Gust Buster — the 2015 Oregon Coast 50k

A gust of wind picked up and then amplified to a raging shriek in the millions of Sitka Spruce needles in the canopy above me. Huge trunks bowed and swayed. As I waited for the squeal and crack, I eyed cover downwind of large trees in hopes of any kind of protection. Shirtless, sweating hard, soaked with tropical rains and dancing down Cook’s Ridge I just couldn’t help it. I started to howl at the wind. Scream at the thrill of more than half-nakedly running through a forest alive with wind and rain; the thrill of being unquestionably alive — as close to my beating heart and thrumming brain as I’ve been in months, years, god knows how long. All of the pent up and broken relationship residue along with the held love and comfort of those times was all laid bare in those screams, yet they remained screams of joy despite working through yet another bonk and being 35 km into the race I was as alive and happy and connected as I could possibly be. This was my Oregon Coast 50k.

The race started as the skies lowered and southerly winds picked up and began to gust up the beach. Forecasts were for 20 knot gusting to 40 knot winds and heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Oho and that forecast was conservative. Despite rain, the beach sand was picked up and blown making the lowest 2 feet of air a sandblast. James the race director lead us out from the huddled protection of the Governor Patterson picnic area’s pines onto the beach where nothing could slow the wind. It was immediately clear that this was going to be a different kind of race. It became even more apparent when shoes sunk into the sand indicating that the beach was still summer-soft not yet hammered solid by winter waves. This was going to be interesting.

James counted down and we were off. The whole pack swerved toward the ocean hoping to find hard sand since there was no hope of finding refuge from the wind save for with other racers. The field quickly split into groups although there were the brave souls who struck out on their own, perhaps their race ethics more pure than mine. The eventual race winner set out with his brother in a pack of two. The account of the Ghelfis is here. I found myself in the second (or maybe third) pack which contained about 20 runners variously trying to hold onto and losing the group as it swerved and dodged waves, lumps, dead sea lions, and soft sand. An occasional gust would hammer down hard enough to blast us apart akin to the scene in March of the Penguins where the huddle is broken by a savage katabatic gust. The real hero story here goes to Dave Melanson who makes up half of Project Talaria. He took the lead of our group and while I strove to do my part by leading for a couple of kms, he hung in there for more than 8 of the 10 beach kms. Breaking the wind, dodging the softest sand, and swerving away from the encroaching tide was very hard work. Some runners likened it to putting out a 5k pace effort to move at slower than typical ultra pace.

My pack as we split to cross a stream. We rejoined very quickly. Note the haze of wet blowing sand. Note also that this is a picture I purchased from Glen Tachiyama (tachifoto.net). Please support his great work by purchasing a photo now and then.

My pack as we split to cross a stream. We rejoined very quickly. Note the haze of wet blowing sand. Note also that this is a picture I purchased from Glen Tachiyama (tachifoto.net). Please support his great work by purchasing a photo now and then.

So, that was the beginning. The inverse of how one wants to run one of these races. Eventually the pack approached the trails and split apart for the last km to the first aid. I hung back figuring that I would work on recovering for the next several kilometers before getting back after it. I rolled through this and all the rest of the aid stations fast.

My aid strategy was to grab enough gels to replace what I’d lost and fill up on some gu brew and water and then walking off as I arranged my gear. I was going light overall with my equipment consisting of only two hand helds, a Wilson headband, wind shell, shorts, shoes and socks. Simple and to the point. Conditions were very wet and windy but also quite warm. On the drive over the night before, we noted temperatures of 67 F in Corvallis at 8PM and it couldn’t have been much colder than that all day. because of the heat and 100 % humidity I would actually sweat a lot this race and, as a sweaty creature to begin with, this would mean drinking a lot. On final tally, I guess I drank almost two gallons of water or 11 24oz bottles.

Moving on things got easier. The 4 km after the aid were on road and still buffeted by wind but then the route entered forested trail where it would stay until the returning 4 km. And once there, conditions were much more pleasant. The trails were in excellent shape since this was one of the first big rains of the year so they had plenty of capacity to soak up water before turning to muck.

As the trail wound up to Cape Perpetua, the winds began to pick up owing to the prominence of the place. When I reached where the Amanda trail breaks out onto the overlook the storm was  beginning to reach its own climax with winds strong enough to push a runner over ripping up the slope and into the forest to the north. This was a brief introduction to the coming madness as the trail quickly dropped from there down to the second (doubles as the fourth) aid station. Again, this was a quick pass through to fill my fluids, down a bottle, and grab a couple of gels although recalling it now, I seem to have taken a while there. The extreme conditions kind of spurred a nonchalance based in feeling like just running out there was enough and that I could allow myself some comfort given the nutty weather.

Out from there the race soon reaches the halfway point as the trail parallels the coast before ducking east to climb up Cummins Ridge. This climb isn’t difficult but plays with your mind as the gradient is just steep enough to feel, but not so steep as to be unrunnable by a racer of my calibre. And so I ran despite working though a first bonk and some low mood which was causing my brain to wonder extensively about why one runs these races.

And then magic happened. About halfway up the climb, the wind made any thoughts such as those impossible to hold onto. Gusts started to pick up a banshee quality with building crescendos that climaxed much louder and harder than one thought they could without blowing the whole forest down. My eyes started to dart around during the peak blasts, searching for any tree about to fall or limb about to crash down. And with that thrill my race turned into sheer bliss. From then on, each gust was something to laugh at and to celebrate. When the rain  started to come down so hard that a small creek gushed down a rut in the trail and my headband would seep male-sheep-tasting sludge into my mouth it was just funner and funnier. When I reached the top to find the turnaround check point and that they were playing 90s electronica and that apparently a very famous pop artist was present my thoughts could be nothing but enjoyment. I was a crazed, shirtless, stringy haired and balding, flabby but completely enthralled animal.

From the top back to the final aid station was unforgettable bliss. I was alive, the forest was certainly alive, fall mushrooms were practically speaking to me, my frequent pee stops were pleasant chances to gaze into the swaying trunks and to marvel at the setting, at how cleansing the forest can be and how lucky I was to be in it at all and more so to be able to witness it at that time with warmth, fleet feet and legs, and knowing that friends and family were waiting for me at the finish. Hollering and screaming with glee I pushed on. Only 2 hours to go; the length of a feature length movie to burn into my retinas and set fire to my brain.

