First 50k in the books!! I owe much gratitude to Monica, a more seasoned runner who took me under her wing, encouraged, and stayed with me for the second half of the race.
The course was incredibly beautiful and incredibly tough. Somewhere between 5-6k of elevation. I picked something challenging for a reason and knew I'd be humbled out there, but the elation of finishing was such a proud moment -- you forget the dirt, bruises, sweat, and doubts and just live, breathe and smile in that amazing moment. Your time doesn't matter. What matters is your spirit.
The last couple hours of the drive over was simply breathtaking. Parts of the Northern Cascades reminded me of the Adirondacks, except they're much, much steeper. Maybe it was the twisty roads around the lakes. Diablo Lake was probably my favorite. I didn't get any pictures of that but I did slow down and take a few other pictures on my drive over. Apparently a mid-afternoon Saturday drive meant there was little traffic on this stretch of highway. I even took a bathroom pit stop right outside of the car and didn't encounter anyone!
After a long 6 hours in the car (with the last hour spent through the mountains) I arrived in the Methow Valley and a cute little town called Winthrop. This is the dry side of the North Cascades and the terrain is still phenomenal but in a completely different way. The mountains are smoother, drier, greener, with abundant plant life. But make no mistake, many of those trails are dry and exposed!
My first stop was to pick up my race number. My second stop was to open the lock box at the inn I stayed at and drop off my things. The third was to head to a local grocery store for some food. I accomplished all three things pretty quickly because the town of Winthrop, WA is tiny. I should have walked through the town and taken a quick picture but I didn't. The town has a cheesy Western theme to it, but it's actually so tiny that it's charming. Leavenworth, WA has a Bavarian type theme and I felt pretty differently about that town - though the bouldering and camping about 10 miles away was super!! I'll be back to Winthrop though.
The above pictures are where I stayed and the car I rented. The room was inexpensive, comfortable and clean. It also had a microwave (which I didn't end up using - I guess when you don't have one at home you just don't think about it!) and a fridge and ice, which I adored. And a coffee maker! I'm not sure why but I have really gotten into mini coffee makers at hotels when I never used to touch them.
I rented a car because I'm having some issues with mine. An expensive $1k fix type of issue. Ugh. It works but my cap is 3 hour drives and this one was six. Plus I scored an amazing $42 deal for 3 days on a mini-cooper. I loved that car!! I remember thinking I disliked them, but later realized it was the dumb PT cruisers that I wasn't fond of. This car had so many comfortable features that really made my trip. Like, I got to plug in my ipod and listen to music I don't have on CD's! I also got to charge my phone the entire time via USB and keep my GPS on without fear of draining my phone battery, so I knew just how much more time I had to drive. But the best part? You just press an "on" button when it starts to rain and the wipers are sensor activated. I have no idea how this works but as the rain picks up, so do the wipers. Finally, it was pretty nice to not have to downshift during the mountain pass. Automatic cars are so simple to drive!
I kinda wish I had taken a little better care of the outside of my car so I could sell it/trade it in for a newer one. This is a very minor wish though :)
Race Prep and Organization
That night I laid out all of my crap on the bed to sort into drop bags. I was allowed 3 drop bags and since this was my first trail race and I picked an ultra distance I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't want to go nuts and overpack, but I did want to cover my bases. Here is what my bed looked like:
Clearly all that was not going into my bags!! So I made neat plastic labeled bags of the following:
1) Tailwind Nutrition (my electrolyte/carb/fuel for my hydration pack)
2) Gummi bears and Twizzlers for quick sugar pick me up
3) Throat drops and meds (more on this soon)
4) A food item. Drop 1: Picky Bar, Drop 2: Pop tarts, Drop 3: Poptarts and a Picky Bar, I wanted options.
5) Body glide, Wet Wipes, and Sunblock
I also added socks to Drop 3, which I regret now because I never got them back. I waited around after the race (and I mean until almost the very end) and that aid station still hadn't cleared/brought things back. This means I lost a $15 pair of toe socks. Oh well! I should have known better than to put a pair of toe socks in drop #3, since I had no clue how I'd feel! I would like to mention though that I've seen other people recommend socks in drop bags, but I now know that for a 50k, I'm fine in one pair.
