Yesterday I became a woman — an honest-to-god trail-running woman!
Even with 50+ marathons and 14 ultras under my feet, I still couldn’t identify myself as an ultra-runner. I hang with a pretty gnarly crowd; they eat mountains for breakfast and consider 40 miles an easy day. Me? I like to take baby steps when it comes to challenging myself. Most of my ultras were on relatively flat, well-groomed “rails-to-trails” courses. It was time to hike up my “big girl” pants.
Mind you, I wasn’t a total virgin to technical trails with major elevation. In August 2009 my darling and I joined several other runners on a 27-mile training run on a section of the Cascade Crest 100-mile course. Not only did I have to contend with the most technical trails I had ever encountered, it was also freaking hot (90 degrees at the Snoqualmie Pass summit). Soon after hitting the trail I was sweating buckets, and even though I had 60 ounces of water in my hydration pack, salt tabs and several gels, the sweeper was really worried about me. By the time we hit an aid station at mile 10 I knew it would be foolish to continue, and fortunately we were able to get a ride back to the start.
I had another disastrous trail run last summer. I joined my darling for a training run on the first half of the White River 50 course, but it ended up being a long, slow hike (9 hours to cover approximately 25 miles). I was still recovering from two fast road marathons in the two weeks prior, plus I hadn’t eaten enough that morning. I was sucking wind on the uphills and far too timid on the downhills. By the end I was stumbling along in a daze. I somewhat redeemed myself, however, as two weeks later I swept the first half of the course during the race. It still took 8 hours, but I was responsible for removing the plentiful course marker ribbons, which added at least 45 minutes to my time.
That’s when I decided to make 2011 “The Year of the Ultra.”
My primary goal is to run White River, but I vowed to build up my experience and confidence on the trails in preparation. First up was the Carkeek 12-hour. You may recall I managed to get in a 50K (16 loops) in just over 9 hours in 2009. My goal for 2010 was to run at least 18 loops in the same timeframe. By reducing the time spent at the aid station after each loop I accomplished my goal: 34.75 miles in just under 9 hours. While one could argue Carkeek is a “big girl” race, the fact it’s a loop course (and therefore one knows what to expect) and just 5 miles from home makes it seem “easier.”
As I was planning out my 2011 race schedule I included more challenging races that would best prepare me for White River. However, I decided to start with shorter distances since I figured it’d be a good way to practice my skills without totally wiping me out. First up was the Orcas 25K; as with any James Varner/Rainshadow Running venture, it was a doozy. My calves were screaming at me on the long steep ascents, soon to be replaced by the howling of my quads on the rocky, technical descents. But I was encouraged by the fact that while I was passed by several runners on these sections, I ended up passing THEM during the last three miles where the trail was relatively flat, albeit still somewhat technical. I crossed the finish line in 3:48.
Next up was the Fishline 25K. Last year I ran the 50K, again with disastrous results. It took me 4 hours to finish the first half, so this year I vowed to beat that time. I was a tad nervous given how much rain had fallen that week (I remembered how much the slipping and sliding had aggravated my hip flexors the prior year), but I managed to maneuver through it just fine. It ended up being a glorious day for running, and I sprinted to the finish in just under 3 hours. HUZZAH!
It was now time to kick it up a notch and tackle the Chuckanut 50K.
Despite having great races at Orcas and Fishline, I approached Chuckanut with great trepidation. I had primarily focused my training on running a fast road marathon in April, so I hadn’t gotten in as much trail running as I should. I managed to get in a few loops at Discovery Park, adding in the tougher section down to the water. But I had no idea what to expect at Chuckanut.
I perused the results from past years, looking for people I knew who ran similar paces. I decided I’d shoot for a stretch goal of 6:30, figuring 7 hours would be more likely. The race starts and ends with 10K on the flat, well-groomed Interurban trail, so I figured I wouldn’t even think about a finish time until I reached the final 10K. Given endurance is my strength, I thought I might be able to make up some time there, unless, of course, my quads were completely thrashed.
My darling and I decided to drive up the morning of, which meant waking up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. He brewed up some strong coffee while I prepared a couple of bagel, egg and ham sandwiches for the ride up. While the weather had been pretty pissy during the week, it was rather clear and dry that morning. Thank goodness!
We arrived at Fairhaven Park about 6:45 (the race started at 8 ) and scored a parking spot close by. There were already a large handful or runners milling about, but rather than staying to chat we grabbed our packets and headed back to the car to chill out. My darling and I held our typical pre-race huddle — wear a hydration pack or just carry a bottle? Jacket or not? Wool beanie or running cap? I wasn’t going for a fast time so I decided to carry a pack (hubby went with a handheld). We both threw on our lightweight Brooks jackets because of the wind, but he ditched his at the first aid station and I tucked mine into my pack within the first three miles.