I finished with a slower time than last year, but with 1000 times the exuberance and that much greater will to run. I shouted it out on top of Cape Perpetua when I passed the race director, but I’ll say it again here: thanks James. This is what it’s all about.

Kusam Klimb

A photo journey of the 10th annual Kusam Klimb. I ran this race as Liz’s pacer feeding her gels and maybe slowing her down by taking photos (maybe that was a good thing?). The race is 5000′ of climbing in 22 kms with the first 7km covering all of the elevation (much in just 4 kms). It’s a feel-good, very challenging local event that has the ear of trail runners all over BC. The race is also a “hike” for many who complete the route by walking and taking their time with a goal of just finishing. Liz and I fell near the front of the middle with a time of 4:26:00 and a lot of good memories and having met some great people along the way. Later in the day we found the community centre hot tub and indulged. Best $4 ever spent.

Up the wet streets of Sayward

Into the forest and up the wee hill…

Past the first aid/refreshments cabin ~300 m elevation

Up a rocky scramble. ~500 m elevation

The view from Grouse Rock. Yes, there was a grouse there not just grousing humans. ~800 m. Half way!

View down toward Sayward.

Into the foggy hemlock forest. Near 1000 m elevation.

Another rocky scramble. 1100 m?

Top of the pass above the lake. False summit! 1300 m

By the little cirque lake. 1250 m.

Liz by the lake.

Down the other side looking back up at Mt. H’Kusam. 850 m

Liz about to get Lei’ed near the end. 200 m

Lei’ed

The lei’ers

The record “book”

Liz and Brianna

Awards and feast time.

H’Kusam from below.

The Google view of the route.

Neuromuscular Habits

Each of us performs movements over the course of a day that we don’t think about but which require a highly-trained brain/muscle connection. Standing from a chair, walking, stooping to pick something up, sitting back down, washing dishes, running, typing, etc. We have been practicing these movements for something like our age minus a year or three and the patterns are pretty firmly wired between the brain and all of the muscles that have to intricately coordinate to make these things happen. Standing is a complicated task requiring constant communication and response between the brain and our foot, leg, hip, trunk, neck and many other muscles. If someone gives you a moderate shove, you probably wont fall over and you probably wont have to think about how to compensate. It will just happen. This is phenomenal when you think about it. We cannot design a bipedal robot with this capability. The best we have is the segway, yet your brain and muscles know exactly how to do this.

The interesting thing is that, because of our chair, couch, car, and bed oriented lives, our training for all of these basic postural movements is totally out of whack throughout most of white-collar western society. We are weak where we should be strong (no, not your abs think lumbar, hip and deep core stabilizers) and short where we should be long (illio-psoas, cervical muscles) and dumb where we should be smart (the neuromuscular connection). Our neuromoscular connections are faint because we use chairs and beds and cars (and even bikes) to support our weight and get us around. The human tendancy is to cannabolize systems that aren’t being used so that resource may be dedicated elsewhere, or simply put dormant to save energy. My theory is that the 10% number reflecting the fraction of our brain power that we can access for higher thinking indicates that there’s a majority dedicated to motion, recruiting muscles, and when the shit hits the fan, allowing grandma to lift the car off of her grandchild.

All of this becomes even more hilarious when us western, white-collar types get it in our heads that running will save us. We read Born to Run, we have friends running 5 ks, 10ks, marathons, ultras. trail ultrarunning is all the rage now so we decide we have to keep up. Furthermore, we are constantly bombarded by media with the very real need for more exercise in our lives for health and, to eveyone’s credit who gets out there, we do these things. We haul our shortened, weak, stooped and dumb frames onto the pavement and hammer out some miles 5 days a week. And all of the postural compensations that our bodies have adapted into for desk-sitting and car driving actually work against forward movement. We overstride, our hips tilt, we lean back or slouch forward all leading to knee pain, IT issues, shin splints, TFL pain, bursitis, or my nemisis a nasty clicking where the psoas glides over the femur in my deep hip. It’s just gross.

Because we live lives that are static the majority of the time, our brain-muscle circuits are optimized for standing or sitting still. When we stand or sit we lock our knees, we slouch into our hips, we cross our legs, we fold our arms, we collapse into our spine in a forward arch — all of these things are adaptations that allow us to do what we have practiced which is to stand or sit still for hours on end and let our brains focus on other tasks. I’ve thought about getting a standing or even a treadmill desk but shied away because I know I’d have a hard time focussing on my work, my brain is dumb when it comes to supporting me and coordinating my movements, so a standing desk would make it impossible for me to concentrate at work until those pathways were efficiently rewired. But I digress.

So we run, and we get injured and we wonder why. We do mindless hip exercises, and we buy shoes with medial stabilizers and motion control and arch support, we wear knee braces, we take time off and do nothing, we foam roll, we start to feel okay and then we are injured again. Or better yet (this is my case) we buy into the barefoot movement thinking that it will force our brains to learn what it needs to and then get injured and wonder why it works for the kenyans and not us. We marvel at the fasties, the kenyan barefooters, the raramuri, the aged gurus running into their 70s or 80s. What do they have that we don’t? Why is my right knee in a chronic state of ache? They have well-trained neuromuscular circuits. They are strong, long, and smart where they need to be and I’m not and you probably aren’t either. This is not because they do 1000 clam shells a week. It’s because they have communication superhighways between their brains and the muscles that support their frame and lead to efficient running or walking or even standing. Either their brains never went down the road of allowing their bodies to soften to the world of chairs and cars and bikes or they trained their bodies out of that mode. So, how many miles of running does it take to get this training? 1000? 5000? 10000? The ol’ 10000 hours? Barefoot running? No! Going out and hammering the pavement or trails will never retrain the brain and muscles to do what needs to be done. The secret of the fasties is that they had a coach drilling them to re-recruit these circuits, the kenyan barefooters never went down the wrong road, the aged gurus are probably a mix.

