My cardinal rule for ultra runs is: don't get hurt. Its corollary, don't do anything stupid, also has it's place, especially in more extreme conditions, ie. cold, heat, hills, rocks, mud. I've also heard ultras described as eating and drinking contests. That's true too. It's all part of the same thing really, take care of your body and mind and you'll get there.
Last years Afton Trail Run was my first ultra (if you call a 50k an ultra which maybe you shouldn't) and I made some rookie mistakes. I didn't carry any water and instead depended on aid stations. I ran the hills from the start and didn't pace myself well thinking that it was only 5 miles more than a marathon (I had only run two marathons, both paved and very flat). Those rookie mistakes almost cost me a finish when I fell apart ~25 miles in. I like to think I've learned from those mistakes and this year I had my chance to prove it.
Due to the follies of Minnesota's government Afton State Park was closed and the race had to be moved at the last minute to the Afton Alps Ski Area right next door (it also cost me my campsite reservations, but that's another story). The bike trails at the ski area promised to be more rugged and steep than the hiking/ski trails at the park and the heat and humidity were typically high for July. I was going to be smarter than last year and pace myself by walking the hills and stay hydrated by carrying a water bottle.
After a typical understated John Storkamp start I was jogging along with a pretty large pack. It wasn't breaking up as fast as I had hoped and so I picked out someone who I knew was a faster runner than I and made sure not to pass him. Soon enough came some hills and walking, The heat wasn't so bad, but the humidity and morning dew was making the trails and grass slick. I knew I had to be careful.
At the first aid station I filled my bottle halfway figuring that this would be enough to get me the 3.75 miles to the end of the first lap. The relentless wooded switchbacks of the first half gave way to open fields and climbs straight up the ski hill in the second half. The toughest hill of the course was saved for last as the trail led straight from the bottom of the hill to the top and then switchbacked down to the aid station/finish.
After the first lap I found myself out of water and in need of a bathroom. I took care of my needs and set out for a second lap. The day had heated up a lot and many runners looked like they had been out for a swim rather than a run. I caught up to the folks who had passed me during my short break and then, to my surprise, I passed the runners who I had been using as de facto pacers. I was a little nervous about passing someone who beat me by an hour and a half last year, but I knew I wasn't pushing myself. I had run one lap and knew what I was in for.
There was a little standing water on the only flat section of the course and there wasn't much choice but to run through it. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the humidity was so high my shoes and socks stayed wet throughout the course. I was worried that I might have some good blisters by the end of the race, but there wasn't much to be done about it. I made sure to fill my water bottle completely and found that I was still drinking it dry in the relatively short distance between aid stations.
As I was finishing up the second lap a 25k runner who had just passed me went down on the steep grassy downhill. He must have sprained an ankle or something because he was done. He couldn't finish the last hundred yards or so to finish his race and had to be helped down the hill. It was a good reminder to be careful, especially as the race wore on and I became more tired.
I was halfway done and feeling pretty good. The heat and hills were making it tough for everyone and I just had to keep eating, drinking and upright. I started to pass a lot of the slower 25k runners who were on their second lap. A lot of them seemed to be wearing VFFs which got me thinking that reading a book about running and buying the latest fad shoe does not make one a runner. Nothing wrong with running in VFFs exactly, but they aren't magical.
I stubbed a toe on a root, barely managing to stay upright, then a on the next downhill I kicked a rock with the other foot hard enough to knock my insole out of place. That hurt, but no real harm done. I was just getting tired and had forgotten to look where I was going.
As I walked the uphills on the second half of the course I started to pick out places where I'd push it and run on the next and final lap. I was starting to pick up some speed on the downhills as well staying loose and trying to take quick steps to minimize my chances of wiping out.
On the last lap I started to run some of the more gentle uphills and found myself passing quite a few folks. A few passed me as well, but on the whole I was moving up. On the last uphill I passed one guy who was crawling up the hill, which might give you some idea of how steep it was. I cruised on down to the finish and lapped a few 50k runners whom I recognized. I almost missed the finish line and went out for a 5th lap, but stopped myself. I did feel pretty good, I could have done another if I'd had to. My finishing time was 6:45:46, nearly 40 minutes faster than last year and on a much more difficult course.
I had definitely put more into the race than I had since the Arrowhead and that was a pretty good feeling. My legs hurt all over and it was difficult to walk for several days after. I think that's a good sign. When I have a bad race I tend not to be sore afterwards. It seems to mean that I didn't go as fast as I could have for some reason.
All in all a great weekend. I saw more folks puke at a race than I have since High School cross country and there is a trophy for the finisher with the longest beard. I'll see if I can't get that award next year.