So here's the part where I mention I was also sick. Not just a touch of sick, but "I've lost my voice until I've taken a bunch of pharmaceuticals" sick. On Wednesday night I was convinced it was strep because there were no other symptoms, but it wasn't. By the time race morning rolled around my throat pain was mild, but other symptoms had popped up and the sick had morphed into a pretty powerful head cold. I know it won't make sense to most people, but missing this run wasn't an option, so I loaded up on antihistamines, packed some in my drop bags, and just went for it! I also went into this race with 5 full rest days. No cross-training, nada! At first it was tough but as race day got closer and I got sicker, it got easier. Plus, traveling meant no time to run anyway.
I got into bed around 9pm and started to freak out a little about snakes. I won't go into the details, but I have an irrational fear of any and all snakes, but the race director had sent out an email expressively pointing out that snakes could be on course and that rattlesnakes lived in this area. I passed some time reading about the snakes of eastern Washington, fell asleep, had snake dreams, woke up a lot, and finally around 4am I slept really well until my wake up at 7:15.
That 7:15 wake up? It was the fire alarm going off in the building. HOLY SHIT. I had earplugs in and it was still horribly loud! It went off after about 30 seconds, I think someone burned toast, but this didn't feel like a very good start to the morning. Then... I actually had a too soon GI type incident/accident. I'll spare icky details and I hesitated to mention that, but I wanted to stress just how wrong my day was starting. My voice was also gone so I made coffee, took a few meds and called my mom once it came back. Talking to mom's make things better!
As I drove on over to the Chickadee Trailhead I had gotten back my sense of calm. The day was shaping up to be very sunny, warm and clear. Pretty much a perfect running day! Though, I knew the course would be hard, I wasn't concerned one bit about pace. This was going to be run on feel. I'd run/walk intervals if needed. My only hope was to finish. I had 8 hours and I would happily use every last minute of those 8 hours if needed.
Miles 1 - 9
I started off comfortably at the back of the pack in a 10:30 pace. It was too fast, but it was also a downhill at first. As we started to settle into some small climbs I pulled back and let people pass. I power walked the steeper climbs and met a few people who were happy that I was walking so they could chat. Most of the people I met were 25k people, so I didn't feel very bad walking as I was going twice as far! I came into the first aid station around mile 8 or 9 without much of a hitch. There was a steep climb up to there, but there was also a really quick downhill and I was in the happiest mood just taking in the pretty yellow wildflowers and the scenery. It was a joyous moment! I kept the pace conservative though and when I stopped at that aid station my average pace was 12:06. I felt like this was pretty good, though maybe a little faster than I wanted, I knew there was still well over 20 miles to go.
This aid station was the most difficult one for me. I realize they were handling a lot more people since we were less spread out at this point, but I was very much on my own and this cost me quite a bit of time. I struggled to fill my pack with the right amount of Tailwind (I had it premeasured but I also still had water left so I did a bit of eyeballing). Someone filled up my bladder with a pitcher of water as I held it open but she filled it up past the fill line, so I had to waste a lot of water (and my mix) dumping it out. My mouthpiece got muddy, my pack got muddy, and I had to bust out the wetwipes to clean off the mouthpiece and my hands. I grabbed my Picky bar, dropped the wrapper in the trash and took off feeling bummed that my average pace had dropped to 13:10 from all that wasted time.
Miles 9 - 17
The next mile or so was more uphill on a forest road. There was a lot of walk/running for me here. My pack had too much air in it so it sloshed, but I didn't have time to fix that and it was only a minor grievance. We then turned and hit this unexpected steep grade over .17 of a mile. It was very short but it was so steep that I had no idea how to even walk up it. The great thing about trail runners is that they are so encouraging and kind! This one guy said "you got this!!" and this other guy showed me how to turn my feet out pointing to one side and then to the other to alternate use of leg muscles. It really made a difference! But oh, once we got to the top?? It was a glorious, glorious at least a mile downhill. This was one of my favorite spots on course because I kept up with a lot of people and had a blast! Very narrow singletrack in the woods and the trees had absorbed the sun and heat so we were nice and cool.