Since injuring my knee last January, I’ve been reading a lot about this stuff. Sure, you read one book or a blog post and it’s easy to brush the author off as a zealot or a faddist (paleo diet for example) but for me all of this started to converge. I semi-randomly found Jay Dicharry’s book Anatomy for Runners when reading about a criticism of cross-fit endurance training. I was researching standing desks and ergonomics at work when I came across a lecture by Kelly Starrett at Google about posture, alignment, and connective tissue health. I was researching coaches in Victoria, BC and read about Marilyn Arsenault’s Mindful Strides clinics which emphasize posture and the postural training she learned as a professional singer and relearned when embarking on her path to becoming the women’s master’s record holder for the marathon (side note: this is why racing in Victoria can be discouraging — the town is stacked with Canada’s fastest runners, cyclists and triathletes and small enough that they tend to show up at every-day races). I began to assess myself and realized that my posture totally sucks from an athletic standpoint and that this was why my injury was becoming chronic.

So, how to move forward? You have to find someone who is drinking the Kool Aid or spend a lot of time learning and feeling and doing silly exercises. This stuff is hard to learn (or I should say relearn, when you first started walking, you knew all that you needed to know or were a blank enough slate to learn the right way easily) on your own, because without an external brain to help your brain, you can’t escape your own neuromuscular trap. When you actually achieve proper posture your brain will be screaming at you that you are doing it wrong, that you are falling over, that this can never work. I think of my first 10k run and how my brain was yelling at me for the last 1/2 saying that this was rediculous and impossible and that I should stop. Training. You need to redevelop all of those pathways, relearn proper alignment and motion. I’m enthusiastic about all of this right now because I finally enrolled in one of Marilyn’s clinics and am finding a happy convergence of what I’ve read and am enjoying learning how to put it in motion so to speak. Through the course of this “running” clinic, we will probably cover about 500 m running. All of the drills are about relearning the postural foundations of all movement including running. Yesterday we spent an hour learning how to stand; yep, just stand there. And we learned a little bit about breath. It was one of the most exciting classes of my life.

So, you don’t want to spend the money on a class or coach or good physio therapist? You certainly shouldn’t have to. You need to go to other modes of feedback such as your eyes and hands. You need to shoot video of yourself and compare your posture and stance to good posture and stance. You need to touch your butt when you walk or run to see if the right muscles are engaging. Scour race photo archives to see what you do during a race, and best of all, what you do at the end of a race! Compare those photos with the race winners (one thing I’ve noticed recently is that race-leading women almost always have much better form than the men they are running near because they have to be as efficient as possible to overcome the sloppiness that a man’s generally stronger hormonal and cardiovascular system allows)! Without a new form of feedback, all your wrongly-adapted channels will be telling you that the right way is the wrong way and vice versa. You have to use other pathways to help retrain the faulty ones be they external from another person, or internal through a different sensory system until you get things back in check.

Trail Amputation

When training for a long race/run, one winds up quickly running through the standard trail options of an area. Victoria is rich with trails which explains why there are such fast trail runners here. For a trail example, where I work, there is a beautiful stretch of trail called Mystic Vale that runs though a deep, cool, maple lined gulley from the ocean up to the summit of Mt. Tolmie (roughly). This is 4 kms of running and 350 feet of climbing each way and can be stretched into an hour long run. Further afield are Mt. Doug, Thetis Lake, the Lochside Trail, Elk/Beaver Lakes and then Gowland Tod, Goldstream and eventually the Sooke Hills, East Sooke, then the coastal trails. It sounds like a lot, but in a typical week now I’m running for around 7 hours. If you add up the weeks and the time, you pretty quickly run out of new trail and understand how precious this resource is. In a land of very ugly tract housing and giant malls, finding new trails in hills can be like stumbling onto a hunk of gold.

One of the motivating factors for all kinds of running for me is exploration. In my earliest running days almost 8 years ago, I used running as a way to explore my area and challenge my sense of distance. I carried my old yellow Garmin etrex GPS in hand and would track my runs and then marvel a them on the tiny little screen when i got home. Each track was a treasure permanently locked away on the little microchips in that device (I didn’t have a way to download that unit). Of course now there are wrist-top GPS units slightly larger than a typical watch; cell phones and their apps allow GPS tracking and instant uploading, so these tracks are now instantly available in the cloud. A side-benefit of this is that open source mapping web sites like Openstreetmap (similar to Google Maps, but without the big brother data mining) can be updated to show all the trails in an area if someone goes out and covers the ground.

This past weekend my training schedule called for something like two 3 1/2 hour runs. These are the back-to-back runs that are a staple of building endurance for very long runs. My peak training week will have me running a 4 hour run one day and a 6 hour run the following day. Ouch. But that’s still a month out so I can pretend it’s not in my future. I covered Saturday’s run by running 3 repeats of a local 1300′ mountain with some friends. Sunday was a house-moving day, so I schlepped boxes for an hour or so and put off the run to the end of the day and was tired at the outset. I promised myself to be happy with any length run but was hoping to get at least two hours. To cap it all off, I’m trying to run on less sugar. A vague idea about this was recently reinforced by a friend who is a professional kinesiologist. She suggested that training on low to no sugar or any food intake leads to more efficient fat burning. But, to do this, you have to bring yourself close to bonkland and work through it sending a strong signal to your body that secondary fuel resources would be handy. So I set off yesterday with two bottles of water and one gel (equates to 100 calories) and maybe 2000 calories of work ahead.

Prior to my run, I looked at maps and saw that there was a spur off of one of my standard climbs called Prospector’s trail. Prospector’s is a beautiful track up a slope of douglas fir and madrona with rocky outcrops and lush undergrowth. This past spring, the slopes were covered with lillies and then camas. I set out with the intention of exploring this spur and seeing where it took me. After a few failed attempts running through the group camp site where one of the trails was meant to be, I got back on the known trail kind of giving up on exploration. I was feeling really tired from the previous day’s run and all the moving so latching into a known route was comforting.

Further along, at the top of the first climb there is a spur I knew about, but had thought just petered out. I decided to pursue it with a little more perseverance than before since the maps showed something out there. There was a steep step that looked like a deer trail but I climbed it to find a pretty little single track path snaking through some grass and madrona. What followed was some of the prettiest trail running I’ve done in a while. Partly because it was new and partly because it’s simply gorgeous in there. The path climbed steeply up and northward past another trail fork into a deep vale filled with fir and fern and a little creek. This area was lush with birds and growth and silent in that old forest way that always brings joy and peace into my brain. The tiredness in my legs dissolved and I whispered exclamations of wonder to myself as I ran.

