on Eve for inspiration now – if she were out here she’d already be across the finish line!! Hiked up and over the crest until it started to slope downwards. I really could have started to run sooner but my motivation was slipping. Out into the long grass where I picked up the pace again and then my calves started to cramp. I’d felt them a little bit earlier but now it was full on and I knew that if I pushed it too hard I’d be walking. So I kept things under control and made my way back into the woods, through the other side of the ravine. I love this section so much where the track gets narrow and it’s mostly downhill with a few bumps, over the fallen tree, and then that short steep uphill. I was able to run it but rather than my usual uphill forefoot running I had to plant my heel to avoid my calves cramping completely. Then out of the trees and under the bridge. Quick check on the watch. 4:33. It had taken me exactly 7 minutes to get to the AS on the first loop... Could it be done? Through the woods again, a smile on my face as I neared the end of this race but I was really on the edge here trying to keep the legs moving just fast enough – through the short grassy section and up that monster of a climb. Walking of course, and not keeping anything resembling ‘form’ – 4:37... almost at the top... soon turned to 4:38 and I knew it was unlikely but at least I could run again now. Around a few turns and I could see the line of cars. A few hundred yards, 4:40:29 would still really be 4:40. Right? But alas as I motored down the ‘finishing chute’ the clock ticked over the half minute... and this ain’t no BQ race – it must be rounded up! And as I write this (and no doubt as you are reading this) - I am thinking is WTF - like 10 seconds really matters in a 50K race? But at the time...

[7/7 update - official time 4:41:12 (9:04 pace) - I guess all that sweat in my eyes blurred my vision!]

So the exact same time as Chippewa a few months back. Overall I was very happy. Felt decent enough for most of the race. Probably didn’t have enough electrolytes – will have to look at a mix of nuun and S-caps. And of course I was delighted to win. A girl can never have enough interesting ‘artwork’ :)

Tanya and Patty were at the finish line having run the 25K. After a quick chat with a few folks I headed over the car to grab my Recoverite and we made our way down to the water. I was determined to get a good soak in! Not quite ice-bath temps but I made up for that later. Back up and got changed into some clean clothes, had some food and enjoyed a few hours catching up with everyone.

As always, it was great to see so many familiar faces on the starting line and along the way at the AS and at the finish line. Congrats to Matt for taking first overall. And a huge thanks to John, Alicia and all the volunteers who make this race what it is.


Race photos courtesy of
Londell Pease, Jen Pierce, Tanya Kroll, Bryan Cochran & John Maas - thanks folks!

A confused Helen wondering what a timing mat is doing at a trail race...

Listening to sound advice from the RD: "Run as hard as you can for as long as you can"

It's hardly a hill but that little rise to AS 3 always seems to get me!

Amazing the creatures that hide out in the woods at Afton!

At AS 4 on the second loop my coke addiction took over - more of the same at AS 5!

With an eye on the clock willing it to slow down...

When I did find pins I made sure they stayed on!

Happy to be done!

Where this year's adventure all started... the icy cool November water would have actually felt good yesterday!

It's already on the wall!

And to think we once ran roads!


SteveQ said...

That second lap wasn't THAT bad for you - you gained about 40 minutes on me! My running song was Cage the Elephant's "Aint No Rest for the Wicked," a very good running song, though a different, not good one took over eventually.

Oh, and congrats.

Kel said...

Great run Helen! Strawberries never tasted so good as they did during that race.

The hill leading up to the campground is my "favorite" too ;)

Wayne said...

Nice job, Helen! Way to stick with it on a 'heavy' day. And congrats on another win.

Beth said...

Congrats on your great race! I love your report and pictures. Hope the blisters heal soon!

SteveQ said...

I just noticed - in the first photo, you look like you're holding a cigarette!

Kurt said...

Hey great race !!! It was nice to run with you for that short little time.

bryan said...

Great report, and awesome job on the run.

johnmaas said...

Again, a fantastic performance at Afton!
Congratulations on the 1st place award - you really deserve it!
It was a real treat to be able to watch you come in to the finish line.

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