Afton Trail Runs: Dancing With The Devil

When the temperature on the dark drive to the Afton State Park, situated along the scenic St. Croix River dividing Minnesota / Wisconsin in the supposed cool of the night, is 77, the dye is set for the day. Tommy James and the Shondells sing Crimson and Clover on Kool 108 as if on cue. Describing “over and over” how the tint of this day will be crimson, runners are empathizing with lobsters in boiling cauldrons by the finish while racing on the clover of those hot fields, searing winds blowing over the forest like the world’s largest microwave.

The most over-joyous person in the ultra start was Eve Rukavina-Rembliski. These are her favorite conditions, a distortion of the movie, “Some Like it Hot.” It is as if her confidence factor gets closer to 100% as the temperatures peak toward the century mark. Running a 4:24:11, Eve outdistanced the women’s field, and most everyone else for that matter, winning the womens championship plus nabbing third overall. This finishing combo, not an unusual feat for her, is becoming normal for Eve’s Race, also recognized as the Afton Ultra.

“It was a hot one out there, but I enjoyed it as it relaxes my legs, and the sunshine helps my spirits. I feel that I went out for the first loop relaxed, but moved along to stay in the mix. The first loop I’m mainly trying to find my pace and comfort zone, yet taking some risks with the pace. It’s a balance of things for me. I believe my first loop was 2:08.”

Dani Ashford broke into the Afton Trails mystique today for her first time. She won her division at the hilly Memorial Day Stillwater Marathon 33 days ago. A standout at the U of M in cross-country competitions, Dani specialized in the steeplechase, a pure trail trainer if there ever was one. She provided a challenge for Eve — and the men — as they battled for the top.

Eve continued, “I felt in a good spot mentally starting the second loop and just kept the positive self-talk going. (Dani Ashford) was in the mix so that gave me incentive to push and keep working and focus on my goals for the day. Also, I kept trying to assess how she and the other racers were feeling and what their strengths were. I ran every hill, so I feel that was my strength for the race — to build the gap with other racers.” (top, Eve and Dani).

Now in her fourth year here, she set the womens mark the first year she raced, 2006, with a 4:21 — second overall was her highest placement, following husband Duke across the finish by a couple of minutes. 2007, she whacked more than three minutes off her record in hot conditions similar to today’s, claiming fifth overall. She set the existing womens course record in 2008 at 4:13:21, a year where she captured third overall. Even while dominating, Eve remains a popular competitor. Her positive attitude plus a sincere interest in everyone at the race reflects her personal life work of helping others.

Dani Ashford won the open class, breaking into the Afton Trails with an average of 8:53 miles. This outstanding accomplishment follows her 7:41 road marathon times (fourth overall) up the St. Croix River ten miles or so at the 2010 Memorial Day Stillwater Marathon. These two finished third and fifth overall in 2010 for the best finish ever for women in this ultra, surpassing 1999’s dramatic charge in the second half by Sarah Mercer winning first open (sixth overall) 79 seconds behind first master womens winner, Paulette Dow, and her fifth place overall.

Can Eve win Afton outright? Given the right circumstances, the turn of the day, heat causing even the devil to cry ‘foul,’ consistent pressure forcing her throughout the event to her limit, the answer is . . . no doubt about it. A bigger question is will she do it before Dani, or any other number of names on today’s finisher’s list (both 25 km and 50 km), or names not entered here yet, accomplish the feat first.

Valeria La Rosa won second open, improving over her fourth overall at the Superior 50 km. This tigress triumphed at the 2009 Surf the Murph 50 mile race, finishing eighth overall with a 9:56 clock. After the Afton run she told me, “The course was hard. I had trained on it before, but not as much as I problably should have, so I kind of knew what it was about. Still, training on it isn’t the same as racing on it! My favorite part was the snowshoe trail as I love single track. I especially liked it the second time around, knowing that I was so close to the finish line. That made it even more fun.” Of note was her parting comment, “My big goal this year, though, is Sawtooth.” The mountains there might remind her of home: Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Third open winner was Sara Udvig. Karen Schoenrock earned first master; first senior master, Shelly Groenke, finished in 6:07.

Chris Lundstrom, runner superior, broke his name-nemesis Chris Lundberg’s 2005 record by slightly more than a minute and a half to 3:48:10. He explained in his popular blog, “Struggle Toward the Heights,” some already were congratulating him on having done so well at Afton, though he had never raced the course. He wrote his plan for this foray into the race was to take “a fairly low-key approach to this and will likely be running comfortably the first loop and the trying to drop the hammer as much as possible on the second loop.” One can begin to imagine what he can do to the record when the weather is milder, and that second lap hammer is slamming a cooler nail.

