Done! Done… Sun Mountain 50k race report

This is an overly long summary of my experience running Rainshadow Running’s Sun Mountain 50k. It’s long because it was one of the best experiences of my life — amazing race organizers, unbelievable terrain (in beauty and challenge) great aid stations, and lots and lots of good smiling people. I finished well under any time I felt like I could have hoped for and was surrounded by enthusiastic participants the whole way. All followed by delicious pizza from East 20 Pizza and good beer from I’m not sure where.

The night before the race I was entertaining my van mates with Genesis’ I Can Feel It. And that seemed kind of right if a little over the top. I’d like to be able to say I had planned and prepared for this race as much as it deserved. Longest run was a 37k dead flat trot. Hardest run was a 25ker with lots of hills the week before the race — bad timing! there was nothing quite like a mountain 50k like this race would be. So, going into it I simply had no idea what would happen. I did have a game plan however: stay fed and hydrated however possible, keep the heart rate below 160 bpm, try to keep a 7min 30sec per km pace overall, and don’t go too fast ever!

The race started with the 25k folks so Liz (who was about to double her longest run) and I ran together for the first kilometer and we’d hoped to run together longer. I wanted to slow myself down and keep her company, she just wanted company. But, after a kilometer we kind of lost each other and that was it. I was actually happy to be in my own headspace right away. About 500 m later I misstepped onto a rock and rolled my ankle bad enough to draw some fuck fuck shits out of my mouth. I instantly ran through the scenario of bailing on the race after a mile. Of course, the thought of eating pizza for hours and drinking beer sounded pretty nice, I still wanted to at least have a chance to let my fitness determine how I did.

As I ran on, the pain faded and in another 20 minutes, it was pretty much gone. By then we had traversed Patterson Lake and were into the forest for the start of the long climb up onto a ridge leading to the race’s high point. Up til then I was clicking 6 minute kilometers. I pulled over for a pee at about km5 and that turned out to be my last pee for the next 43 kms. Oops, so much for the hydration part. But, I didn’t know that then. I was walking anything with much of an incline and anytime my heart rate was getting out of control. So, it made it a pretty comfortable time and reminded me of the run around timothy lake my sister and I did last summer. Just nice and easy. No stress, no hurry, lots of time.

My guess at the race course from google earth. There’s a little elevation in there. I especially like the bed icon on top of Sun Mountain which implies that there was mid-race napping. There wasn’t as far as I know.

That first climb lead up through a wooded valley along nice singletrack. Eventually that emptied onto a road which climbed up the west side of that first mountain and lead around to the east. That climb slowed me to 10 minute kilometers but my overall time was ahead of my planned pace, so I was pretty happy. Once on the east side, the forest opened up to meadows of lupine and balsamroot wildflowers and beautiful views of the lake below and rambling meadows ahead. From there the trail was flat to rolling and I was able keep a faster pace.

I started eating and drinking about then and was about 1/2 way through my first water bottle with 2/3 of the first leg to go. My goal was to try to stay ahead of nutritional and hydration needs so it seemed luxurious to be tapping into my GU and water reserves that early. But, I could tell already that my single 24oz bottle wasn’t going to be enough for this race especially because the day was clear, the air dry and promising to get pretty warm by the time the race curled toward the end and the long hot climb to Patterson Mountain. I weighed the options and decided drinking more sooner was better and sucked it down. I had that first bottle finished about a mile before aid. Not bad.

After the flats the trail started to climb to the first aid station and along that stretch I caught up with Fiona who had been swept out ahead with all the fast people up front. Victoria had a big crew at the race and some of them are very fast including the winner of the 25k and the 4th place woman in the 50k! After catching her, we hung out for the next 20 minutes until aid and then for another ten after. The pace of a 50 is slow enough that it’s easy to chat and catch up and take your mind off of the work at hand. Of course as the day wears on, the brain loses its ability to chat but for then it was nice. I rolled into the aid station at an hour and 40 minutes and was kind of lost as to what to do. I filled my water and tried to drink as much more as I could, but got a hurried feeling and somehow managed to leave with a slightly empty bottle and without that full feeling of being fully watered. Room for improvement there. I rolled out of the aid station at 1 hour 50. Slow!

After aid, the route takes a road to Thompson Pass where a trail cuts steeply up onto the ridge. This was a really steep climb, but my legs felt powerful. I’d left Fiona behind a km before as we were both getting comfortable with our post aid full bellies and trying to find a pace that worked. I decided to disobey my heart rate rule and power up the climb because I knew it was short and with a long descent afterward. At the top a view opens up to the north through ponderosa and with wildflower meadows intermixed.

The descent from the top was a lot of fun. The leg of trail seems built by mountain bikers and has jumps and rocks and roots. Until then, the course was really well-groomed unlike everything in Victoria where mossy rocks and slick roots are the surface of choice and everything is either steep up or steep down. that descent landed us on the road after a couple hundred meters then the road slowly climbed back up almost to the pass that we had just left. Right about then I started to feel my legs for the first time and somewhere in there I pulled out a gel and tried to help out that situation and wondered what the future held for tired legs at km 19.