Of course, I knew that this little sanctuary was pinched in between the area I knew, Prospector’s trail, and something called Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain sounds like a nice place in name. There are black bears on the island, so it’s not out of the question for that name to crop up. However, in this case the Bear refers to a golfer named Jack Nicklaus and the name is that of a massive condo, resort, golf complex sprawled up against Saanich Inlet, pristine salmon spawning streams, and the beautiful hills of fir and madrona. Bear Mountain was hotly contested when it was proposed and through its development during the real estate derivatives bubble of the mid-2000s. The “Mountain” is actually on Mount Skirt and Mount Miniskirt an area that was a mecca of trails. As I explored on my run I realized that I had connected into the old trail system. The feeling was like opening a hidden door into the servants passageway on an old mansion — this entirely other world that I hadn’t guessed existed that I hadn’t known the extent of, and that was rarely used.

My trail wound up the lush little cove and along the streambed to a fork in the trail that goes steeply uphill to the right and another toward daylight to the left. Noting the right-hand trail, I went left and soon broke out of the forest, through a thin barrier of scotch broom and into a sand trap. I was looking up the fairway of the 5th hole of the Bear Mountain “Mountain” golf course and the trail just ended. Cold. The landscape had been remolded to that expected by a golfer and which is completely foreign to the region — smooth and rolling with neatly trimmed grass and gentle slopes. These are characteristics that embody nothing of the local landscape. Jack Nicklaus, the course’s designer, was born in Ohio and spent his life on golf courses, not in nature. The contrast between the forest behind me and the smooth greenness in front was shocking and sad. I couldn’t help but imagine where this trail used to go and through what little natural wonders, but it was all paved-under by trucked in soil and fake-emerald turf. I ducked back into the forest to explore the other trail and to try to reconnect with that cool little valley.

It’s not that I dislike golf; I actually have a certain love for the game having played in High School and to this day on occasion. But the development of this area; the lack of need for it (many of the condos remain unsold almost a decade after completion and the golf market has softened considerably worldwide) is hard to be okay with.

The rest of the run went well. I explored the rest of the remaining network (the right-hand trail hit one of the development’s rock quarries). I hit bonk-city and grovelled in it for a good 30 minutes in hopes that my metabolic systems got the message that bonk-city demands scraping from and getting by with already available resources. My more-ample-than-average-runner amount of adipose tissue has literally hundreds of thousands of calories free for the taking. Why go scouring elsewhere for something artificial to fuel something so irrational? Maybe land-developers can learn something from that message?

Lessons from the Wall

This past weekend was my second go around at the Sun Mountain 50k. This time it was a training run, but instead of going into it with the plan of running strong and controlled, my plan evolved from confidence in an earlier 50k and became “to crush my old time at any cost.” But, it seems that outrunning hubris is damn near impossible.

It all started a little auspiciously. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear, I’d forgotten the shirt I wanted to race in and didn’t have anything of whimsy to wear and keep me cheered up along the way, my shoes were either too new or too minimal, and to top it, I realized 5 minuted before the start that my heart rate monitor was in the car — a 10 minute walk away. All the little things that add up. The last one seemed like the biggest deal. I’d gotten used to using my monitor as a brake to keep me from blasting away on longer runs like this. But, I’d studied my paces from last year and knew when I had to be at each aid station to at least beat my time and I knew that I should be happy heart rate wise if I keep those same paces at the fastest.

So, the inaudible pre-race megaphoning turned into a 5 second countdown and we were off. Man, there were a lot of people and they all looked fit as hell. The fitness was no different than last year, but the numbers were larger. The 25k race had ben split into its own day, so there were more entries for the 50k and 50 mile races. And I charged out and settled into what I knew was a way-too-fast pace. The first 5 k roll along Patterson Lake and I was cruising 5 1/2 minute kilometers meaning I was taking off about 30 seconds from last years time each kilometer. I’m fitter now, and I have a better understanding of the distance, but I didn’t think I was THAT fit!

Understanding what it means to run the distance is still a challenge for me after a year in which I’ve done it 5 times. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you will be racing for 5+ hours. Not just trotting for a training run, but actually in race mode: observing passes, pushing yourself a bit harder, trying to catch other runners, rushing through aids, and having just a slightly more tense mindframe. I can do the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours. My brain understands that and will find a natural pace to run that in. Beyond there is a terra incognita where mistakes can lead to blow ups of all kinds.

Anyhow, after those 5 kms of beautiful lakeside trail, the route dekes west into the hills and up a draw and the start of the first real climb. I tried to cool my jets around there and started forcing myself to walk climbs that nearby runners were running up. I let people pass and tried to keep myself under control. Without a monitor I didn’t know what my output was. My reliance on technology was exposed and made me uncomfortable. But, I seemed to settle into a pod of people that had about the same idea as I did. After the climb, there’s a long traverse with some ups and downs and, again, I was covering ground quickly. My downhill has improved in the interveneing year and I was racking up a lot of time running down things.

And so it went. I hit the first aid about 10 minutes earlier than last year. I was faster down off the mountain but slower on the intermingled climb owing to some time spent with a friend running the 50 miler (well on his way to an 8:50 effort). Then fast again down the last drop off that first hill and still speedy into the second aid station at km 25 — more than half way through the race.

I was all efficiency at this aid. Ate a lot, downed some salted potatoes from my drop bag, drank tons, took a pee and was off with a handfull of food walking while I ate. Shaved off 6 minutes at that aid alone and left 14 minutes ahead of my time from last year. But, I’d been running as if the race was shorter than it is and was starting to feel it. But I knew I had a long descent before the climb up Sun Mountain so aimed to make some speed on that and keep my pace up at least.

And onward. I kept drinking but somewhere in there I stopped taking gels and focussed on my candy. Strange inner thigh cramps came in at the top of Sun Mountain and coming back around I got overcaffeinated from some Gu gummies. But, I kept pace and was neither passing nor being passed and could see a blob of racers up ahead that I was hoping to pass.

By now it was getting hot. The forecast clouds didn’t materialize, and in the windless coves and valleys the sun was merciless. I’d been drinking my usual 1 1/2 liters per aid and ran dry right as I rolled into the final aid. Knowing the course maybe helped here, but I recalled Patterson being a long climb, but not overly painful last year. So, I charged the aid and was out of there really fast. But, I still wasn’t eating and only managed a bit of melon and some orange and coke and water before heading off. I was at 4:14, a full 21 minutes ahead of my performance last year. What could go wrong…?