Out of that section and back onto another forest road. And it was all uphill again. Shoot! More walking. Lots of walking. But there were lots of people near me walking too. This was the last part of the trail where I'd see this many people (8 - 10) nearby. We turned off this road into the woods again and there was this one tempting sign. 25k runners turn right, 50m and 50k runners turn left! You could hear the cheers of the crowd at the finish line about a mile away. I joked with someone out there that I met briefly named Patti (from Bellingham) about how that sign was evil! Ha ha! I kept up with her for another mile or so and I learned that this was her second time running this course. She told me the second half had a lot of very steep uphills but also some really nice descents and it was gorgeous. I already knew this about the course, but when you hear an experienced course ultra runner person explain the climbs as very steep it can be a bit intimidating! I then ended up ahead of her a little on part of this section.
I headed into aid station #2, which was somewhere around the 17 mile mark and this one was awesome. This amazing volunteer took my pack, filled it up, and put it back on my back. Talk about quick, efficient and all around super! I had time to eat chips. I had time to put on sunblock and body glide. My pack was rubbing the top of my left arm a little, but it didn't bug me again once I discovered some vaseline. I would have hugged this lady, but instead I just said thanks a bunch and left feeling really good again.
I learned that the aid stations are little meccas of social boosts. I tend to do very small runs or courses that don't allow spectators, so I'm not used to getting cheered on much anyway, but sometimes seeing people just really perks you up. It brings you out of that space in your head that could possibly go dark and you leave feeling well stocked and lighter on your toes.
Unfortunately I made two big mistakes at this aid station. I didn't add the Tailwind to my pack because I hadn't drank nearly as much water since the last aid station (as most of this section was in the woods and cooler) and it felt a bit concentrated already. It wasn't concentrated, it was just more than I'm used to, and though my stomach was okay, I listened to what I thought I wanted and not what I knew I needed, and opted for straight water. I also forgot to grab my bag of candy. Besides two "emergency ration" shotbloks, this meant I was running on mostly water and had little to no sugar left. I was drinking the water steadily because I knew I needed to get better about keeping the intake steady, but the problem was I was burning too many calories, sweating too much, and the water wasn't emptying from my stomach.
The main goal at this race was to listen to my body and respond as needed. Again, little did I realize that your body doesn't always know best when tackling such a long distance. Especially for the first time. It's easy to get disorientated and it's also very easy to get lost in your head and lose track of how long it's been since you last ate. The heat and sun really changes things too. Being outside and on your feet for extended periods of time, like 8+ hours can fry you. This was a lesson I needed to learn though on my own. The one where you force yourself to take in the proper calories, electrolytes, and not skimp on what you need. Again, I'd like to mention that my only real goal of the day was to finish. I would happily use every last minute of those 8 hours if needed.
Miles 17 - 25
I met back up with Patti as some point after this aid station and ran with her and someone else I think she knew for about a mile. I made a comment about how it seems to really help me to stick with people and she said by all means to stick with them if I wanted! I tried, but the above aid station issues were starting to really become apparent and I kind of slipped into a slump. I started to feel very dizzy and disorientated. I ate the few pieces of twizzlers I had left and a couple gummy bears and felt a little better.
At this point we started to enter a nice cool forest path and all of this was runnable. I was running about 90% of the singletrack and would stop every half mile or so to let a super fast 50 miler pass me. 50 milers with ONE waterbottle. Mind blown. As for me, I still felt pretty dizzy and I was alone on this section, but my spirit was a little higher because the shade felt so good. I just kept trudging along and enjoyed the forest.
Death March - Climb up to Sun Mtn
Around mile 19 I came to a lady in a lawn chair who asked me if this was my first time through. I knew if I said yes I'd have to run up a sunny, exposed hill to Sun Mtn Lodge, but I'm not exactly a big 'ole liar either. I headed off to the right and started in on the brutal 20%+ grade climb. It was about 600ft over 3/4 of a mile. Dry, dusty, sunny switchbacks. You can stare at a stupid elevation chart for hours and read people's blog posts, but if you've never been ON A COURSE you have no idea what to expect. It was a lot harder than I thought. Later the race director would tell me this was a snowshoeing route and if I remember correctly it was called Moose Trail. Not quite sure I'd want to snowshoe on that trail, but I suppose if a hot breakfast was waiting for me at the top that would be a pretty good incentive. There was no hot breakfast for us, but I did smell burgers.
