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Afton Trail Run 50K, July 7, 2012

Who

Pre-Race: John Storkamp is the Afton Trail Run.  I saw John when I first pulled into the parking lot at the Afton State Park Information Center.  John rode atop a four-wheel ATV, his long, curly, reddish-brown hair encircled in a bandana stacking his hair in a cylinder atop his head.  The ends of his hair exposed to the wind pointed backward.  His red beard was at that ambiguous length: Had John been too busy to shave for the last couple of days or was he beginning to grow it out?  I supposed that it was even possible that he just liked his beard that length.  John wore a blue tee shirt with an Afton Trail Run or “ATR” logo, but nothing really identified him as the race director. His biceps bulged but the tee shirt hid most of his tattoos.  My eyes were drawn instead to the tattoo that encircled his wrist. I couldn’t tell if it was Chinese or what it said.  Maybe I don’t want to know.

I said hello to John as he motored past and he acknowledged me without stopping.  The race would start in about a half hour.  His hair waved in the wind as he twisted the throttle and headed over a rise in the distance.

ATR hosts two trail races in Afton State Park and 2012 marked the 19th running.  The course is 25K (approximately 15.5 miles) and features 2,335 vertical feet of climbing and an equal amount of descent. According to the course information, “50K (2 Loops) 4,670 Ascent 4,670 Descent 9,340 Ft. Net Change.” Much of the course follows service roads consisting of two loose dirt or gravel tracks worn by pickups and other service vehicles like John’s ATV.  A grassy median separates those tracks.  Other course segments feature “single track” trails probably originally made by deer that wind up and around the park.  To pass a runner on single track, the leading runner needs to step aside and sometimes this requires communication and coordination between runners – a very different relationship from that which runners share during large road races.  The steepest portions of the ATR trail tend to be single track.  Most of the steep trail features loose rocks, exposed roots and small stumps. Some sections have erosion barriers. It’s easiest to trip on the steepest portions of the trail – and I proved it.

Here are the course and elevation maps:

The Afton Trail Run Course Map. Repeat for 50K.

I walked into the Afton State Park Information Center and found the race “expo.” With a limit of 600 total runners for the 50K and 25K combined, even a small room for packet pick up was pretty quiet. I got my number and chip (on a neoprene strap) and walked back to my car.  I wore my triathlon shorts and singlet with my Fuel Belt and two bottles for nutrition. I carried enough calories that I could go two hours or so before grabbing the next two bottles from my drop bag for the second half of the race.  I stashed my drop bag with the second two bottles beneath a bush near the start/finish line.

The Mayan Curse: At 6:25 a.m., John Storkamp jumped up on a park bench near the start line and addressed the 203 50K runners gathered there. He had a microphone and a small PA system.  John showed us the orange flags that marked the course. “If these are on your right, you’ve screwed up and are running the wrong way. Turn around and stick to that trail. Always keep the flags on your left.” John warned us against littering and encouraged us to bend down and pick up any trash we might find then bring it to the next aid station. Then he made some joke about a Mayan curse on the course. I didn’t get it but was comforted to know that if it was a running joke and I didn’t get it, then it was a really, really inside joke.

John looked at his watch and said, “Well, it looks like this year, we are going to get started almost on time, in fact, exactly on time. Go.”

That was it. John just said “go” and we all started to run.  No National Anthem, no speech by the mayor, no gun or cannon or horn. John just said “go” and we did.

Go: I went out with the knuckleheads. I stuck with the first dozen or so runners and we began with a very sharp descent on a wide trail. Mindful of my competition in the “Grand Master Division” (men over 50), I checked the backs of the heads of those guys around me. No gray hair. Good.

The damp air in the deeply shaded woods should have been cooler but felt warm and a little sticky. Except for the sounds of runners’ footfalls and heavy breathing, it was perfectly still.  Unlike a road race, there were no spectators. No traffic, factory sounds, planes or air conditioners made noise. I could only hear a few nearby runners and the light breeze in the trees way above our heads.