Hubris. When reality pulls you out of your brain and back into contact with the world, the result can be painful and the transition abrupt. That orange slice from the aid station hit my stomach wrong and, in hindsight, I needed a gel and maybe a short easy walking break. But, I did none of those things. I kept charging on. “Power walking” up hills and trotting when it got flatter and then power walking into the last slope. As the elevation rose, so did the queasiness in my stomach. Just 100 m vert from the top I turned a switchback and suddenly was in a cold sweat, felt my bowels loosen, and could feel the world closing down on me. I staggered ahead, told the guy behind me to go by; that “I’m just going to take a breather” and laid down in the shade of a ponderosa. And stayed down. People asked after me. I remembered seeing this same hill littered with people last year who looked like fit bastards but were mysteriously collapsed in the shade and wondered why I should be so lucky to cruise on up, mostly painlessly. Well, now that was me collapsed on the hill. I contemplated what would happen if I stayed there. What would happen if I couldn’t get back up? How would I get off the course if I couldn’t walk?

Eventually, a fellow who I’d passed earlier and who was way worse off passed me and that kicked me out of it. I couldn’t let this guy beat me. He really looked like shit. So I clawed my self back to standing and staggered after him. And, as I walked, I felt a little better. A bit shaky, but better. And then a guy behind me was making funny jokes about my sexy, dirty calves, and that helped. And then we were at the top!

I turned and saw that the mountains were more beautiful this year than ever. Snow capped and sharp on the horizon. The wind was whipping up there cooling me down. And so we desceded and somehow my legs actually worked okay. I followed the jokester all the way down and then passed him on the flats (with some guilt and no words ’cause I couldn’t conjure any). I mustered some faster kms and then ground into the last climb. Fuck. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop. I ground up and past the previous years turn off passing some people and then imagined that James had lengthened the course by some unknown amount. What if it was 5 more k? He had the right to. What if there was a new hill? I’d planned on the end being in a certain place and had no recourse for a different end. And just as the winding seemed like it would go on and on, it ended. The band played and I could hear people cheer. Then I rounded a corner and heard Kate shout my name and cheer for me and I knew I was home. I remembered to really shake James’ hand this time and thank him for the great race, stopped my watch and was done. I rolled in in 5:41 having spent 12 minutes of the banked time from the first 3/4 of my race on Mt. Patterson. I’d found the fabled wall in a very real fashion and it was costly. But oh well.

After 10 minutes of lying down the first waves of endorphine came and I began to feel the invinceable sense that makes me want to keep trail racing. I slowly started forgetting hubris and started imagining sub 10 hour 50 milers in my near future…

Slow and Easy — The TARC Spring Classic 50k

Last Saturday was the Trail Animal Running Club’s (TARC) annual spring classic. This is a club I’m not a part of in a part of the country that I’m not a resident of and which can feel a little alien to me. During spring, for example, temperatures can range from hot and humid one day to frigid sleet the next. Forests are composed of deciduous hardwoods and the numerous ponds are filled with alien sounding frogs peeping loudly, their cries echoing off of tree trunks. People are just a bit more austere and hard than out west where hippiedom has softened some societal corners while hardening others I suppose. Anyhow, I came out here to work on a project for a couple of weeks and am in the midst of training for a really long (for me) race in July, so I decided to enter a somewhat local ultra marathon during my stay. Luckily, this ultra-running thing has gotten popular enough that there’s usually a race every weekend somewhere within a 200 mile radius anywhere in the US especially once the snow has melted off the landscape as the case may be in New England. While poking around on the Ultrasignup page the TARC kept rising to the top. Lots of races, seemingly good trail folk with a good trail vibe, and a low low price of $20 for an ultra. So I signed up for the 50k some months ago as a way to build my optimism as I fought nagging injury from over stepping my bounds back in December/January.

Double track, New England coastal style. That wet patch became a full-on mudhole by hour 3.

As things do, the race-date eventually rolled around. Leading up to the race, work on the project I was out east for was very demanding and I was following my usual bad habits of staying up too late wasting time on the internet or playing games on my phone and generally being irresponsible about sleep. But, the running had been going well. I’d got a few hard weeks in with back-to-back long runs in the 2 hour range each and some good, hard, shorter runs during the weeks. So, I was feeling somewhat in-shape with a few nagging body issues like an ongoing teneancy for my psoas to start to pop over my femoral head with each step after km 6 of running. Given that this would be a 50 km race, that corresponds to 44 kms of gristly, sometimes audible hip snap. Yuck! I set out with the intention to run 30 kms at the very least, then do an assessment and proceed from there lap-by-lap.

Yes, lap-by-lap. Unlike the other 50ks I’ve run, this one is held at a just-over-10 k course with 5 loops. About this I was ambivalent – the repitition promised to get boring, which was a strike against – but the repitition would also mean easy-access to self-aide and, like a long commute driven day after day, sometimes repeats go by faster the 3rd, 4th, or 5th time through. The race description also promised varied single track with a few dashes of fire-road and just a smidge of pavement. And, the frequent return to the start meant that if my knees or hips blew up, I would be a short way from an exit.

So, on race day after a week of 5-6 hour sleep nights, and a 5:20AM waking I set off in a borrowed Volvo for Weston, Massachussetts from Newmarket, NH. I arrived at the race grounds – a town owned property with horse riding facilities and a nice open field for parking/post race hangout set in Weston, which looks like a very wealthy suburb of Boston with all the New England charm and ostentaciousness you could picture. I rolled into the parking area, packed my stuff and registered and then got in the epic bathroom line and through that in time to have a few minutes to hang out and stretch and wander around.

Weston: New England quaint

This looked about like any other mixed-distance trail race with ultra marathon I’ve been to. Some extremely fit looking bearded 30 somethings who were out to win their races, some super muscular short guys, some tanned and buff older women who have probably won many an ultra, some younger female duos who would almost certainly run the whole distance side-by-side which is an admirable level of non competitiveness that I may never achieve. Some heavy dudes with T-shirts announcing their fund raising campaign. There were lots of Boston accents of course which skewed my media based perception of tough, heavy-set bostonian police/plumbers/detectives/criminals what-have-yous. And then lots of people like me who are somewhere in between – the proverbial middle-of-the-packer age group runners who fill out the field. Overall, there were 350 people running the 4 races and 108 would finish the 50k. The other distances were 10 k, 1/2 marathon, and marathon. And, as usual, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen the shorter race and the longer period of lounging and post-race food noshing. Runnin a half marathon still allows someone to gorge themselves on doughnuts and quesadillas. Why never the pic nic? Always the toil. At the Siskiyou out back, I’m going to feel extra silly about all that distance.

