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Monday, July 9, 2012

Afton Trail Run 50K Race Report

I haven't been really big on running races this year citizens. Except for a couple of half marathons earlier in the year, I really haven't done anything serious. I even DNS'ed (did not start) a 50K earlier in the year so that I could go to Missouri to visit some friends (read: drink with some friends...priorities).

I started getting the race bug again last week. But I didn't want to do just any race. I wanted to do something that would really challenge me and put all this weight training slash not running stuff to the test.

What better than the home of the USA Track and Field championships, and one of the toughest trails in Minnesota. That's not saying a lot, because Minnesota isn't exactly a Mecca of trail running. But still...the Afton Trail Run has a tough course.

The race was held at Afton State Park, which is located along the St. Croix River Valley along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. If there is any place in Minnesota that actually has some elevation change, the border is where it's at. The course was a 15.5 mile loop with plenty of trail variety. It had everything from limestone fire roads, to singletrack, to wide open grass cross country skiing trails.  For you elevation junkies, there is 9,340 ft of change in altitute over the whole course.


I had never run the Afton trail before as it is a little too far away from me. So I tries to pack a gear bag that would cover all the possibilities. We'd be allowed access to gear after finishing the first loop. So in addition to all the normal ultra essentials (sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit) I filled up the trunk if my car with trail shoes.

I ended up settling on bringing two pairs of sandals (my Invisible Shoe 6mm huaraches and my Bedrock sandals) and my Vibram Spydrions (my current favorite trail shoe...really late review coming soon). And since I was more concerned at the time about the weather (temps had been in the triple digits all week) than about banging up my feet, I decided to go with the Invisible Shoes.  I'm generally a no shoe kind of guy in the summer, and anything covering my feet makes me ridiculous hot.

For you gear junkies, here's the rundown on the rest of my stuff:

Shorts: Brooks Infinity II (ie shorty short shorts)
Shirt: Shirts are lame
Hydration: Gu Brew in my Nathan waist pack
Nutrition: S-Caps and aid station fare

I got to the race early so that I could scope out the scene prior to race start. Fair warning: if you show up to a race in huaraches and short shorts, you will get stared at. I didn't see anyone as dumb as me trying to rock sandals, but I did see several pairs of Spydrions and New Balance MT110s. That probably should have been a sign that I should change shoes. Then again, I'm usually the odd one at a race.

Loop One, Miles 1-6.75

There wasn't much fanfare at the start of the race. Just a dude with awesome dreds who stood on a stump and yelled "3, 2, 1, GO!". Then we all plunged down a hill for about a quarter mile and onto a fire road.

I knew after about 100 feet that I had made the wrong shoe choice. The road was incredibly rocky and rutted. I could already feel my feet getting banged up. I even thought about turning around and switching shoes. But with 200 runners barreling down the hill there wasn't any room.

After shooting the hill we came out into a limestone trail. Not as many big rocks here. If the rest of the trail was like this I could make it fine.

We climbed another hill of about equal size to the one we came down and continued onto a large grassy cross country trail. Even though temps had topped 100 degrees only a few days ago, that morning it was in the high sixties. There was a fantastic breeze coming across the field. What a great day for a run!

We shot down one of many singletrack plunges (aptly called "the ravene")  towards the first aid station and I discovered another way that huaraches would ruin my life that day. The downhills on this course were incredibly rocky and technical. My sandals were holding on for dear life as descended the hill as best I could.

I flew through the first aid station and headed out onto some more singletrack. This was one of two sections of singletrack on the course, and I ate that shit for breakfast. It was by far my favorite section of the race. I stopped worrying about my feet and started really enjoying myself. I found my trail legs and was feeling strong enough to run up some hills. 

Using that energy I flew through aid station two and back up into the grassy plain. Another great breeze and fantastic scenery. I was soaking all of that in and feeling really great about myself as I when I fell flat on my face. I had stepped in a huge mole hole and took a digger. I also twisted my ankle pretty hard, and it felt sprained. Awesome.

Hoping that I didn't have to DNF, I started running slowly to see if I could shake it off. My ankle hurt, but it was tolerable. I decided to see if I could make it to the next aid station.

