Saturday, August 1, 2009


It has become a 4th of July weekend tradition.  For the past 16 years, on the first weekend in July, runners gather at one of the toughest trail races in theMidwest.  The Afton Trail Run is held during the hottest time of the year and is revered for the incredible support shown by one of the best groups of volunteers found at any race anywhere in the country.  Runner’s navigate the hilly bluff’s and glacial valleys of the St. Croix River Valley to the race’s finish, then stay for the low key atmosphere of the post race picnic and camaraderie with new and old friends alike. 

The 16th annual Afton Trail Run (25K and 50K) was run in coolest temperatures recalled over the past few years, and with mother nature’s cooperation, the elite field cranked out some stellar performances.  As in any race there are many people running with many different motivations, all which are the right reason, and knowones motivation being more important then another – but, open the pages of the dictionary and the definition of a race is 1.) A contest of speed, as in running, riding, driving, or sailing. 2.) Any contest or competition, especially to achieve superiority.  The personification of superiority was Ben Kampf’s performance in the 25K race.  Ben went out hard from the start and only needed to look back long enough to confirm that last years 25K champion, (and Run-N-Fun racing team, teammate), Ed Whetham was feeling in his legs, his previous week’s effort from the Cranmore Hill Climb 10K where he competed in the National Trail Running Championships. After the first few climbs at Afton, Ed realized that he had spent his running capital at Cranmore, and was helpless to defend last year’s title.  As Ben increased his lead through the last miles of the 25K, (Catching many of the 50K competitors who had started 1 hour earlier) – Bens torrent pace left all fortunate enough to witness him, wide eyed and awestruck – it also left all of his competition to fight it out for second place.  Crossing the line in 1st place with the composure of a young man, who in a successful college running career, had become accustomed to finishing at the top, his time of 1:37:39 (6:18 per mile pace) bettered Jason Finch’s (Run-N-Fun Race Team Member) 2007 CR by 31 seconds.  Also notable in the men’s race was Captain Matt Cavanaugh’s incredible time of 1:44:29 good for second place. Matt ran the 25K to raise awareness and funds (which the ATR has proudly contributed) for the Wounded Warrior Project – a non-profit organization that provides programs and services to severely wounded members of the armed services. For more information on how you can contribute, go to

In the women’s 25K race, it was hard not to put expectations on the young Marissa Yotevich who in 2008 (at the age of 16), outran all of the older and more experienced women for the overall women’s 25K victory, posting a time of 2:09:35.  This year, Marissa learned the same way all returning competiors to the ATR do – that when you run Afton’s diabolically hilly course, it is never a sure thing and a repeat performance can be elusive.  Marrisa is a true talent and will no doubt continue to be a force to reckon with in the future.  Up in front Thea Fleming, Nichole Porath and Kara Peterson came in 1,2,3 and kept it a somewhat close race with Thea running the winning time of 1:56:58, about 3 minutes off of the current course record.  Eve Rembleski watched as these talented ladies crossed the line in the race where she still holds the 25K CR of 1:54:00 (in addition to the 50K CR of 4:13:21.  Eve, however chose not to run either race this year in order to support her Husband Duke Rembleski in the 50K.

Rembleski, born and raised just down the road in Hastings, came to the men’s race in prime condition – looking as lean and strong as he did when he first started training on the hills at Afton State Park, with the Hastings Cross Country team at age 14.  19 years later Duke is still putting in fast times on this course – now running the mileage in one  day, that the whole team might have covered in a single workout combined when Duke was still in school. Not knowing who Duke pegged as the winner on the day – it can be assumed that he made the most obvious and calculated decision to stick with last year’s winner – Joe Zigenfuss, in hopes for the win.  Both Joe and Duke running with Tony Kacanda watched the always aggressive Matt Howard blast off down the opening hil of the race at what seemed to be 5 low pace.  I could hear the doubt in the packs collective mind as Howard streaked down the course “Howard will crash, we’ll will reel him back in” – not an illogical thought, as this scenario has played out in a few races around here before.  What people don’t know is that Howard is a humble, hardworking runner, who has quietly learned many lessons from those he has competed against and his passion, motivation and desire is second to no one.  For the first time in his front running career, Matt would not be caught and he would go on to win his favorite race in a strong time of 4:04:18, the 6th fastest time run on the current course configuration.  The ever strong and consistent Joe Z went on to run 4:10:24 with Duke shortly behind in 4:10:43.  Also notable was Jason Boon’s 4th place finish in 4:13:47 a huge improvement over last years 4:36:19.  In the women’s 50K race it was noted by just about everyone in the know, that Eve Rembleski was not in this year.  The logical winner was going to be Helen Lavin (last year’s runner up at Afton but in 2008 the victor at many of the states biggest and toughest ultras.)  As easy as it was to draw that conclusion, it was just as easy to start recalculating at fist sight of Sonya Decker, who did not run in the 2008 edition of the ATR. Sonya and Helen had both just run impressive races at Grandma’s Marathon considering the extremely hot conditions they faced there – but Sonya’s times on the road and years of experience over Lavin gave rise to the fact that there could be a real competition between the two.  Coming through the 25K aid station and heading out for the 2nd loop Lavin looked strong – but Sonya looked determined and at a quick glance appeared to be moving well.  The temps were in fact cooler then years past – but the air was warming and the humidity was rising –over the next few miles Sonya’s pace quickly deteriorated as the subtle yet insidious signs of dehydration set in.  Possibly still not recovered from the hot race at Grandma’s – Decker’s fast pace was now no longer a factor, Helen was not dehydrated and although she may not have been speeding up, she was moving steadily and would not see Sonya or another woman again.  Helen stopped the clock in a time of 4:41: and had been done running for nearly 27 minutes until the 2nd place woman came through.  Karen Schoenrock and Kara Arzemendia took 2nd and 3rd respectively putting in very solid performances.

The front runners where not the only one’s with stories at the 2009 Afton Trail Run, many impressive age group performances were posted and many, many personal goals were met. Some peoples races ended in a DNF – other lost hours not minutes in the second half of their race – the course (and usually the temperature) are unforgiving – and yet each year, we all still keep coming back for more.

The Afton Trail Run is not the biggest race in the area – it does not want to be. The ATR does not offer a purse to winners of its race – it does not have to. The best of the best run this race because it is a true challenge.  If you tell other runners that you have finished the race, you are respected.  If you have competed at the highest level and have won the race……well, people know where to line up next time they see you at the starting line of any local race.

Thanks to all the unique and passionate runners that come back each year and give the race its soul. Thanks to all the volunteers without whom the race would not happen.  See you next year.

Go to: 
Go to: 2009 AFTON TRAIL RUN PHOTOS - Credits; Bryan Cochran
Go to: 2009 AFTON TRAIL RUN PHOTOS - Credits; Jen Pierce
Go to: 2009 AFTON TRAIL RUN PHOTOS - Credits: Londell Pease