Flashback to December, 2010: While getting massage treatment from Matt Lonergan, we were discussing my foray into ultra running, and my entry into Western States. Here's the gist:
Matt: "Are you good at running uphill?"
Me: "Not really..."
Matt: "Well, are you a good downhill runner?"
His next question could've been, "Do you have any conceivable reason for getting up in the morning?"
Flash-forward: Britt and I rolled into Bellingham late on Friday night, then Saturday we were up early and efficiently, and in short order were at Fairhaven Park to check-in.
This would prove to be good training for Britt, too -- in her ability to be a reliable crew person -- not only in race provisions, but ability to efficiently travel and navigate. And I'm ecstatic to say that she was stellar in both realms.
It was a brisk, damp morning, with a thick fog and temperatures in the bottom 40s. The turf surrounding the shelter at Fairhaven was saturated, an ominous sign for what might lie ahead in the temperate rainforest of Chuckanut Ridge. After some "starstruck encounters"* with that race's elites, we retreated to the car to stay warm.
(*Me: "That's Jenn Shelton. She was in the 'Born to Run' book.". Britt: "Oh.")
For breakfast I'd had my standard PB&J, and in the lead-up to the race, I snacked on what I call a "Britten Byte" -- high-nutrient, high-energy, high quality energy bars that Britt made, resembling "Star Crunches". After that slid down the gullet, I jogged an easy 10 minutes in the field around Fairhaven Middle School, then suited up -- water bottle, fuel, and some last-second instructions to my Crew Chief* before I jogged to the start line with 5 minutes to spare.
(*Britt: "So when are you gonna be at Aid Station #2? 3?...". Me: "Uh...I dunno...")
I assembled at the start line with a ton of guys with colored sponsor jerseys -- Montrail, Brooks, Pearl Izumi/Smith, Inov8. I easily recognized two Titans -- Geoff Roes and Scott Jurek. But before I could think much of anything else, RD/ultra runner Krissy Moehl was counting down to the start. "Here goes nothing..."
And we were off. I thought beforehand that I'd have the opportunity to hear the classic "Scott Jurek Starting Howl". I didn't, or I don't recall hearing it (however, photographic evidence suggests that he might've?)
The first 6.5 mile took us from the suburban park to a gravel rails-to-trail that ran, almost uninterrupted, to the the first aid station at the base of the Ridge. The pace seemed easy, as I settled into the lead pack, somewhere nestled beside Roes and in front of Jurek, with every other colored jersey filling the gaps. For nearly two miles the path was comfortably monotonous until we hit a mid-section consisting of about a mile of meandering but friendly singletrack interlude. It was at this point, perhaps two miles, that began to spread out the field.
Throughout the run to Aid #1, I was struggling to get comfortable. I wasn't particularly comfortable on the gravel, less so on the single track, but I rebounded a bit back on the straight-shot gravel path as I eased off on the pace and let go of the now strung-out pack. During this time we ascended a ridge above the highway, overlooking Chuckanut Bay and the northern reaches of Puget Sound. The fog was burning off, providing terrific views.
I reached aid #1 in about 41 minutes, feeling OK. I'd blown through my first bottle as planned and looked for Britt, who was standing on the tailend of the aid station. Once I saw her, I passed through without aid, knowing she'd have a bottle ready. Not quite. She was snapping a pic when I approached, so there was a brief delay in obtaining a bottle and a gel before I was off. I was a bit crabby; but this was more reflective of how flat my legs felt. On top of that, I was over-sweating, yet I'd forgotten to drop off my jacket. Rat farts! I contemplating turning around to drop it off, but I instead stopped, took it off and wrapped it around my waist and continued.
Leg two took us looping around a wastewater facility, back onto the path briefly before veering right and plunging into the wilderness. Between the aid station and the woods I couldn't have been running faster than 7:00, yet when I hit the trail and the initial climbs into the park, yet when I hit that first climb, my legs felt just BRUTAL -- like I was on my forth repeat of the Ridgeline/"Huntin' loop back in Eugene. Wow. I was just crawling and my breathing was all over the map. I tried to focus on getting comfortable and keeping my feet moving, trying not to think (or care) about how much time and ground I was losing on the 15 or so guys in front of me.