After tagging the pass again, the route dropped onto a long fast singletrack descent down a little canyon bottom with burbling water and cool shade. That was super fun and I was starting to realize that descending was working well for me and I was able to knock down some 5 minute kilometers all the way to km 20. Then I realized that the descent took a lot out of me. When it came time to generate my own speed I started to feel a bit of pain in the ‘shit this isn’t going to be as easy as I thought variety’. So, I walked, pulled out a bar, and slowly snacked. The nice thing about running alone is that you can make the race what you want it to be whenever you want to change it. If you want to suffer more, the option is always there. In this case I opted to take it slow knowing there were 30 more kms ahead.

I perked up from there as I moved past my longest trail runs and into the, to me, unknown. At about km 25 I had a desperate need for a bathroom break and realized that nothing I ever eat for breakfast will stay down in a race like this. That morning I had oatmeal thinking it would be innocuous, but it was not. Alas, too many details for a blog post. immediately after getting back on the trail I spied Fiona ahead of me and then an aid station. Phew, I needed it and was looking forward to some company. I was long out of water and getting hungry. Time two hours 49 minutes and a trail half marathon was complete. Entering unknown territory I was feeling kind of shitty.

At the aid I walked around in a daze. I couldn’t really talk to folks and Fiona left pretty soon after arriving. I drank some water and staggered around eating a PB+J square and a banana. Drank some GU brew and then remembered that I’d dropped a bag at that aid. I dug through it and found an electrolyte tab but in my foggy state forgot it was for my water and just bit into it and ate about half before realizing what I was doing. Shit! I figured it out and dumped the rest in my bottle. Went back to the aid table for more water and food and lurched out of there with a very full stomach and zero brains and having forgot to grab the powerbar gummy things which are my favourite race snack. Luckily I was too foggy to know that until I found them in my drop bag at the end of the race.

The trail from there loops north and east around the back of Sun Mountain proper. It’s all north facing slopes through thick forest and some lush meadows with a raging stream down in the canyon below crashing and rushing. The leg started with nothing but queaze and I wasn’t sure if I was going to hold anything in. So I drank water and hoped. After a couple of kms I started to feel better. My stomach started to process what I ate and I perked up a lot. The trail was rolly and cool and really fun to run — nothing like rolling downhill to make someone feel like a champ. I actually started to feel really good and was knocking off steady 6 min kms. This part of the race does a loop up and over Sun Mountain and I caught Fiona at the base of the climb to the stop. As before, we chatted. This time I was going slow and allowed my heart rate to fall to 145. I was a little eager to pass Fiona and charge up the mountain, but realized that would have been a mistake. So, we slowly ground up the hill in slow 14 min kms. It felt like a dazed version of the weekly climbs up Mt. Finlayson that we had been doing for more than a year now.

The top of Sun Mountain is at about km 29 and is only 5 or 6 kms out of the previous aid. When I crested the top with Fiona I realized I was out of water already. Shit! this wasn’t looking good with another 10kms of running before the next aid. The top of the climb is at a resort and has some slightly confusing trail finding. The dazed trail runner is suddenly forced to chart a course across parkinglots and mowed lawns. I noticed the pink tape first and lead toward it and then over to the next. As I crossed a parking lot to the last bit of lawn I saw a table with blue water jugs and cups on it and realized that there was a bonus unmanned aid station there! I was stoked! I chugged some water and refilled and was off quickly leaving Fiona behind to make my way down hill which leads back to the north side of the mountain and terrain that I already knew and knew that I liked. I was really stoked.

At the base of Sun Mountain second time around. Photo courtesy course volunteer Audrey Jo owner of the North Cascades Mountain Hostel in Winthrop, WA. Thanks for the energy and enthusiasm!

Around there I started to feel the finish line and started to try to make some “moves” but was only able to hit 6 min kms at the fastest. Oh well. I soon passed on my second trip through the turn off up the mountain passing people asking if I was on my first or second loop. I felt badly telling them my second and, at the junction, turned left an on to the rest of the race. From there the trail traverses Sun Mountain’s East side through some nice forest and more meadows eventually hitting the courses low elevation point (4 kms before the course’s second highest point…) at km 36 or so where the trail hits the creek draining Patterson Lake. The next kilometer was the last to the final aid station and was brutal! The little slot canyon was hot and shadeless and the climb up steep, rocky double track. I blended in with a 50 miler who was kind of staggering and a 50 ker who was wondering how big the final climb was and if the race was shorter than the advertised 50k. Argh! I did some hardcore grinding up that and was very happy to see the aid station.

