Written By John Storkamp – Afton Trail Run Race Director | Above Photo: Fresh Tracks Media

25 years.  A quarter of a century. The Afton Trail Run 25KM and 50KM celebrated a milestone birthday this year and coincidentally, we had already planned a party!  Enter what might best be described as the Twin Cities, Summer, Trail and Ultrarunning festival and one of the largest, best supported and true-to-its-roots trail and ultra running races in the country.  Ahhh, your mid-20’s, you can remember them can’t you? Those were the years that you really started hitting your stride, you had it all going on; independence, a little money in your pocket, the whole world was laid out in front of you, the sky was the limit – it was time to rise above!  This years time-honored weekend trips to Afton during the month of June saw innumerable trail runners putting in the hours and the miles in anticipation of and in preparation for this years race.  The unrelenting hot and muggy weeks leading into this years event eventually relented with a marked drop in the dew-point and humidity with a breeze coming up just in time for race day as we topped out at 82 degrees.  Pleasant race-morning temps led to a near constant refrain of “perfect day”, that could be heard coming from runners and volunteers alike.  This is just one of many examples of the slight differences from trail / ultra racing vs long-distance road racing (and no disrespect intended, we love road running too) but the narrative at the start of a road marathon with a projected high of 82 lies in striking contrast to a trail ultra to say the least.  Prepared with nearly 1000 lbs of ice cubes chilled on 250 lbs of dry-ice, our 200 fantastic volunteers were more than ready to help their peers tackle the heat, hills, and miles that Afton bestows upon its runners. This is Afton after-all and if the heat doesn’t get you, the 2300 FT of climbing for the 25KM and 4600 FT of climbing for the 50KM will.

Registered: 331, Started: 283 (85%), DNFs 31 (11%),  Finishers: 252 (89%)
In the weeks leading up to this years 50KM race, the headlines were deferential (and justifiably so) to the following narrative: “Eve Rukavina-Rembleski, tied for the most wins in Afton Trail Run history as a six time 50KM champion, Open and Masters course record holder, at the age of 50, returns to the race after a five year hiatus in an attempt to capture the Grand Masters course record and to see if she still has what it takes to challenge for the overall win, which would make her the winning’est all time ATR competitor” – whew that’s a mouthful!  Knowing Eve as well as we do, we considered the questions inferred by these headlines a bit rhetorical, but in the end, you do have to run the race to see what will actually happen.  If you had to put money on anyone for the overall, after doing your homework you would have put it on Eve, and if you would have done as much (as you should have) would have hit the jackpot. And the bounty?  The overall and all of the age group records, the most 50KM wins (seven), her first coming in 2006 and this most recent coming a dozen years later, the six fastest times ever run on the modern day course. Dominance. ATR immortality.  All this is not to say that Eve wasn’t challenged, Lauren Mitchell capably pushed Eve early, came through the 25KM mark in 2:09 but took her time getting out of the aid station – Eve hit the 25KM split in 2:12 but left the aid station only seconds behind Mitchell.  This was likely Mitchell’s biggest mistake, if Eve can smell blood in the water she is going to feast, once famously passing yours truly at the 25KM mark of this very race to take second while nearly catching her slowing husband Duke who was resting in first and placing only two minutes behind him in the end – with another mile and a half she would have caught him as well – simply put, we were all chum and she’s forever the shark.  The early hot pace and the obvious let-down that happens when you get passed in that second half of the race, would see Mitchell getting passed not only by Eve but later by Deborah Hudleston who took a slightly more conservative approach to the halfway mark getting there in 2:15 and going on to place second and about 5 minutes Behind Eve with Mitchell rallying and holding on valiantly to come in just a couple of minutes behind Hudleston – it really was a brilliant hard-fought effort from all of these athletes.