My heart was racing and the heat was really getting to me. I was ready to call it quits as I was struggling to keep even a 25 minute pace on that section and it was so hot. The water in my pack was warm too. A few faster people caught up to me and tried to chat a little but I was pretty silent - thankfully they were suffering a bit too. (Not that I wish suffering upon my fellow runners, but when people effortlessly float by, you kind of feel your spunk start to shrivel and die inside). Let's face it, there is companionship in misery.
If I'm being honest, I wouldn't even call what I was doing at that moment hiking. That was called a sloth side-stepping sludge. If there was a railing I would have been hunched over pulling myself up. There was no railing. My hands/fingers were giving me grief on the way up and I was too tired to bother looking down to figure out why. Two people pointed out this is very common, especially in hot races. My fingers were so swollen. They were sausage fingers! I did take a picture at the end but they weren't nearly as puffy then.
Finally I got to the top! I laid in the shade under a tree at an unmanned water station at the top and it was glorious. I was absolutely ready to quit because I knew there was one more major climb coming up in 6 miles, but that is where I met Monica. She told me she'd run with me to the next aid station. I contemplated staying under that amazing tree for a minute and I had broken the one big cardinal rule in ultras: "don't sit down and definitely don't lie down (idiot)" so getting up was quite a task... but I knew I'd be stuck there alone and had to go on anyway. Having a buddy would be much better than not having a buddy especially since I wasn't in a stellar mental space. Well, apparently just having *someone* seriously perked me up pretty fast.
I decided to put together an illustration of most of the course since there are a lot of words here and not a ton of pictures. You need a picture. I'm sure this is only going to be confusing, but I had fun making it. Chickadee Trailhead was the start/finish.
Onward... after my rescue, Monica and I headed up just a little past the lodge, then headed down the other side on more exposed paths but slowly back into some shade. We both got excited because the course started to look familiar again. Familiarity on long courses with loops is a really uplifting experience. Especially if it was a previously positive part of a course and for me, it was. When we got back to the lady in the lawn chair she told us it was all downhill to the next aid station and it was 2 miles. She lied. It was downhill for maybe 1/2 a mile, then rolling, then a climb on up to that aid station. I was ahead of Monica up on that climb because I was determined to make it to cool water and my drop bag with my Tailwind because I needed electrolytes really bad. The most amazing volunteer came running towards us and grabbed my bag to fill it up with cold water. I could have kissed that guy because I didn't have to even *think*. I did add the Tailwind though and my pack was on my back almost immediately. I was hoping for some watermelon but settled for my drop bag Picky Bar and some oranges. Sweet, sweet oranges.
The aforementioned aid station guy kept telling us WE were inspirational as we thanked him and it was the nicest thing ever to hear. It also made me feel good even though I am sure I looked pretty grungy. Thank you aid station guy, you set the bar high for all other aid station people. I aspire to be the same type of volunteer all because of our brief interaction.
Miles 25 - 31
This was where I contemplated dropping again. Not as seriously, but looking up at Patterson Mtn and knowing that we had a little over 1,000 feet to go in the next 3 miles was a bit daunting. We ran from the bottom to the top of this:
I took off with Monica though and we eased into a slow run with walks up the hill and the occasional break. Our breaks involved hanging onto trees and hiding from the sun. This climb didn't feel as tough to me as the Sun Mtn climb but I'm sure it's because I had found a renewed positive attitude and I had company. Company is the best and Monica was seriously awesome. There was also a breeze and that was a godsend.
We got to the top of the climb and was about to rejoice when we saw a person off in the distance and realized he was also on course. Darn false summits! The real top just had a sign that said, "runners turn around here" and wasn't too monumental but that view?? Holy smokes it was outstanding! We breathed it in for a few minutes and then headed down. Coming off that high point and racing down was spectacular. So spectacular I took a nice rolling dive and scraped my knee. Souvenir!
The race photographer got a cool shot of me right before I scraped my knee and I think it captures the elation of running down as well as the beautiful scenery pretty well!