Loop One, Miles 6.75 to 15.5

My ankle felt better the more I ran on it, but I could still feel a little pain as I bombed another fire road hill and headed over to the third aid station.

Got lots of comments on my sandals while I was there. The aid workers were apparently talking about me over their walkie talkies, so they were anticipating my arrival. Seemed like they were surprised that I was in such good shape. I stayed a bit longer than I should have talking (I'm a sucker for conversation), then headed out again.

Right after the aid station I climbed quite possibly the largest hill I've ever climbed in my life. Not the steepest, but it felt like it went in forever. Immediately after, I plunged down what seemed like the largest downhill I'd ever done in my life.

Again, the gravel roads continued to batter my feet, and the technical downhills royally sucked. But I was holding up fairly well. I felt really strong, and according to people I was running with we were keeping a pace for a sub-5:30 finish.

One such group I kept passing and being passed by was a Marine Corp medic and his wife. He kept making fun of my sandals, and I kept making fun of how he needed to stop at every restroom like a pregnant lady. Instant friendship. We decided to run together for about 6 miles or so.

We climbed two incredibly steep and long hills (one of which I discovered was called The Meat Grinder...excellent) followed by two mile long stints on a completely flat limestone trail flanked by a lake. After all the elevation changes for the past ten miles, I actually found this flat part more challenging. I couldn't wait to get back to some hills!

After the next aid station we hit the snowshoe trail. It was a very narrow singletrack flanked closely by weeds and brush. In some areas the brush was so thick that you felt like you had gone off the trail altogether. Again, I ate up the singletrack and was feeling really good about the second loop.

Then I started feeling a small cramp in my right calf. Nothing huge, but something to worry about down the road. I came into the aid station before the second loop and downed a whole cup full of salt and some bananas to try to stave it off.

Loop Two, Miles 15.5 to 22.25

This is the point where I should have changed shoes. Instead I just retied my huaraches and went down the hill again.

It was at this point that I realized how banged up my feet had gotten. The large rocks hurt even more the second time around. And my sandals were rubbing on my heel and giving me blisters. Bad, but nothing that I didn't think I could handle.

My second time coming up into the grassy plain was a lot different than the first. Instead of temps in the high sixties it was now in the high seventies with no breeze. I've been trying to acclimate to hot temps this year, but I still knew that the weather would beat me down over time.

I was still maintaining a good pace as I ran across the field. Then a big old cramp came up in my left leg and stopped me cold. I started really focusing on my electrolyte consumption to try and keep moving, but I was worried (again) that I might have to DNF.

The technical singletrack path down to the next aid station was slow going with my banged up feet. I had to slow down significantly to avoid rocks and roots. I approached the aid station and ate as much potassium and salt as I could find. I even dipped a banana in salt (which is a horrible idea by the way).

Here's a cool picture I found online of the "Africa Loop" singletrack. 

That seemed to work as I made it through the singletrack portion easily, and felt recharged heading back onto the grass. That was until about mile 19...where I cramped up again so hard that I collapsed to the ground. The knot in my calf was so big I thought it might grow a head and start talking to me. I had to walk for a good stretch after that.

Loop Two, Miles 22.25 to 31

I walked out the cramps and felt pretty good heading into the next aid station. The aid crew told me that they had nicknamed me "The Gladiator" because of my sandals. I didn't feel much like a gladiator, but my spirits were still pretty high.

Then it was time to climb the longest hill ever...again. I realized that I like point to point races much better than loops. At least there if an obstacle sucks, you only have to do it once. I on the other hand knew that this hill sucked...and that I had to climb two more sucky hills after that.

After the long hill I could tell that a combination of the heat, the condition of my feet, and my cramps were getting to me. I was reduced to a walk/run combination for the rest of the race.

I don't remember a lot of the rest of the race because I was in my pain cave. I do remember a guy trying to tell me about Jesus Christ at about mile 26. I couldn't get away from him because I was running at a snails pace. Hearing him talk also kind of helped with the pain. I thanked him for talking to me, but politely told him to take a hike.

Oh how I came to hate these gravel roads!

As I came up to the two hills of death, I had a lot of trouble climbing. The blisters on my heels made it hard to plant and drive up the hill. Not to mention that huaraches have shit for traction.