Muhammaed Ali once said, “the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”  From the outset, the men’s side of the 50K looked a bit like the women’s in that the field was not quite as deep as we have seen in some years, but scanning the list of registered runners it was obvious that the field still did contain some “local champion” level competitors but without any trail / ultra finishes to his credit, the elite level runner who would go on to take the win lurked in anonymity on that list.  Former Golden Gopher runner, internal medicine specialist and husband of a professional mid-distance runner Justin Grunewald proceeded with cold calculation to dismantle the existing course record.  With no peers on the day, Justin essentially time-trialed to an outrageous time of 3:30:14, shaving just over 10 minutes off of the existing CR – for those breaking out their calculators that is a freakish 6:47 per mile on a course with 4,600FT of elevation gain (about 150ft of gain per mile).  Making this even more impressive is to study what it took for his predecessor and former course record holder, Chris Lundstrom who is considered one of the best 50K trail specialists ever from Minnesota (oh, and not to mention, 2:17 marathoner who ran in the Olympic Marathon trails 3 times ) to set a CR that we knew would stand up for quite some time.  Chris not only came into the 2013 race in stellar shape, with previous course experience, a plethora of ultra expereience and owning other significant trail CR’s in the state, he had a fast up-and-comer at the time in Michael Borst pushing him hard the entire race that year.  Well, turn all that on its head – those on “the Strava” report to me that after a quick review of Grunewald’s training leading up to the race, that this result is no fluke or surprise; he had done what needed to be done behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before he danced under those lights.  You can and never should diminish any runners that go sub 4:30 at Afton, times like that account for some real dang hard running and 7 runners in total achieved that goal on the day but the nearest competitor to Grunewald was nearly 46 minutes behind, but there were years that Matthew Axelrod’s 4:16 could have won the race.  Placing first Master and third overall was long-time trail and road performer (who grew up just down the road in Hastings) Mike Bateman – he credits a strong golf game as one of his secret weapons.  As if two course records in the 50K this year were not enough, Jeff Miller of Albert Lea Minnesota was on the mission yet again in an attempt to claim the Afton 50K Grand Masters Course Record, a goal he first set his sights on four years ago, and 6 months after turning 50. Jeff had fallen short three times before, but he got it right this year.  Coincidentally, stand-out masters / grand-masters triathlete and trail runner Scott Ross was 53 years old when he set the record that Jeff was chasing having run a 4:27:27 to earn it.  At age 50, Jeff ran a 4:51:17, at 51 he ran a 4:28:39, at 52 a 4:36:56 and this year he did it with a 4:23:53 – the lesson, if at first you don’t succeed just try and try and try again – Jeff obviously did what he needed to prior to dancing under the lights as well.

Late in the day a middle-aged gentleman hovered near the finish line for a couple of hours, pushing right in where the volunteers where handing out medals, right past the signs that said “no spectators beyond this point”. The look in his eye said something – that he was waiting for a unique runner. He was quiet, calm and not taking up too much space so I left him alone.  An hour or so after he appeared I saw him perk up as a runner, who at a distance was looking a little more limber and spry than the other finishers during the period.  Finishing was a young man who is now the youngest ever finisher of the Afton 50KM. Andrew Lewis, 14, of Grantsburg Wisconsin (you truly looks his age) looked no worse for the wear after 31 hard-fought miles and once again proved my theory that the young folks that make it to our start line of our race are almost always there for good reason – its rarely forced (for how could you force such a thing) or happens by chance.  If you were made for distance running, you know it, you can feel it and you gravitate towards it and ultimately end up where you are supposed to be – I shared with that young man that I ran my first marathon at the age of 16 and twenty-three years later I am not too much worse for the wear and am still in love with the sport – heck, look at what I do for fun, direct races.  60 years Andrew’s senior, and last finisher of the day, Les Martisko finished his 15th Afton Trail Run which was also his 415th marathon / ultra finish and at the age of 74, making him the proud co-owner of the “oldest Afton 50K finisher” title.  Also finishing this year at the age of 74 was Herb Byun.  Herb is another perennial runner with us, who completed his 16th ATR in a mind-blowing 7:08 placing 193rd out of 280 finishers which by many age-graded-measures would tie or even surpass Grunewald’s run as the the performance of the day, if not the most incredible performance ever at the Afton Trail Run, let me say it again, he is 74 years old, ran 7:08 (the cutoff is 9 hours) and was 193rd out of 252 finishers (and 283 starters) – the average age of the 59 runners that finished after him is 43!  After their finishes this year, Joseph Galloway and Michael Scandrett are all now tied with Herb for most Afton Trail Run 50K finishes at 16 a piece.