We hit the road around mile 29 and had about a mile of flat road then a short mile of trail to the start. I knew I was going to finish and both of us were calculating the time and whether we'd make the cut-off. Monica told me that Varner would still count us if we came in a little over the 8 hours but I secretly hoped I would make it just a touch under, even if I was last. Once we got on the trail I was in the zone and somehow lost my race buddy as I kept plodding on. Later I found out that her husband called her and she slowed down, so I didn't feel as bad!
At this point I was leap frogging with a 50 miler who was looking pretty darn tired. He had a few of his kids running with him and kept motioning me to go by, but I wasn't sure I could sustain the slightly faster pace that he was keeping so I stayed behind him.
Finally I could hear the finish and my drive just kicked in strong and I took off. There was really no reason to pick up the pace at the end because I was at the very end of the 50k'ers but once I saw the clock said 7:58:45 I sprinted as fast as my tired legs would carry me and crossed that finish, high fived James Varner, the RD, and started grinning like a big idiot. I made it under 8 hours! I turned around and waited for Monica and told James that Monica was my race angel. She totally was. Once she finished I actually started to bawl under my sunglasses because I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude. This other runner took me under her wing, stayed with me, got me to the finish, and probably sacrificed a better time on course. It was a selfless act and really what this ultra running community is about for me. I can't thank her enough and she'll always remain a friend even though she's had to move to GA for now. Here's a pic of us after finishing!
One of myself - note how dirty my legs are and even my upper left arm:
My knee doesn't look too bad here at all but it left a nice scab and 2 months later there is a healing scar. Total souvenir :)
Yes, this is what your feet look like after running a long race, and this wasn't even that long. They aren't pretty and they're dirty as sin. I took this photo and jumped in the bath!
Some other details: this was the dry side of the North Cascades and 75% of this is exposed. It was hot. I wasn't used to training in these conditions, though as it's warmer this summer in PDX I'm certainly getting more exposure now. Rainshadow Running / James Varner is known for challenging courses but also very beautiful. This was both! It was really well organized and I'm so glad I picked it for my first 50k. I sweat so much my visor was soaked through in salt. My HR got very high on some of the steeper climbs and besides the heat, I'm sure this was also in part to choking down a few benedryl. You do what ya gotta do...
My official time was 7:59:04. Over 50k that's about a 15:25 pace. Covering 5000ft+ of climbing I am happy with that for my first 50k. Though I can be friendly competitive with fellow runner friends, I am not seriously competitive and I would have been content being DFL (dead fucking last) on this course. A title which Monica, my race angel, actually achieved. I think there is a lot of honor being DFL because being out there for that long means exposure to more elements and heck yeah, lots of will power. That elite style athletic ability does not come easy for everyone (or come at all) and I love that so many trail runners are genuinely supportive and welcoming whether you're a back of a pack runner or out in front. Many of my shorter trail runs average an 11 - 13 minute pace, so throwing in extra elevation and distance, heck yes, I am proud of that time.
Could I have trained more? Of course, but the elation of finishing was beyond words. I feel like if you don't sign up for something unless you feel 100% ready, you'll never do it. So I went for it. This was about the experience, finishing and learning to ride through those highs and lows. Could I have taken less time at the aid stations? Yep! Something to work on. Pace didn't matter to me, completion did, but even that was questioned a few times. I held a decent pace on most downhills and a steady but slow on flats/easy rollings, so - so on minor climbs, but very slow on some climbs. I still have A LOT to learn but even in the past 2 months since this race I feel like I've grown even more as a runner (more in future blog posts). While my future goals may come across as a bit nutty, this was my first step in a journey to see just what I am capable of.
The high five from Varner at the end and all the cheers were inspiring. Emotional. Lovely. Thank you to everyone who sticks around for the last people at trail races - we are all thankful for you! I hung around and cheered on the last few 50 milers coming in over the next hour while I gorged myself on veggie pizza, salad, a cookie, and some pretzels. That pizza hit the spot!
As I mentioned before I went into this race with little to no expectations, a nasty sore throat and a head cold. All possible things to really alter the outcome of the day, but I made it through! Post race my legs felt good, minor stiffness the next day, knee is a bit scraped, little bit o chafing, and only one blister! Not bad for non-trail shoes and a newbie ultra girl! I left this race with the best runners high ever!