When faced with the variety of snacks at that final aid, I was hoping to hit the same magic formula that had worked for me at the last station. I filled my water and tried to drink more, but somehow got impatient and left slightly dry and soon wishing I had a bit more water in me and a way to carry more.

The climb up Patterson Mountain is a killer. It faces into the afternoon sun and has very little shade save for the sage that covers your feet. But, my legs felt really good and my climbing muscles all primed so I made good time with a slowest pace of 12 minute kms and some faster spurts across flat sections. toward the top I ran back into a 50 miler who I had seen just before the last aid station. He had rolled through that aid and seemed very burnt by the time I caught him. So, I stuck to his heels and we chatted a little as he questioned the whole endeavor while simultaneously complimenting every runner passing on their return section of the out-and-back final climb on the mountain. Turns out this fellow had summited Everest and is a very experienced mountain guide who had been misguided early in his race and ran an extra half hour. His race report is here. At Patterson, the trail climbs up the West and North sides to a high shoulder on the north ridge where a spur trail leads to the summit. That trail is an out-and-back which then leads folks down the west side to the road below in a screaming descent.

I followed the 50 miler racer until the top where we tapped the turnaround sign, looked around at the view and admired the Winthrop Valley and the snowy north cascades to the west. I then asked to pass for the descent and took off. Again, I was stoked to descend and happy to have surprisingly spunky feeling legs for it. This time around I could barely break a 6 min km but got a few of them before hitting the road. That descent was a blast. Lost about 1500 feet in 10 minutes and hit the road looking forward to flat pavement and some meditative running as the odometer hit 45. but, the pavement came right when my water ran out again and I realized that everything I’d eaten since the aid station was still sitting in my stomach. Shit! I’d put salt in my water bottle and now think that it was keeping the stuff in my stomach too concentrated for my body to get at so was going to stay foodless and waterless until I could dilute it. Blah. And then my calves started to cramp in a way I’d never felt. They wanted to bunch up against my knee and charlie horse. I pictured those horrific videos of people bonking at the ends of marathons and being taken to their knees and realized that was about to happen to me. So, I kept my toes pointed upward to stretch the muscle and ran on my heels for a while and somehow they eased up. Proof again that road running is harder on the body than dynamic trail strides. After hacking my stride I managed a 6 min km.

The race ends by leaving the road and climbing up through the forest from the lake into terra incognita. At this point there were lots of people doubled over on the trail (there had been many on Patterson as well) and nobody was moving very fast. The trail crosses several rushing streams here and was always just out of reach. It passes a lush lawn of Sun Mountain resort cabins where I desperately scanned to a water faucet or hoped for another table with blue jugs. I wanted the water so bad and was fighting hard to keep from puking up all the gu in my stomach. Somehow I still managed some passing and didn’t get passed (or don’t remember getting passed). As the climb crested I could start to hear the crowd cheering racers in and realized that I was close. I ran into a hiker/spectator and desperately asked her how close I was. She said “just around the bend with the screaming children”. As I rounded that bend I gave the kids some high fives and big smiles then heard Liz and Brianna call my name and start to cheer. That killed the nausea and helped me to charge up the last, steep climb into the finish. Liz snapped photos as i passed and I saw the clock hadn’t clicked over 5:50 yet so I “sprinted” to the finish totally ignoring the race organizer who high fives everyone (that’s 300 high fives over many hours waiting at the finish) who crosses the finish of one of his races. So awesome. I realized what I’d done and high-fived and thanked him and then went on a desperate search for water and shade but could find none. I desperately pleaded for a water bottle, got a hydration tube, but couldn’t figure out how to use it. Then remembered that I had a water bottle in my bag. I grabbed it and went into the forest to sit.

And, here’s what I look like at km 47 (end of race) after 5 hours and 49 minutes of running and 5700 feet of climbing when I ran out of water on the last 1500 foot climb and 3 miles from the end in blazing sun with Gu and salt tablets in my stomach that weren’t going anywhere until more water came in. So glad Elizabeth took that picture. The best part is the ultra buff woman in the background making off with a slice of pizza. Rad. Ranshadow Running is awesome. What a great race.

All told I drank about 7 liters of water, ate maybe 5 GUs, half a banana, a pack of power bar gum drop things, a lara bar and 1/3 of a PB+J sandwich. totalling at most 1200 calories. I need more water capacity the next time I do one of these which wont be long from now. My technical cotton plaid shirt from value village was the perfect attire.

Fiona finished in 6:10. She was a little disappointed as she wanted to beat her 6:07 from last year. But, it was hot out there and I think that was getting to a lot of people. Liz ran her 25km in 3:07. Super awesome. She’s so stoked and she should be. She’ll be beating me in these things soon enough. Brianna finished in 3:27 or so and was also happy, but also not convinced she wanted to be a racer.

Frosty Mountain 50k? Angel’s Staircase 37km? A 50 miler? I could have gone longer if the finish was an aid station. Don’t know how much longer, but I could have done more.

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