BETTER THAN NOT BEING ABLE TO
Wow, this event was bigger than I thought! I parked in the annexed field surrounded of freshly mowed tall grass, and knew the parking lot must have resembled a can of sardines from an aerial view. The field’s new driveways or throughways were beginning to look more like a BMX track, as the muddy tire tracks started to showing up more and more. Everywhere you looked, the runners and spectators hop-scotched their way over the muddy water. I found myself leaping over the puddles of rainwater too, in hopes of keeping my feet dry for as long as possible. It didn’t occur to me that my feet would inevitably get soaked that day, but if you’re like me it’s instinctive to go around.
After registering and getting my bib pinned on, I was feeling the familiar tightness in my chest as the anxiety of the daunting Chuckanut 50K race settled in. 50K means there was 31.5 miles of course for over 350 entrants to run. Approximately ten minutes before the race started, the weight of all my anxiety sank in on me. I knew I needed to make a quick trip to the row of portable facilities/Porta Potties before the race began, and of course, there was a short line waiting for me to stand in – the chain of shame.
As I returned from the Porta Potties, I could only hope that holding my chin up would recapture a little of my dignity. But I had no time for that as the starting signal sounded and I had to high step it to the back of the pack. The race was underway! You would never guess that it was an ultra marathon race judging by the sprinting pace that these world class runners in the front started out with.
A large part of my strategy for this race was to be the last runner to cross the starting line. I did not want the faster pack of runners to start me off with a pace that would be too fast and would prevent me from finishing. I read another ultra-marathon runner’s blog, and he suggested not starting out any faster of a pace than what you expected to finish the course with. I was hoping to finish with approximately thirteen minutes per mile pace, so that was my target starting pace.
As I crossed over the starting line in last place, I pushed the start button on my Garmin wristwatch to start the timer, and continued my walking. I wanted to walk for about three minutes of the initial course, but I ended up spending more like five or six minutes walking instead due to the congested narrow trail full of others also walking the first part of the course. The narrow walking path created a huge bottleneck for more than 350 runners who were trying to start the race.
Once the first mile was behind me, I was able to comfortably fall into my interval running pace. I did eight minutes of slow running and then I dropped down to three minutes of a very slow jog. I judged that in doing this, I was able to run and recover each mile. This is not a normal approach for 50K runners, and I noticed that I was the only one using it. I’d pass a couple groups of runners and then on my jog, the groups would pass by me. This cycle of leap frog continued for seven miles, until we reached Aid Station #1. Water and refreshments were in bounty at the station. This point was just a little over 7 miles into the 50K distance. The sleeping Chuckanut Mountain was up next for the runners.
I felt that I successfully ran the opening part of the race. I wanted to avoid the’ too fast too early’ syndrome that trips up so many rookies. Based on the hour and nineteen minutes showing on my wristwatch, I had successfully ‘paced’ myself to avoid this incarcerating snare.
After a climb to Fragrance Lake, there’s a friendly trail that eventually drops down to Cleator Road. Here’s where the next group of volunteers are stationed to assist the ultra-runners. I commented to one of the volunteers, that “I was six minutes ahead of my schedule.” The volunteer replied, “Well you have time for a nap!” Hmmm, False!
When a distance runner stops for refreshments at the aid stations, they will typically find lots of available water, nutrition packets, and electrolyte products, but I found it surprising to find soup and crackers, candy bars and 2 liter bottles of Coca-Cola. I think I’ve served less food at my Super bowl parties! One of the volunteers took it to task to encourage us runners to continue on down the trail after a minute or two at the station. I guess too many runners thought it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
As I resumed the course, I found myself on a gravel road that headed up the mountain at a pretty steep grade. I found myself singing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” What started out as a slow jog up the hill eventually grinded down to a power hike alongside the others who were already walking up the hill. After awhile, I decided to start a very slow jog to see if I could move ahead with my standings in the pack.
After grinding out several miles, I came upon Aid Station #3, but I didn’t want to bother stopping for any of the refreshments. I was still feeling full from the breakfast cookie that I ate during one of my power hike sessions. This point on the course marked the top of the mountain. I had topped the highest point of the Chuckanut 50K course at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Ahead were seven or eight miles of up-and-down switch backing the trail into thick forest. One experienced runner referred to this section as the technical part of the course. I thanked myself for spending a few weeks training on this section. I had learned some tricks where I was able to catch up to a group of runners that weren’t as prepared. After following them for a while, I was able to pass several runners at a wide spot. (A month after this race, I analyzed my race weakness and found this was a part of the trail that I needed to focus training on for the future.)