The final pre-race note has to do with the weather. Although the week and even the day leading up to the race had been nice, a weak storm was brewing which would pull down some cold canadian air and promised some steady rain and temperatures near 40 F or 5 C or so. Brrrr. Given my state of travel, I didn’t have much warm clothing with me so, again, was happy for the easy bail-out option in case I grew hypothermic. Skies were grey but not raining at the start so I was hopeful for an erroneous forecast.

Eventually 8:10 rolled around and we were ordered to line up and get ready to run. After the usual pre-ultra inaudible megaphone update, a countdown was begun and soon we were off. By we I mean a lot of people. The 10 k pack was started a tad earlier, but the 1/2, full and 50 k groups were mass started and it made for a busy passage for the first 1/2 lap or so. But, my race strategy was to treat this like a faster training run at least over the first three laps then, if I was feeling really spunky, I’d let myself go for it and hit some target like 5 hrs or something. So, the herd-of-cattle style start helped keep my pace down and heart rate slow early on. And, really, at the beginning of races people usually are running faster than they intend so things were moving pretty well, just a little tight.

Runner supplied aid station pre-organization. I avoided everything but the salted potatoes and the swedish fish I brought.

Strategy. Well, it amounted to a bit of confidence given the advertised flatness of the race and recent good running combined with some knowledge of what I wanted to eat and the benefits of having easy access self-aide on top of the race-provided aid station. Strategy was to eat swedish fish and gels as needed, but at least one gel per lap and lots of swedish fish. My water was my small waist pack/bottle so was borderline too little, but I need to learn to drink less. Shoes were the kinvara trail shoes with socks with the alternative of peregrines and thicker socks if more support was needed later on. I had a gore-tex shell to put on if I got cold and I would eat and drink a lot at the aid stations.

The running in New England is pretty outstanding. There are some nice trail systems near pretty large cities and towns and lots of protected green space intermingled. So, you are never too far from a trail through some hardwood forest, over rolling granite boulder landscape and/or short steep hills. Further north and west the terrain is much steeper and races there rival those in the west for elevation gain and technicality. But, near the coast, the trails are better groomed, often have a nice layer of pine duff and are pretty friendly. The caveat is MUD. The flatness and the deciduous trees combine to make a lot of standing bogs and thick, thick, black mud. Awesome mud. Epic mud. Thick, stinky, black mud. Whereas Vancouver Island mud is runny and sometimes grainy, east coast mud is all thicknesses of fine grain organic ooze. Although the TARC course started somewhat dry, the rain promised to reactivate the dormant mud pits and make the existing ones bigger and badder.

The race started on fire road then switched to trail in about a km. Then, within the first 1 1/2 kms the first mud pit revealed itself. There were options to circumvent which people were slowly doing, you could rock hop directly through which looked slick and dangerous, or you could charge the mud, which at this point looked tacky enough to be doable. So, I chose a mix of rock hopping and direct charging. From there, more trail wound its way through oaks and pines, up steep little hills, and down the back sides of the same. The trail surface was orange/red pine needles interspersed with a few roots and rocks, and the ongoing mud holes. Really, perfect for fast fun running. Just technical enough to keep you awake without slowing you down too much. The trail emptied onto a road for about 200 m and then picked up onto another trail leading around private property along a stone wall, then across a field and back into the woods. The course looped and wound and completely decimated my already struggling sense of direction in this part of the world. I soon realized that, were I to injure, I would have a 1 in 360 chance of picking the right azimuthal direction for walking out of there back toward my car. The two steepest climbs were about 1/2 way through the lap and I took them as walks each time realizing that I could walk about as fast as racers near me but without blowing up my heart rate and without skipping over my race strategy.

As usual, the hip snapping and popping kicked in at about km 7. Right on time and a friendly companion to keep me grossed out for the rest of the race. By km 10 I was feeling otherwise warmed up and breezed through the aid area, logged my lap on the timing mat, took a selfie and headed back out. By then the pack was thinning a little, so the course had fewer people in the way and I could get into a flow. I also had a vague idea where the faster parts of the course were, so knew when to expect slow laps and when fast.

Somewhere in there. Wetter than I look.

And so it went. The early part of the third lap were the most blissful. I hit some kind of running nirvana where everything was flowing nicely and smoothly. Small pains came and went. Some tendons threatened to flare, my knees barked then yapped, then stopped making any noise and just did what knees should do. The aid stations had salted potatoes so I was in heaven there and the volunteers were super friendly about filling my water bottle and letting me hang out and guzzle. And then on the 4th lap everything slowed down. I don’t even know why or how or when it happened but one second I was moving along and the next some 7 minutes had gone by and nary a km was turned over. No blaming the GPS. Everything tightened up, hips, hamstrings, knees, etc and it was just work to get them all to move. A GU helped but really it was mysterious. I think it was a version of a bonk but a sneaky kind with no mental imprint. I was a little stupid at the next/last aid, but onwards. So far the 30 km limit had come and gone and there wasn’t any question about continuing — I’ll save the DNFs for longer races!

Somewhere around km 30 I had picked up the mantra of “easy and smooth, smooth and easy” and was muttering it out loud when I thought I was mostly alone. I easy smoothed my way through the 4th lap and set into the 5th a little rough but determined. I stopped caring about rock hopping and charged through the now massive and deep mud holes. Mud oozed into my shoes and lubricated my feet. I clicked and popped down the piney trails, “power” hiked the hills, and had a gel now and then. And, through the whole lap I started passing people who were getting eaten by the distance. I made some attempts at nailing sub 6 minute kms. The last 2 kms involved a lot of grunting and self encouragement. No more easy smooth at the end. Just grunt and grind and groan and ache and slip and slime. And then I heard people cheering and I turned onto the last stretch of trail before the end and kind of went a little faster for my finish in a strong-for-me time of 5:14:00. Slower than I had hoped by about 14 minutes, but I also didn’t feel totally wrecked (once I got over my finish line push which always kills me). Just hungry and wet and achy which were all remediable things.

Bowlegged (tight psoas) and muddy shod at the end.