Early on, I became aware that we were running faster than I could maintain for 31 miles, but the animal spirits ran high and it felt good to scoot along with a group of young men laying down a fast pace. That group fractured on the first hill. The trail featured man-made erosion barriers – railroad ties and treated 2×12’s laid across the course. The hill rose steeply and I had fallen off the back of the group with one guy in front of me, another close behind. At the top of the hill, I was well above my anaerobic threshold. “Got to slow it down,” I told myself, then plunged down the hill.

Gradually, the three of us separated and I ran alone for awhile. In many, maybe most, places on the course, I could neither hear nor see other runners. It was total solitude. Then I would be jarred back into the race when I would hear another runner, usually the guy right behind me gaining on me quickly. I could run faster than he could on flat stretches and could keep up on the climbs but he was far more willing to take a beating on descents. I could hear his feet slap down on the sandy path, rocks shifting as he scratched around corners.

The course wound through the woods and onto treeless hilltops that featured long views of prairie and bluffs standing tall over the St. Croix River below. It was only about 67 degrees with a puff of breeze. The sun hung low and I felt extremely grateful that the record heat that had clung to Minnesota for the preceding week had broken a few hours before the race.

Gratitude is all well and good but I came to realize that I needed a bathroom, preferably one that offered a place to sit. While the course featured six aid stations, so far as I could tell, none had a porta potty. Instead, all of the aid stations were just a couple of folding tables arrayed with water, Heed and some food. Most runners carried their own water bottles and got refills from the volunteers at each station. But no potties.

I found a particularly pristine but discreetly hidden spot looking out toward Wisconsin just a couple of miles away and stopped behind some bushes. When I started running again, I had lost three places but I could see all three of the runners who had moved ahead of me strung out along a ridgeline trail heading east into the rising sun. I caught one of the guys and kept ahead. The second of the three was Eve, a perennial winner of the women’s race and reliable top-ten finisher overall.

Eve is the skinniest healthy person I have ever met. I fell in behind her and let her set the tempo as I concentrated on trying to figure out what the tattoo was hidden under her sports bra between her shoulder blades. I still don’t know, even after having quite a few miles to try to figure that out.

I felt good and moved ahead of Eve on a service road. We shook hands and exchanged small talk. We proceeded to run most of the rest of the race together. For most of that time, we just enjoyed the support we provided to one another without speaking. Having an experienced, steady runner of just about your own ability to help set your pace is always a good thing.

At the end of the first loop, the clock read 2:06 or 2:07, good for a first lap. I gathered my second lap bottles from my drop bag and headed down the first hill again, this time feeling better about not having to cover this territory anymore – at least that day.

Unfortunately, I had missed my family. Later, I learned that Katie, her boyfriend, Collin, and Margy had not gotten breakfast and were delayed getting into the park. I had passed the start/finish line only minutes ahead of their arrival. But they were there at several subsequent aid stations, cheering as usual and expected. That felt good and I felt good.

Well, I felt good until the aid station at 25 miles. Katie said I looked great and I couldn’t disagree. Things were going well. Then, a mile or two later, we came to the hill on the course that had been hardest for me. I had fallen there on the first lap; a tree root had snagged my trailing foot and I splayed onto the ground on my hands and knees. This time I walked the steepest portion to avoid falling again. Eve passed me and said that she was just taking baby steps to get up the hill. I resumed running at the top but she had opened a 25 meter gap on me and while I closed most of that gap soon after cresting the hill, she soon opened a widening gap. She was gone by mile 28 or so.

Seriously, Go: Here is where it got interesting. The trail was labeled a “snowshoe path.” In places, the weeds grew so thick that I could not see the ground; I had to run where the weeds appeared to be least dense. The trail zig-zagged back and forth like a high frequency trace on an oscilloscope. A guy came up behind me. I asked him if he wanted to pass. He said, “No, my quads are shot anyway.” He stayed just a few feet behind me.  I could hear his every step and breath.

We came to a sharp “V” ravine that the trail crossed perpendicularly. I reached the bottom of the ravine with kind of a thud and needed to bound up the opposite side. Maybe my quads were shot, too, because my “bound” was more of a “shuffle.” We ran a few hundred more yards and reached another creek. This crossing almost paralleled the creek bed.  At the bottom, we needed to execute a sharp left turn on loose rocks to get around a tree right at the lowest point on the path. I lost my footing but did not fall.  At the top of that ravine, I pulled over and let the guy go ahead. “Thanks,” he said.