I hadn't eaten anything yet, so I squeezed a Clif Shot mocha down the gullet, and while I was choking on that, a guy in a green Fleet Feet - Seattle jersey blew past me. His turnover on the uphill -- maybe about 200 steps/minute -- was shocking and impressive to my...eight! I watched him float away as we climbed the switchbacks. Above me were two other guys -- one in a darker singlet with a fuel belt, and a Smith/Pearl Izumi guy. I pulled myself together enough to pull in the dark-singlet guy. I shuffled past while he power-hiked a steep section. Along with the standard, "Good job"/"Nice work" salutation, I remarked, "I'm sure I'll see you around!" -- though I'd never raced one of these, it struck me that it'd be a back and forth dynamic within the field -- based on terrain and runner strength/feel. Yet, ironically, I never would see him again.
I eventually caught S/PI guy -- who I would mid-race determine was Scott Jaime -- later in the climb. He I would see on and off, back and forth, for the rest of the day.
I was about this time: maybe 8 or 9 miles into the race, that I truly confirmed what I'd suspected all along: I really do suck at trail running. After the climbs, it took maybe a minute or two to realize, "Wait a minute -- you're on the flat now, get your ass movin'!". But by the time I realized I had the terrain and footing to run faster, it would disappear and we'd be back on technical trail -- rocks, boulders, trees/roots and the odd hiker gate. I learned many things this day, but the first was that fast trail running demanded, among other things, the ability to make the most of fast sections, as well as the ability to mitigate and efficiently digest either technical climbs or descents. I SUCKED at both.
Despite the suckage, my legs had finally come around -- perhaps because technical ability limited aerobic effort. Nevertheless, I was finally feeling OK, and also staying on top of fluid/salt, downing my 2nd bottle. Just before completing the descent to Aid #2, I "peed on the run" and bottomed out onto the gravel road. I grabbed 3 Clif Bloks from the aid table and got another bottle from Britt. Again, I thought I was efficient, but Scott blew past me and up the hill. After obtaining my gear, I took off after him and up the road.
Within a few minutes, I had caught back up with Scott. We exchanged greetings, and I pressed onward, with really no idea what the course was doing. The narrow double-track forest road climbed around a corner. Then climbed some more -- long, straight, and unrelenting. Out of nowhere, I heard a dull rustling of a vehicle approaching from below. I thought, "Who would be DRIVING on this road?". You might imagine my surprise when I looked back to see my car -- the trusty, low-riding Celica -- laboring up the hill. I could only smile while imagining what Britt had in mind. Like a trail vehicle, she hung behind Scott and I for a while, before passing both of us and driving ahead.
I was putting good time and distance on Scott on this climb. After close to 15 minutes of climbing, I ran across two course marshalls. I was keeping my eyes peeled for course ribbon and a trail that might veer us off the road, so I asked them, "Is the trail coming up soon". Their response: "At the top of the road; you're about halfway there!"
Ugh. This was a bit demoralizing, but I took solace in the fact that my legs felt pretty good (much better than the initial climbs), that I was still putting distance on Scott, and that my strength was in "grinding away" at these endless climbs -- harkening back to the long road bike ascents like Beartooth Pass. I could do 40-60 minutes without any rest, though it might be a shuffle.
Just past midway we hit snow on the road; a light dusting from the previous night. Beyond that, nothing: no other runners, course workers, or spectators. Nature, solitude, and an upward-spiraling gravel road.
Then the road leveled: Aid #3, 13 miles. Split: 1:40ish. "Not...great...". I filled my bottle with the "House Energy Drink", grabbed a gel and a couple banana chunks, then began the centerpiece of the course: The Chuckanut Ridge Trail.
This was incredible if not significantly technical trail running the north-south ridge of the mountain. At points it came within just a few feet of a severe, multi-story dropoff cliffs. This was exciting, awe-inspired running. Atop this ridge we were greeted with mostly sunny skies, affording near-full views of the far-off peaks of the North Cascades NP. Incredible.
After a brief delay putting a Nuun tab into my bottle and choking on banana nuggets, I was on my way. The trail was very technical, including large moss-covered rocks that sometimes required some hand support. I bobbed and weaved along, truly enjoying it. I thought I was cranking a solid pace until I heard voice behind: it was Jaime and another guy, who had somehow caught me over less than two miles of ridge running. Sheesh!