I lingered around long enough to eat lots of quesadilla, soup, misc trail snax, hot cocoa, coffee and cocoa, etc. etc. etc. I thanked the race director for a great race. Changed into warm clothes (which took about 20 minutes to complete given my sugarfree brain in an amazing yardsale of socks and pants and shoes and sweatshirs that I just couldn’t figure out) and then went back to the Volvo which, blissfully, had heated seats. I drove back to NH and was back home by 3 PM. Along the way a sense of euphoria came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long while. Finishing the race, finishing strong, and with a mostly intact set of body parts that didn’t seem to be portending any long-term lay ups. I ran the race in minimal shoes and loved it, and it was just fun. Some really blissful running in there and love for the trails and trail running scene in New England. SuperTARCular.

Put back together. Now for a 5 hours drive north through Newmarket then up to the Whites.

A tale of two hearts: Deception Pass 50k

I roll into the last aid station with about 4 kms to go. I’m angry. My hydration pack wont open, they don’t have the snacks I want. I’m short with the aid station attendees who only deserve abunant thanks for the work that they do for the runners. This is the way my longest runs have been since I started up the Kludahk trail last August. I get irritated. Head full of bees, pukey, thirsty, etc. Although I don’t train as hard as I should, I do run a lot; enough to lend me some ease in these races? The thing that happened is that I’ve just been running with a lot less joy these days than I did when I started and when I was progressing through the Island Race Series a year ago.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there’s no joy in my running. I’ve had countless blissful runs over the summer, fall, and into this winter. Pure smoothness some days and pure speed (for me) others. But, my state of mind has been eroding overall. Negativity creeping in as I stagnate at work, then come home frustrated day after day of wasting a precious life.

The start of my race was one of those blissful runs and, actually, most of the run was. But the photographs of me en-route show a different heart, a different face. In each picture I could scrounge up of me since the race, there I am with a god aweful grimmace on my face. Brow furrowed and concentration in the extreme. When I first saw the pictures I couldn’t understand them. I had felt pretty good, pretty happy, and pretty chatty during much of the race. I had set out some rules that were similar to my Sun Mountain 50k but a little stiffer in terms of what they would demand of me: heart rate cap of 160, pace of 5:30 kms when on roads, and drinking a lot and eating as much as possible. At Sun Mountian, my HR cap was 140 and I’d hoped for 6:00kms on roads late in the game. For Deception I was hoping for a time around 5 hours 30 minutes.

This is the look that tells the story of my race

At the start all was going according to plan. The race begins by running a couple of kms on road up a short but steep hill followed by a fun taste of the trails to come near the Deception Pass campground. I caught my friend Chris in there and met her friend Lisa. We watched a beaver swim past on the lake and generally marvelled in the decent weather and how much fun it is starting a long race like this. Each runner holding onto a little ball of energy and enthusiasm and stoicness for what lies ahead. After nearly looping back to the start, the race hooks north to a trail paralleling the shore that makes up the south side of the pass. This trail is rocky and rolly with sime short steep climbs and technical sections interspersed with wide forest paths eventually climbing up to the bridge itself. I was caught up in the moment and had forgot to note that my watch was displaying lap average heart rate rather than instantaneous thus I was peaking well above my target max rate. So, with things looking in check, I powered along and eventually caught a friend of Dave C’s from Vancouver who I knew was fast. So, I slowed to his pace and held on for a while.

The route crosses the bridge from the south side to the north and then ducks off down a “trail” leading into the park and the first in a series of four “lollipops”. These loops are fun because they get longer with each successive one allowing slower runners to say hi to the faster. They are also good places to play trail chicken and keep you alert for head ons when the lead runners race past the trailers on the stem of the pop. In the middle of the second lollipop a runner in front of me twited his ankle and went down. This startled me after watching Liz have to pull out of her race with a badly sprained ankle the day before. After checking in with him, on with the race (he later finished and seemed in good shape)!

After a few lollipops I began to realize that I’d gone out too hard. I was ahead of people I knew to be faster than me and was running in between a couple of fast runners from the Seattle area. So, after the second pass through the first aid I decided to slow it down a little. Until then, I’d been running with others and was kind of racing people despite the early stage. After slowing, Dave Campbell caught up with me and we ran together and chatted for the next few kilometers. I learned that his strategy was to build his heart rate through the race and that he was still in the slowest stage about to kick it into a higher gear. I knew to let him past when he decided to kick it, which he did midway through the 5th lillipop at around 15 kms.

The course in google earth

Lollipops 2 through 4 travel out onto headlands in the Salish Sea and we got beautiful views of the Olympic Mountains, Smith Island, and the shoreline of Deception Pass. Beautiful passageways between rocks, blu-green kelpy waters and eagles calling from trees. These were the prettiest parts of the run and might argue for a reversal of course for next years’ event to give weary runners something nice to look at. Loop 5 climbed up the hill above Pass Lake on old and new logging roads, through a clear cut and down the other side through nice old forest. On that descent I caught Lisa and started chatting with her. In retrospect I wonder if all the chatting was getting on her nerves. Some runners lie to talk, others not. I was in a talkative mode but don’t know if she was. So, I steadily streamed questions at her down Pass Lake hill, back across the bridge, and up Goose Rock. Eventually I had to duck into the woods to pee and we parted ways. All of that was simply gorgeous running with views of water from the Bridge on and a very steep albeit short climb up Goose Rock then back down to the retreat center and onto Cornet Bay road to the second aid station. (access to 3rd through 5th aid opportunities).

After my pee break I started to hit some kind of wall. Up onto Cornet Bay road I caught Chris and then ran with her a little ways. I was feeling pretty run down by then. My early speed was catching up to me and I wasn’t comfortable and I recall moving through a similar tough time at the halfway point of the Sun Mountain 50 k. At the aid station I lingered, getting water in my pack and drinking a lot of water and gu bru and grabbing a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches. Heading out of there I was a fair bit behind Chris and Lisa and again running my own race. This next phase of the race is two loops through a mixed 2nd, 3rd, and minor old growth forests on old roads, connector trails and the like. It’s pretty in an industrial forest way with the odd beautiful patch of trees.

As I ran I slowly munched the PB + J sandwiches I’d grabbed and tried to keep down the food and water as nausea and general discomfort settled right in. I was starting to cramp already which didn’t bode well for the rest of the race. I had strange cramping in my left anterior tibialis that I’d never felt before and very crampy quads. I guess this is when the racing really started. My pace felt really slow, but my GPS revealed that my splits were reasonable. I tried to focus on anything but the pain. I’d recently read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running wherein he describes various pains entering and exiting the body and the eventual freedom from pain that happens when you run long enough. Well, I tried to focus on the leaving or anything besides the pain and wished for an ipod.

