"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Afton 50K: A Tactical Description

added: Predictions for women and men
Top 3 Women: Rembleski, George, Hoeg
Top 5 Men: Drekonja, Hanlon, Branigan, Drevlow, Hoeg

This weekend's Afton race appears to be wide-open for the first time in a long time (for the men, anyway). I thought I'd give a course description with tactical notes; I've done well in the 25K there and crashed (quite literally) in the 50K, though I did once win a trophy in the 50K. The 50K course is simply twice the 25K course; if one's well-hydrated and speedy, the 25K can be done easily without a water bottle, but that doesn't work for the longer run - water needs increase in the heat of the day and one ends up "camping" at the aid stations.

The simple tactical advice: "Get back into the shade as quickly as possible." There's hilly wooded sections that are a little technical and open prairies that get hot in the sun, but are easy. Run faster on the easier bits and you'll get out of the heat faster.

Plan to get through the first loop comfortably and push the second. Eve Rembleski, who wins the women's race almost every year, runs extremely evenly and that obviously works better than the "burn in and burn out" way I've blown apart in that race; she appears to be a very poor downhill runner and a solid uphill runner, but it's simply a constant pace from start to end for her.

Here's a map with distances, to orient yourself with the following. [link]

Start to aid station 1
The race starts with a long downhill on a wide gravel road and it's easy to get pulled out too fast. After this, the first hill is surprisingly long; one goes up, it flattens out a bit, but then goes up again and again until one hits the prairie ("Africa") loop, where it still continues up for longer than one expects. Pushing too hard at the base of this hill will make the end of it difficult, especially on the second loop.

Once on the prairie, the path is truck-wide and there are two parallel tire tracks; if you keep an eye ahead for the turns and switch from one track to the other, you can cut off significant distance. This relatively flat open section is much longer than you'd expect. Then there's a steep downhill with ruts and some loose rock to get you to aid station one.

Station 1 to 2

This is the looped wooded section known as "the Back 40." It's typical for runners with water bottles to skip this aid station on the first loop. After the aid station, there's a flat soft section one should take quickly, but knowing there's a hill coming. The hill has steps that are not spaced evenly, then a small bridge and then continues uphill. Then there's a steep but not technically difficult downhill. After this, people tend to slow, but it's easy from there to the aid station and one can make up time here.

Station 2 to 3

From the aid station, there's a long gradual uphill. Then there's a right turn and an often forgotten stretch before the prairie, which is very runnable, though people often slow because it is still generally uphill. Once on the prairie, it's open and easy, but there's no shade. There's some rolling hills that are nothing special, but, if one's on the second loop and went out too fast, they'll be noticed. Then there's a turn back downhill into the woods on a trail that's narrow and looks dangerous to those unacustomed to trails - try not to get stuck behind someone here. Once at the bottom of this, one gets onto the gravel road. This is a very long gradual downhill all the way to the next station and one should take advantage of it. There's a very short rise at the very end to the next station.

Station 3 to 4

From station 3, the gravel road goes uphill seemingly forever. Some find this to be the hardest hill, but it's not difficult if one keeps comfortable at the start. At the very top, it opens onto prairie (an old farm) and there's a number of turns before one gets to the next downhill, which again is into the woods and just a bit technical. This long downhill ends at the river, where one runs a long, extremely flat section. The route then goes back into the woods, over a sandy stretch, and up the longest and hardest (IMHO) hill. This hill has a number of places one falsely will think is the top. Once one is running in thick pine needles and sees a park bench, the worst is over, but the hill's top is still a long way off. The upper section of this hill becomes quite gradual and one is still going slightly uphill once one gets to the campgrounds. In the campgrounds, it will be hot and sunny and this again is a good place to make a move. It is followed by the Campground Hill, which is fairly steep in places and twists a couple of times; it is often rutted and eroded and there are wooden beams shoring it up. The next aid station is at the bottom of the hill.

Station 4 to 5

After the aid station is the one long flat easy section of the course. Don't bother trying to see where it ends; after hundreds of trips along there, I still need a Garmin to tell me how much further it is. This would seem to be the place to "open up," but one has to be careful not to go too fast, or the next hill will take its toll. The following hill, "The Meat Grinder," is quite steep at the start. If you have to walk it on the first loop, you've gone out too fast. After the initial hill, it rolls a bit for a long way, still continuously up. When it finally ends, one is back onto prairie and there's not far to the next aid station, though one doesn't see it. This is a great place to make a move on the second loop, if one can.

Station 5 to end

Station 5 is in the open and will be hot; try to get through this quickly. After it, there's some easy open section that one can try to push, before hitting the only single-track of the course, "The Snowshoe Loop." The single track is much shorter than it seems, less than two miles, but is the truly technical section and can decide the race. The hills in this section tend to be very short (with one exception), but very steep. The continuous changes in footing is challenging to those new to trails and occasionally the path is on the edge of a ravine, which can be unnerving. If there's a downed tree, it'll be in this section.

Once one has run under a bridge, the hard part is over and, on the second lap, one should prepare for the end. There is yet another long hill to negotiate. It starts in the woods and one thinks one sees the top in the sunlight on the prairie, but it's an illusion. Once out of the woods, where the hill is steepest, it continues up almost to the end of the race. One goes up to a service road and one thinks the loop is almost over, but it still continues up a bit and there's almost half a mile to the end, though one can see parked cars that will make you think the end is near. A good hill runner can really take advantage of this last hill to shake competition; poor hill runners should plan to take advantage of the relatively flat section after the service road.


sea legs girl said...

This is excellent study material!! Thank you so much. I love how terrible it sounds. Rasmus and I are discussing strategies now while reading this post. Btw- how is the swimming in the St. Croix River this time of year?

SteveQ said...

It's not much harder than Chippewa, but the hills are much steeper. And it's hot. It's actually suited to your kind of racing - steady.

I have no idea how the swimming is; I haven't been to Afton since November! I expect the river's high, so there won't be much of a beach.

JojaJogger said...

Thanks for the pre-race run through. Perfect for someone like me who has never been on the course.

Jordan Hanlon said...

Great info Steve! I haven't been back to Afton since 2009 so this was a great reminder of what I'm getting into. I guess there is no more flying under the radar anymore. Thanks again for the info.

Dirty Girl Running said...

Awesome breakdown of the course. Hoping this heat moves out for a great run tomorrow. Can't wait for the 25k!