We headed back down to the park about 20 minutes before the start to find the place teeming with runners. However, I was surprised I didn’t see more familiar faces; obviously I was not yet part of the in-crowd. But just as we were heading to the start line I heard my name being called; I turned to see my friend Laura who was also running her first big girl race. She too had no idea how she’d fare, but we decided to run together, at least at the start.
Because the race was chipped timed I didn’t start my Garmin as Krissy yelled “Go!” assuming I’d hit it as I crossed the start timing mat. Turns out there wasn’t one; Doh! Laura and I quickly settled into a steady yet easy pace and chatted a bit. I warned her I normally don’t talk during a race since I get more fatigued, but the run felt so effortless at that point it didn’t make a difference. We hit the first aid station at the 10K mark in about 1:15 where I made a quick pit stop. Laura and I also took a walk break to take in a gel.
The course double-backs on the Interurban for about a quarter mile before turning onto the Fragrance Lake single-track trail. For me, this is where the “real” race started. Although I walked most of the uphill sections, I tried to run as much of the flatter spots as possible. At mile 10 we hit Cleater Road, roughly 3 miles of relatively steep forest service road. Laura and I walked much of it, although a couple sections were runnable. About 2 miles up I found my second wind and started running again. However, Laura had to take a walk break and she bid me adieu. I had hoped she’d catch up with me at some point, but alas I wasn’t to see her again until the finish.
The third aid station was at the top of Cleater Road and one of the aid workers assured us the steepest climbs were over. I asked about the infamous “Chinscraper,” upon which he replied, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” I found one should never trust things the aid station workers say.
It would be almost 7 miles before we’d hit the next aid station, and this was the most technical and challenging section. I was still pretty timid on the technical descents, but I was having a ton of fun. By now several of us were leapfrogging each other; I’d pass a few on the uphills, they’d bomb pass me on the downhills. A few seemed to get so far ahead I didn’t think I’d see them again. We hit the muddiest section about mile 17-18; it actually wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. Besides, I figured I needed to properly christen my new Cascadia 6s.
I got into a nice pacing groove with another gal right in front of me. But when we hit a particularly nasty patch of mud she went down and unfortunately her knee hit a rock pretty hard. I tried to stay with her but she assured me she was fine; she just needed to shake it off. I offered her some Tylenol but she said she had some and would take it if she needed it. I begrudgingly left her, reassured by the fact her friend wasn’t far behind.
About a mile later I heard several voices, but I knew I couldn’t be at the aid station yet. Turns out it was another friend of mine, Stacy, who was running with three other friends, one of whom was suffering from intense stomach pain. Just like the gal I had been running with, Stacy’s friend assured them she’d be fine. They had managed to call her husband who was planning on picking her up at the next aid station about 2 miles away. I got ahead of them, but knew it would be a brief lead as Stacy was a much faster runner. Sure enough, within half a mile they overtook their lead.
By now any trepidation I had was gone, but I knew I had one more challenge to tackle: Chinscraper. It started just after the mile 20 aid station. I asked the aid workers how long it was; one said a mile, another said a mile and a half. Did I mention one can never trust what they say? I soldiered up the trail, regretting each time I looked up to see how much farther I had to go. About halfway up I caught up to another runner; I didn’t want to pass him immediately so I settled into his pace, joking that this is what builds character. But as he slowed even more I decided to make my move. Mind you, I still wasn’t running, but at least I could power hike. Soon after passing him I looked up to see Glenn Tachiyama poised to take my picture; however, there was NO WAY I’d be able to muster up a run. I settled for a smile, asking him how much farther to the top. “About half a mile.” Turns out he was right!
About 70 feet from the mountain crest the trail turns left down to the Cleater Road parking area. As I skipped across it I started singing the song from Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and gang had just woken up from their poppy stupor and started heading toward the Emerald City — “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night. Step into the sun, step into the light.” Sure, I still had another 9 miles to go, but it was ALL DOWNHILL, BABY!
Be careful what you wish for.
After heading back down Cleator for about 3/4 mile we turned onto a wide trail toward Fragrance Lake, which soon became Fragrance Lake Road. It was 3 miles of quad-thrashing descent; I swore my innards were doing flip-flops (I had to take a couple of walk breaks to ease the pain). I finally heard the music wafting up from the last aid station and sashayed in to the tune of a Latin beat. I still had 10K to go, but at least it would be a flat 10K.
My 6:30 hopes now dashed, I still thought I could beat 7 hours. But the run had taken its toll and I was forced to take a few more walk breaks in between my shuffling run. Still, I was bolstered by the fact I was again passing people, including a couple of folks who had passed me on the technical ridge portion. With 2 miles to go it was clear I wouldn’t make 7 hours, but I continued to push the pace. I ran the last mile in 9:10, sprinting toward the finish. I was ecstatic to see I came in under 7:05, but alas my elation was short-lived. Because I’d started my Garmin late, my actual time was 7:05:03. Still I was thrilled, as I had just run my first big girl race.
White River — I’m coming to get you!