Midway through that first loop I caught Chris and Lisa who were running together. I glommed onto them and somehow we together powered each other through that first go-round. We didn’t talk much but I think we were all happy for the company of friends. I wouldn’t have run that fast, but they made it look possible, so I just did it to hang on. Midway through this loop, the leader of the race lapped us. It was none other than Victoria’s Matt Cecil who is a terriffic trail runner. He was pushing well ahead of the nearest trailing runner and wound up finishing about 12 minutes ahead. For myself, I didn’t have any desire to pass Lisa and Chris until the end of the loop where the course drops back down to the aid station. I wanted to get some speed on the down so passed Lisa and Chris and blasted to the road and to the aid station. On this blast, Dave passed on his way back up from aid a good 20 minutes ahead of me and looking really good. His friend was a couple of minutes ahead of him and it turned out that Dave wouldn’t catch him. Those folks are fit from running the north shore of Vancouver.

Foodwise, I’d been eating a GU or two, dates, swedish fish (YUM!), and PB + J at the aid stations with a lot of gu brew at aids and lots of water. I was flying through water at a hydration pack full per aid stop with lots at the aids themselves. Over the whole race I drank around 6 L of fluids and probably not enough salt. For food, in total I ate 3 GUs, a large handful of dates, and a large handful of sedish fish and 1 1/2 PB+J sandwiches. At the current aid stop I dug through my drop bag and dug out the reserve dates and fish and then got back on course. A slow aid stop at almost 4 minutes, but I felt like I needed the rest. While I was there Chris and Lisa breezed through and dashed out leaving me to try to catch them later on. They are saavy, experienced racers and know how to speed through the aid stations.

As I headed out from the station I didn’t quite know how I was going to do that loop again. I took comfort in the fact that I knew how it all went and, like a long boring commute, sometimes familiarity makes the time pass faster. So, I chugged, I cramped, I walked more on the ups and ran not as fast on the flats and downs. Again about midway in the loop, I caught Chris and Lisa but not long after I did Lisa pulled over for a pee break and Chris stopped to wait for her in a very sportswomanly move. I ached past to their encouragement and was mostly alone for the rest of the race.

Of course, by now I was starting to taste the finish and knew that I actually would finish and that always pulls one along. But, I could never, in this race, shake the nagging feeling of “why not just stop”. Maybe that was the concerned look on my face during the race — a sense of forcing myself to do something I didn’t want to do. I wanted to bed down in the ferns and just sleep, I was never sure I could do it, that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, or puke or even pass out. I’d adopted a blister on km 5 or so and it was lively and sloshy by the 20th kilometer let alone the 30th and the 40th and the 50th. My crotchal region started to chafe at km 10 or so and was a world of sting from then on makng me worry that I’d wear a hole down there. So, when I hit the aid station at the end of the last loop and with only a few kms to go, I was in a sour mood. JUST GET ME OFF THIS COURSE. I left aid quickly and walked the first minute on the road and then started to run. Back throuh the retreat center eventually to a mellow climb back up to the highway and an underpass leading to a final descent to the north beach and eventually home. A guy passed me on the climb out of the retreat center and I tried to hold onto him a little, but to no avail. After a walk up the hill, I roled into the final descent. Back on the rolly, beachside trail we swung past Glenn Tachiyama who photographs the races. He snapped my photo and soon I heard him shout encouragement to Chris who still had some cheer and chat in her. Damn. I knew I couldn’t do anything to keep her from passing me if she had the gumption. I had no gas pedal to hit, just maintenance.

finally, the trail climbed away from the beach over to the parkinglot and the 1/2 km of pavement to the finish. My watch hit 50k (3 km longer than sun mountain) and I tried to speed up to finish. I crossed and turned to high 5 Chris who was only 30 seconds behind me. I hugged Liz and then collapsed on the grass in my usual post race crash of cramping and nausea and extreme frazzle.

Blargh! Done! Snarl!

And that was it. 5:47 or so. A steady heart rate that was way too high. A full week of badly lactic acid filled legs. It was great. My disgruntle during the race faded as soon as I had pizza and beer in me. Liz and Brianna were there to cheer me on and care for me and soon my desire to run again returned.

But why all the grumpy faces in the race? Do I take this too seriously now? Was I trying to race instead of challenge myself and myself only? Was it the presence of fast peers that made me try to keep up and be disappointed when I couldn’t? Is there a root in here that is shared with my dysfunction in my workplace?

I don’t know. Since the race I’ve had many excellent runs with my sister who visited for a couple of weeks. A 30 km run from Sidney to Victoria, a 2:45 run in Goldstream up difficult hills at a friendly pace with little food and almost no water. Running with people I love, being social seems to make running into what I want it to be and my life into what I want it to be. Being isolated and alone on trails or at work these days seems to be draining me. Leading to pain both firm and existential. I have another race in a few weeks on Orcas Island. How do I do this one and keep the smile on? Slow down? Not compete? Compete with a smile?

We’ll see.

A Summer Off

Just one idea:

Head south in April or May. (This is all about running)(This is all about exploring)(This is not about fastest known times)(This is about seeing a lot and challenging myself in the mountains of the west)

Again, head south in April. Run rim to rim to rim in the grand canyon. Go to Canyonlands and run the white rim trail/road. Head to southern Cali and run long trails in the deserts there. Joshua tree, anza borrego, the hills of San Diego. Surf a little, rest. Maybe find a temp job some place and earn some money while the mountains free themselves of their winter jacket. Live out of the van. As the snow melts, chase it up into the mountains. Run in the Sierra, Run in the Rockies. Run the courses of famous 100 milers in a few days. Volunteer at ultras to soak up good running vibes and get inspired by ultra fit people running 50 miles in 7 hours. By July or August enter a race and see how it goes.

I might break, sprain something, wobble. Fall apart. Hate the loneliness. But all that quiet might do some good. No technology. Maybe a simple cell phone. Cooking good food in the van. Sleeping 8 hours a night. Reading books. Leaving some worries behind. Kind of a reset. Might do the trick. Might drive me to madness. Might be a good idea.

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.