In a mile or so, I knew that I was getting close to the finish but was running on the lower pitch of a rocky slope that continued to increase in pitch as I climbed.  I finally began to walk – no sin in trail running. But I walked not because I hoped to optimize the efficiency of my gait in relation to my heart rate. I walked because that was the fastest that I could go. I was pretty well shot.  It was at this point that I noticed my ankle. The neoprene strap holding the timing chip had gotten wet with sweat and sandy from the trails. The sand stuck to the sweat. My ankle had several oozing wounds from the friction of almost 30 miles of running with sand, sweat and neoprene behaving according to their nature.

The finish line at Afton is not like that of other races.  There is no big cheering crowd or loud music that would let me hear the finish area long before seeing it.  Instead, as I ran, I could see cars parked along a road 50 meters to my right.  Climbing up a slope, then turning slightly left, I finally saw the finish area. I could hear Katie, Margy and Collin distinctly. Katie ran out to greet me so that we could cross together, holding hands just like we had done so many times before in Madison. The announcer on the small PA system announced that it was a father-daughter pair coming in.

Katie led me to the finish line for the last 200 meters.

Stop: After crossing, I stopped to put my hands on my knees and catch my breath. I did that once, stood up straight and then bent down again. It would take a minute. During that time, the doctor on site came and checked in on me.

“How are you?”

“Tired.”

“Do you need help?”

“Not really but I would like to sit down in the shade and just rest.”

We went over to a nearby picnic table under a tent. I sat down. The doctor wore an Ironman Wisconsin hat. I asked him if he worked medical in Madison. He said that he did but that he more frequently worked with the medical team in Kona.

“Are you going to Kona this year?”

He nodded. I stuck out my hand and we shook.

“See you there,” I said. With that thought, I felt much better.

Who: When I think of Afton, I think of John and Eve. I’m not much like either John or Eve and doubt that we would be friends away from running. I don’t have a single tattoo and that would certainly make them suspicious of me. Still, the shared passion for running, for Afton, rocky trails, roots and the glistening St. Croix binds us powerfully. Standing in the sun chatting after the race, I approached John.

“You’ve put on a really great event again, John. Congratulations.”

“You always say that,” he responded.

“That’s because I always mean it.”

John reached into a box and pulled out a piece of original artwork that he and a friend had created. I got a gift certificate at a local running store and this inexpensively framed piece of art for winning the Grand Masters division.  The picture featured the ATR acronym superimposed on the shape of a bald eagle. Three sentences ran across the bottom of the logo: Never back down – Never give in – Always rise above. My legs felt completely destroyed but reading those three sentences got to me. I am not a confrontational person and these superficially aggressive statements clicked for me in a different way. I had just run 31 miles on really tough terrain and I was standing in a grassy field talking to someone with a scruffy beard and lots of tattoos. Somehow, I had gotten here and felt happy and connected. But I hadn’t backed down or given in.  I stood on the top of the hill.

Several years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker completely unrelated to running. It was about solitary confinement and the psychological damage it inflicts. I have never forgotten the article’s conclusion: we are all who we are in relation to other people. If you remove the presence of others, it is difficult to be anyone.

It’s easy enough to understand how you are who you are in relation to your parents, siblings, spouse, children and friends. I think that I understand who I am in relation to my mom, sisters, Margy and Katie. It is more interesting, though, for me to think of who I am in relation to John and Eve and the 202 other people who thought it was a good idea to go for a 31 mile run in the woods on a Saturday summer morning. For good or ill, I am every bit who I am in relation to those people as I am in relation to those I consider much closer.

I’m not at all likely to get a tattoo, but if I did, I kind of like the eagle with “Never back down – Never give in – Always rise above” written beneath.

Postscript: Later that afternoon, I went out to the ATR website to look at results. The preliminary results showed that I had finished 11th of 198 overall and first of 31 in my age group. I happened to glance at the course records and noted that I had bettered by 20 minutes the prior course record for my age group set in 2007. Even so, I think that I will just wear the race tee shirt and skip the tattoo.

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