There’s a turning point midway between Aid Stations #3 and #4 on this technical part of the course that leads you back to the point where you started out. At this turning point, there are virtually two ridge trails – one that takes you north along the top of the mountain and the other that drops a little bit in elevation and brings you back south.
20.5 mile mark/Aid Station #4 was a good reality check for me. Even though I was able to stay ahead of my premeditated schedule at the previous check points, I found myself a good 12 minutes behind schedule at this station! The mountain did what it’s good at – it wore me down. Another eye opener was when I approached the station, I noticed all the volunteers were crowded behind the tables and keeping themselves under the awnings out of the rain. I was so focused on the race that I had no idea how hard it was raining! As I walked up under the awning, I was drenched by the water pouring off the sides. Yeah, my shoes were hopelessly soaked. My whole body was drenched at this point and I didn’t even care. I just wanted to make sure I refueled sufficiently to get me back to the finish line some 11 miles ahead of me. I hurriedly refilled my hydration pack, and reloaded my energy gel packs. I tried to get back on the trail as quick as possible in response to being behind.
The conditions of the trail had changed. It was no longer that meandering trail along the mountain side. The name of the trail is descriptive enough, “Chinscraper.” This trail demanded more walking, well…hiking, climbing, clawing up a very ‘soupy’ trail. Every second of the heavy rain only made the trail more slippery. Seconds turning into minutes of rain only meant that the muddy slippery trails developed little trickles of water streaming down the middle. Minutes of rain lasting for hours, transformed those water trickles into rushing streams of water, forcing most of us runners off the trail onto the rougher sides of the trails where you can find better traction.
It is a hard thing to realize when you notice you’re walking in a race and the water is running. But, the top of the mountain that lay ahead was a huge milestone. Once I reached the summit, it meant that the rest of the course was either all downhill or level ground to run. Chinscraper was a total of 1.1 miles but it ate up over 20 minutes of my total course time. Note to self for future reference: train on this hillside more for next year’s race.
Coming down the mountain trail behind 200 or more other runners and tons of rain, left me with…WELL… mud soup. I tried to avoid the muddiest part by cutting some of the tangents on the inside corner of the trail switchbacks. This didn’t go too well for me near mile 25. Some of the runners that I had passed earlier on caught up to me after I slipped, fell and then rolled down a pretty steep slippery trail. One of the runners offered to help me up, but I kindly refused. My right calf muscle had cramped up tight during the fall. After spending a couple minutes stretching out and massaging the cramp, I pulled myself up and started stumbling down the trail again. It was not a pretty sight. I discovered later that I literally had mud everywhere.
I eventually arrived at the bottom of the mountain at the familiar Aid Station #1 again. I was now 25 minutes behind my schedule. I had intended to do my interval run/walk cycle that I started with, back to the finish line. But, being so far off my projected schedule, I surmised that I could make up some time by running all the way back at a nine-and-a-half-minute per mile running pace (again: false.) I held to a pretty good pace for four to five miles but I had neglected to hold to my nutrition and fuel plan. One and half miles out from the finish line, I experienced what ultra marathon runners call, “Bonk.” Bonking is when your body is out of glucose or sugars, and can’t produce anymore due to lack of a fuel source. Your body’s only option is to shut down. I was forced into walking. My mind told me to run, but my body would not let me. It’s a devastating feeling when you bonk. You feel disappointment and regret. You know what’s going on, but it’s too late at that point. I kept walking and felt a little better after a ways.
I took my backpack off and found my last GU gel pack buried at the bottom. I consumed it and waited a couple minutes or so, and then started with a very sluggish jog that sped up to a slow jog. Comparatively, this painful running felt like an old steam engine train using every ounce of effort to spin wheels only to grind ahead inches in its struggle. After a mile or so, I heard the music and the crowd at the finish line. That was the shot in the arm I needed to pick up the pace for a strong run across the finish line. My time was seven hours, twenty eight minutes and a few seconds. It was over. My wife and daughter were there to see me finish. Whew! Yea, I had very little energy left and looked pretty bad with mud from ear to ear, but…I still think it was better than not being able to run 50K.