I did my best to try to turn on the gas, but I was too tentative, especially on the downhills, some of which also required handholds. After 3 miles we began to descend and Scott was right on me. From there, we found ourselves on an old double-track -- now seemingly an ATV trail -- that at first descended before flattening. We both made good time on this section -- another 3-4 miles -- where again I'd put time on Scott on the ups, but he'd get it all back on the downs and flats. It was here where we'd see the results of weeks of hard rain in the PNW: tons mud. Huge, sustained patches of mud + puddle that was sometimes a half-foot deep. Thankfully these sections were flat and relatively wide, so we were able to hop and glide through them without much issue -- other than some slowdown.
By this time, we were a good 5-6 miles past Aid #3 and my bottle was long-gone. I didn't seem particularly "hungry", but I wanted fuel. I wondered where Aid 4 and the 20 mile mark would appear. I needed something...and I just assumed it was fluid or salt. We began to climb again -- relatively steep and muddy. I was tired. After several minutes of "chip-chip-chip", my legs were burning, so -- for the first time since Grandma's Marathon 1997 -- I legitimately stopped and walked, or "power-hiked", as its known in the ultra world. And it felt GREAT -- I tried to really power up the hill and only for a limited number of strides, as I knew Scott was back there somewhere. At first I did 20, then ran. But the burn returned, so I hiked again, another 10. Then one more set before the course leveled. Once on the flat, I was OK.
Physically, I'd had two fairly significant issues: the first was my 4th toe on my left foot. This guy's been an issue for years, but it's reared its head significantly over the past two months. Near as I can tell, it's a hypermobility issue -- the MTP is moving too much, where I'll get these nasty pain-jolts when something jostles the outer pad. It was BAD from the get-go in the thin M101s and it was BAD all day. The only way around it is to curl down my toes and try to keep 'em there, but that only has limited efficacy. Issue #2: I tweaked my right 5th MET and/or tweaked the tendon of the peroneals on the outside of my foot, on the first half of the techy stuff. So both my damn feet hurt, and I was in thin shoes. F.
This was significant because, by 19 miles into the course, my feet were beginning to grow intolerant of aggressive downhill. We got a nice dose of it after the "powerhike" climb, but I had to ease off to protect the feet. This would prove to be a significant issue later on.
Finally: to mile 20. I perceived enough fluid need that I pounded a half bottle of water, then fully filled my bottle with energy drink, and grabbed a handful of trail mix before starting the climb up "Lil Chinscraper".
In the weeks prior to the race, I kept hearing LB talk about "Chinscraper" -- which, for all I knew, was a really steep hill. Little signs adorned the downhills approaching M20 saying, "Save something for the Chinscraper!".
Lil chinscraper was maybe a half-mile of steep, steep climbing -- only about half of it was legitimately runnable (unless you're Geoff Roes, wherein you could run up a 5.11-rated mountain without stopping). So I ate while hiking, keeping my eye on Jaime, who, of course, blew past me in the aid station. I ran about two-thirds of it, and at the steepest point, pulled even with Scott.
I'd heard his name at all the aid stations, so I made a guess and finally said,
"Hey, are you Scott Jaime [JAY-me]?"Scott: "Scott Jaime [HI-me]"
We chatted a bit more before I power-jammed and mega-mixed past him, and shortly thereafter the course flattened, and began its gradual descent. He stuck close to me 'til we got back to Fragrance Lake road -- the same steep road we'd climbed from 10 to 13. I tried to fly down the hills, but it wasn't easy with two stump feet. At this point we also ran into other competitors -- those only 12.5 miles in (to our 21.5); I always think about how much longer their day is, but this time that thought was brief and fleeting as I clunked down the hill.
Ran into Britt again at the same gate where I'd last seen her. I grabbed a banana and a sleeve of Clif Blok salties, the latter which would be crucial later, then veered down a short single track that dumped us onto another long dirt road descent back to Aid 1/5.
I tried to fly down the hill, but my feet were really bothering me: the toes, but also some nasty blisters that had now developed. Couldn't help but say, "Got some BLISTIES" aloud several times.
I put a bit of time on Scott on the descent before rolling into Aid 5. I was a little out of it there; I knew I needed something so I looked around for some potato nuggets, jammed a few into my gullet, then grabbed one more bottle from Britt and hit the trail, after Scott, who had again passed me through the aid station.
I caught Jaime once more, back on the gravel path. At that point, I was content to coast it in. I pulled even with Scott and said, "Glad to be done with that downhill!", to which he replied, "I could go for a lot more of that singletrack!" I didn't have the hear to tell him, "I don't! I sucked at it!", so I said nothing.