The two top Minnesota 50 km ultras, the Superior Spring Trail Race and Afton Trail Runs, now have more in common than full fields and a mix of competitors who do both. Eve holds both course 50 km records (4:32:05 at Superior), and now Chris shares the same result. However, with Chris, there is a twist . . . his record time is the same at both: 3:48. Go figure! There is another similarity he shared with both races — read on.

The race with Pat Russell, winner and course record setter in 2007 with a 3:59:43, was a multi-way affair. (see photo, mile 9, down and away) Pat as leader with Chris, Ryan and Brian Peterson chasing until Pat pulled the plug, ultimately around aid station No. 4 mile 25. He dropped. Metallica sings, Misery Loves Company, so for Pat and others not getting their finish today, here are the comforting, poetic views by trail master and course king, Donald Clark:

(photo, agony of a drop, below right) “There were other Great Unknowns out there that followed in your foot prints, all singing the same song — “I saw a band of golden angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” My friend, you did not DROP! You simply fell off the Boxcar Desire. It is good to see you shook hands with the devil, (danced), and then decided to depart his company.” (Lyrics, Swing Low, Sweet Chariots, 1862 spiritual)

Chris brought his patented Superior Trail Race muddy-face-plant to the Afton dirt on the last trip down the campground hill to aid No. 4. All who know this course and that stretch understand only so well how easy that is to do. If it isn’t the timbers protecting the steep path from runoff, those pesky roots keep reappearing along with some foot-catching holes and mini-gulches.

Brian Peterson, 2009’s Trail Mix 50 km winner, captured the open class (second overall) in his inaugural race here. Brian trains with a seasoned group of ultra train runners . . . he will be a factor as long as he wants. Watch these young names like Dani, Brian, and below, Ryan, Ben, Kelsi, Audrey, and many more on today’s competitor’s list . . . they are the future of this sport.

Chris quotes the Greek mythology of Sisyphus on his popular blog, a figure who must be happy pushing boulders up the hill only to have them roll down again, but remaining positive — “Sisyphus Happy.” Trail running does resemble this, of course, particularly when viewing the part of the mythology covering the absurdity of what we do like running in the open sauna class like today, “condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task” of putting one foot in front of the other to cover the  challenge. To those who do, though, there is happiness superseding any ever considered by Sisyphus, suddenly revealing our bizarre actions are no longer absurd but add great meaning and depth to life.

Ryan Braun finished his first 50 km here capturing Open second with a 4:33 following his big splash last fall, a quick 4:45 at the Wild Duluth 50 km and notable Spring Superior finish at 4:42. The Superior WI runner offers a close comparison of the times — and relative difficulties — of these three events. Doug Sturm-Smith won the last medal in the open by edging Kurt Decker by exactly one minute. John Horns won first master male in his first tally here, followed by John Mass with his best finish, a second. Dan Kasper and Dave Just were the top two in the Senior Masters, finishing No. 16 and 17 respectively, with just a couple of minutes separating them.

Ben Kampf continued his dominating 25 km Afton performances as the 23-year-old standout nailed a quick, and seemingly easy, 1:38:24 — not quite his 1:37:39 of 2009, but those were nearly perfect conditions for this race. (bottom photo) On the course, he was two minutes ahead of Wynn Davis at about the mine mile mark, taking those patented long strides downhill, looking effortless. Wynn related, “We ran together until half-way through the Africa Loop before descending down to the river bed aid station.” Ben finished tenth overall in the very competitive Minneapolis City of Lakes 25 Km in September 2009, a race Wynn is scheduling for this Fall. Ed Whetham, winning this event in 2008, taking third open last year, nailed first open with 1:44:44 this year. A favorite quote from Ed is, “The race hurt, so I know I was giving a good effort.”

James Sorenson’s second open reflected his best Afton time yet, 1:45, a nice pickup from 2009’s 1:51 and 2008’s 1:50. His comparisons imply the new layout is potentially faster. Multi-distance master now focusing on new distances, Wynn Davis won third open crossing first at 1:48:02 with Evgeny Beletskiy. “I had no idea he was behind me, and we crossed the line at the same time. That’s a good lesson in never letting up at the end,” noted Wynn. He won over James Sorenson at the 2010 Superior 25 km by the same three minutes James had over him today for second open. Dan Moline captured first masters over Robert Williams’ second by fortyish seconds. Hugh Hudson, thirtieth overall, won the senior masters class.