I talked with a couple wearing some Vibram Spydrions on the way up. The husband commented, "We might have been born to run, but maybe not in this crap". True story man...

I was pretty much a wreck by the time I hit the snowshoe trail again. The narrow singletrack was making my sandals slide all over the place and doing a number on my heels. My feet were burning with pain, and reduced me to a kind of power walk slash limp combo. But at least I had run through the cramping so much that it really didn't bother me anymore. Always look on the bright side right?

I came out of the singletrack I was reduced to walking again as the cramps were too much for me. I could see the finish line and looked at the race clock. Although I had been hoping for a time north of 5:30, at this point I was happy just to make it in before the nine hour cutoff.

The clock said 6:15. Holy shit!

It's amazing how your mood can affect your performance. A few minutes earlier I was throwing myself a pity party. Now my spirits lifted and I felt a ton better. I ran in the last quarter mile and finished with a clock time of 6:18.

As I crossed the finish line, I yelled "OUCH!!!" as loud as I could. One of the race volunteers replied, "Yeah, but it was a good book though, wasn't it?!"

Yup...that pretty much sums it up. And so ended the last ultra I'll ever run in sandals.

Still looking strong you say?  That's because this is a picture from mile 15.

Some takeaway points:

1. Foot protection should be priority one for me in these races. My sandals
slowed me down considerably and led to my discomfort more than anything.

2. My weight lifting training worked splendidly to prepare me for this race. I was super strong on hills and never felt all that tired. If I had to add anything though, it would be more long trail runs in the heat to help with cramps.

3. I am glad I am stubborn or I wouldn't have finished this race. At the same time, stubbornly sticking to stupid decisions is a recipe for a bad time.

Even though it wasn't a great race for me, I'm already looking to up the ante.  I'm thinking 50 miles next time.  Cheers to ultra running citizens!


  1. Okay, I'm just a pseudo-barefoot runner (treadmill or grass only), and was planning on doing a trail half-marathon in my shiny new Unshoe Pah Tempe's (which rock by the way). Your race report is giving me pause. I might wimp out and go back to my Trail Gloves...

  2. Depends on the trail David. I've done a 50K in sandals just fine. If you have a lot of elevation change or a really technical course I would say skip the sandals. Otherwise they work great.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Ouch. Cool.

    I ran the 25k version of Afton two years ago in 2mm soled Soft Star runAmocs. Bottoms of my feets were fine, but I slammed my left foot into a stump hiding in those tall weeds just past the last aid station. Broke the f**k out of a toe, but finished the last 3 miles. Surgery, titanium pin, 10 weeks on crutches, good as new.

    The next trail race I ran I wore VivoBarefoot Evo. A little more over the toes, ya know?

    (delete & repost due to typo)

  5. Thanks for the report - the fact that you did minimal running while just maintaining the crossfit really gives one pause. I simply love running too much to ever follow your model perfectly, but crossfit-lite (my own adaptation) is something I need to be more diligent about working into my routine.

    On an aside - I'm a regular Vibram Komodosport wearer and trail runner. I do most of my training at Theodore Wirth, and earlier this year ate up William O'Brien with no problem. However, I took the shoes up to the Superior Spring Trail Races and the terrain kicked my feet's asses. I can deal with rocks & roots & such, but it was so RELENTLESS up there. That said, I have no regrets about the minimalist footwear in that race. I just recognize that training more on the rocky terrain might not be a bad idea

  6. @sage: I kicked a stump or two out there and it hurt like hell. With as much stumbling as I did out there I'm lucky I didn't break anything. Wearing shoes next time for sure.

    @Dan: I actually feel better running races on a Crossfit program than I do a running program. I think I need to add a little bit of LSD just to avoid things like cramps, but otherwise this is the way to go for me.

    I also think that training in minimal shoes will give you tougher feet to a point. Still on a course like Superior or Afton I probably would go for a more protective shoe.

  7. Hey man, great blog post. I give you a lot of credit for exploring the barefoot limits; your gait looked so efficient at Afton. I do like the minimal Inov8's, and will probably not be going centurion any time soon. Well done!

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