He didn't seem to be running too fast (maybe 7:15s) so I went after it. The clock read 3:22 when I first rolled into the aid station, so the chances of running sub:4 were slim to none. Nonetheless, I ran hard, really focusing on the stride while protecting my feet. I had a huge blister on the right ball of my foot, yet I tried really hard to focus on pulling/pushing off the first met in my stride. I might've been running about 6:30 over these miles, feeling OK. However, on the few odd uphills, they hit me hard.
I was cruising along, nursing my last bottle, when I went from "OK" to "UGH!". Didn't know what happened, so I pulled out my last bit of fuel - the Clif Bloks - and jammed 'em down the gullet, washing them down with the last of my nuun bottle. Within minutes I was back to "OK", but not nearly as pace-aggressive. At that point, I was just looking to hold steady, not get passed, and be happy with Top 15.
Ran into a lot more randos on the course; it was a beautiful Saturday and nearly noon; I had one little girl "race me" along the singletrack section in the last 2.5 miles, which was cute. I told her, "Nice job!".
The hills climbing out of the creek trail were tough, but I recovered OK on the last 1.5 miles of flat back to Fairhaven. No racer was in sight; only joggers and fitness walkers. Not a whole lot of course marshalls, either; the only excitement at the end was me veering off course within a half mile of the finish. I'd forgotten where the course turned to the finish, so I started running up this randon street for a good 100m 'til I heard yelling by spectators down the course, whose shouts redirected me.
Finally, the finish: I "summited" the final blip into Fairhaven Park and downhill into the finish.
Final stats: 4:07:48, 14th pace
Post-race: got out of my M101s, had some soup broth, and had a Spring Reign. Saw only a couple of the top guys, but as I finished a good 26 minutes behind the winner (Roes), most of them bugged out (at least pre-awards). I did chat with Scott Jurek, to whom I introduced myself as a "fellow Iron Ranger". Nice guy. Made a sandwich, then headed out with Britt to Seattle.
Pacing: B-. OK, just because I wasn't an idiot by trying to grind sub-6s with the lead group. Negative points for not maintaining pace on flat singletrack, or being able to efficiently/aggressively negotiate technical trail.
Mechanics: C-. Not great. Tough to focus on consistent mechanics on crazy single track (get used to it). However, an early race pic shows evidence of more sideglide left! Damn it! I thought I'd rid myself of that. Damn!
Hydration/Fuel/Electrolytes: A-. Another good day. For the record, I had the following:
Pre-Race: PB&J, "Britten Byte"Positive grades for consistent fueling (including peeing x3); I might have under-calorie'd, it's tough to tell. Down points for aid station efficiency (on me, not my crew, which was mostly stellar!). One could definitely say that I need to do more with less -- but I'm training for WS, not to dominate 50Ks -- I need to learn to take a lot of fuel. I took a lot today, and also quickly solved my only blip -- at mile 29.
Start - Aid 1: 20oz Nuun
Aid 1-2: 20oz Nuun, Clif Shot
Aid 2-3: 20oz Nuun, 1/2 sleeve Clif Blok
Aid 3-4: 20oz Nuun + energy drink, 1/2 banana, Clif Shot
Aid 4-5: 20oz energy drink, 10oz water, small handful trail mix, 1 banana
Aid 5-6: 16oz Nuun, 3 potato nuh-nuks, 1 sleeve Clif Shot (salt)
96 oz salted, 10 oz unsalted fluid
Mental Toughness: B. I sucked on the trail elements. Reading Roes' blog, much of his trail ability comes from his ability to be both efficient and TOUGH on the climbs. I'm not there yet. And I don't feel like I really pushed myself too hard on the last 10K, but then again, I didn't need or want to.
Crew: A-. Britt did an excellent job and did extra-credit crewing: making it to all stations except #4 (although she was there at "4.5"). The only blip was more of a communication error between her and I, but otherwise she was a champ!
What I learned:
- I can't wear minimal shoes. Not worth it, because even if the race is short, there's always gonna be elevation and downhill pounding.
- "Look UP" on the trail: I had my focus about 2' in front of me on the trail; you can't run fast that way, you gotta look down the trail and take it all in, in order ot run fast.
- "Shift gears": speed up and recover on the run after steep spots, making the best of flat and "race-able" sections of singletrack.
- Give my crew information on "anything I'd possibly need", ahead of time. This will get easier as I learn more.
- Solve the sideglide left issue, already!
- Solve the L 4th toe issue.
- Get better at technical trail -- run more of it, even if they're not "long runs"