Registered: 623, Started: 558 (90%), DNFs: 5 (1%), Finishers: 553 (99%)
If you were to meet Anna French in a casual setting, you would say to yourself “cute kid”, OK that was back when we first met her at the age of 15 – now days is would be something more like “polite young adult”, you get the idea – but get her on the trails and you quickly realize there is a fire in there, and it burns hot.  Anna loves Afton – she will tell you so (that was the first thing she told me after crossing the finish line this year) and her results will tell you much the same.  Ana came to us in 2012 at the age of 15 and placed third woman and so it went; 2012 3rd, 2013 2nd, 2014 3rd, 2016 22nd, 2017 1st and this year, 1st again.  While Emma Lee with three wins is the winning’est 25KM woman to date, there are three others that are tied with two wins a piece and Anna is among them, at the age of 21 she holds the 5th and 7th fastest times on the course.  Erica Schramm from Las Vegas set a new Master’s course record while Joanne Sackett of Des Moines, IA came within 20 seconds of Jan Guenther’s Grand Masters course record. Jan placed second Grand Master behind Joanne this year after an impressive streak winning the Grand Master division every year from 2012 to 2017 – Jan still holds 7 of the 10 fastest Grand Masters times on the course and is yet one more example in this story of a supremely dominate athlete. On the Men’s side Master’s runners Olivier Vrambout and Kurt Keiser were called out as pre-race favorites for the overall win along with their younger counterparts, but with Afton 25K getting faster and faster year to year, it was much more (statistically) probable that a younger competitor would take the overall win and so it was that 21 year old Ryan Becker would run 1:41 (6:31 per mile pace) but Olivier was not far off, running 1:42:28 for second place while claiming a new Master’s course record.  Kurt Keiser was the previous holder of the aformentioned 25K Master’s CR (but still holds the Master’s CR in the 50K in 3:44:27, which is highly unlikely to fall anytime soon) and he too this year went under his previous 25K best time finishing in 1:44:05 good for 5th place overall.  To put into perspective the ideal age and kind of speed required to run fast on this course, Oliviers Master’s course record pace was an astounding 6:37/MI which only as the 20th fastest time on the course and Olivier, at the age of 43 this past fall had just run a 2:32 at Twin Cities Marathon – the average age of the 19 men who have historically finished faster than Oli’ is 26 – look up these runners marathon PR’s and I suspect you will see a lot of sub 2:30’s.   Robert Day went on to claim the Grand Master’s title for his third time this year and insisted on a picture with the RD – still unsure why he would want such a thing.

If it’s not speed then it’s milestones. Bennett Henderson ran his first Afton 25K in 2007 at the age of 17 – having not missed a year since, he went on this year (at the age of 28) to his 12th finish. Perhaps Bennette, who by rights got an early enough start, is setting himself up to be the Afton Trail Run’s version of Jack Kirk, a.k.a. the “Dipsea Demon” who went on to finish that historic race 67 times.  Bennette… get to at least half of that and we will talk about enshrining you as the “Afton Archfiend”.  Other notable 25KM milestones include Steve Geronime and Dan Valentine getting their 10th ATR 25K finishes while Paul Jensen now stands alone as the oldest finisher of the 25K at the age of 74 – a few 73 year olds lying in his wake.

Back in 2014 one of our runners (and yes, we do say things like “our runners” we proudly claim all of you!), a woman named Becky fell during the early miles of the 25K race – she was instantly writhing in pain having freakishly fractured her pelvis and dislocating her hip as a result of what could have just as easily been an innocuous if not routine fall.  Becky’s road to recovery was, as expected from the severity of the injuries, quite long.  In requisite ATR and trail-runner fashion, she returned to the race in 2015, not yet ready to run, but to volunteer in a medical capacity since she as a medical professional herself she was so impressed by how so many volunteers had come to her comfort and aid the year prior.  After that, Becky got back training; far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before she danced under the lights again – she prepared, she came back and she finished what she had set out to do in 2014 – complete the 25K race.  You see, that is what we do at Afton, we RISE ABOVE.