Master Runner and Ironman Triathlete, Sue Rubens, put her bicycling power to use today by wrestling away the women’s 25 km championship, two minutes ahead of ‘youngster,’ Kelsi Upmann’s 2:10:40, plus she set a new Master’s record. Kelsi, winning the Afton open class, has marathon training from  Chris Lundstrom and Ben Kampf where finishing the Eau Claire Marathon is a final exam, 40 percent of the grade. You think finishing sixteenth overall and second woman, too, earned her an ‘A’?

Audrey Weber earned second in the open class, continuing her work as a professional cross-country skier with this cross training on the Afton Hills. Of course cross training at another event recently, Western States, is not a bad choice, either. Donna Creditor took the second place masters win at 2:30. Lisa Ann Trainor won the competitive Senior Masters 25 km by less than one minute over Sarah Barker, with her 2:21:01.

With the first major change in the racecourse layout in memory, a new set of records needs to be established. Two hill trails — the ‘up’ to the African loop at the one and 16.5 mile mark, and the big down known as “Nigel’s hill” at about 8.5 and 24 miles — have closed.

The layout moved the first ‘up’ trail to the original ‘down’ out of the African loop. Then, the course incorporated a new downhill on a previously little used single track, a blast to zip with close undergrowth, a ravine to the runner’s right and a rocky under footing to hone one’s attention. Replacing Nigel’s is a sweeping down, cutting off the main trail to the left. The old trail went right. “Fun and fast” seemed to be the verdict on this segment, incorporating its own version of the Nigel’s single track. (Ben’s photo, left, is on this new section).

A new trail in the African loop is more like a Capital ‘C’ as in St. Croix, the wide river flowing past the park. Offering a panoramic view, the new turn to the left versus the right coming out of the ‘Back 40′ was well marked by trail masters, Donny Clark and Bonnie Riley. However, old habits die hard as this author found while following the traditional right turn. Misty Schuster yelled out, “wrong way!” saving the day. She and Tim Roe have a running joke to entertain themselves, inventing stories during an event, for example, roping me in with the fabrication this was her 23rd birthday. She’s 43 . . . and it wasn’t her birthday (Nah, she’s not 43, but that’s the best way to get her back!). Most courageous finish went to Deana Hoffman, choosing this race as her first ultra distance, learning in the process just how toast feels.

The net effect of these changes, popularly received, is a mental break for long-time runners. The distance after the fourth aid station and the final aid station is reduced by nearly a mile, meaning once clearing the fourth station, there are only five miles remaining in the 15.5-mile loop. Nearly two of those miles are along the River St. Croix, and the shaded and wooded snowshoe trail leads to the finish after the last aid. Eve pointed out, “What I did notice with the new course was that we got into the snowshoe single track quicker, which was fun because after that, the race was almost done, so mentally that was nice for me. And the single track is so beautiful and secluded. I felt so good that I had energy to work the last hill, and still pick it up on the last stretch to the finish. I had a smile on my face as my husband, Duke, and our dog, Orbit, were waiting at the finish line.” Wally Goettl, participating in this event since 2003, said the freshened layout was “a welcome change, mixing things up a bit.”

With that, a Bald Eagle coasted above Afton’s afternoon on thermal convection currents, casting its giant shadow on the ground below, seemingly oblivious to heat and placements and pain and people, yet rewarding all who viewed its splendor. The symbolism of our nation’s bird flaunting its grandeur while overseeing the Afton State Park felt like a blessing for participants and park visitors this July Fourth Weekend. The glory of the 234 years our Republic has survived, the freedoms we enjoy expressed by running wildly with friends, dancing with the devil on hot trails — because we choose to — are liberties this Eagle’s flight represented better than any fireworks could ever do.

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Second and bottom photo: courtesy of Matthew Patton

Top and third photo: courtesy of Londell Pease

Afton Trail Runs

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About the author


Phillip Gary Smith

Phillip Gary Smith, Senior Editor, published "The 300-Mile Man" about Roberto Marron's historic doubling of the Tuscobia 150 mile endurance snow run. He publishes "iHarmonizing Competition" on various forms of competition, including drag racing, his favorite motorsport. Earlier, he wrote "HARMONIZING: Keys to Living in the Song of Life" as a manual for life with chapters such as Winning by Losing, Can God Pay Your Visa Bill?, and a young classic story, The Year I Met a Christmas Angel. His book, "Ultra Superior," is the first written on the Superior Trail ultra-distance events. He mixes writing with his profession--the venture capital world--a dying art. He is a creator of CUBE Speakers, a group espousing themes in "HARMONIZING: Keys" in a unique way. Currently, he has two books in the works.
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