Monday, March 19, 2012

2012 Chuckanut 50k Race Report

Immediately post-race I called this, “the most uneventful ultra I’ve ever run”.  I still believe it -- mostly because it was so similar to 2011.  But I’ll still find a way to sink 3,000 words into its description.
This weekend the entire country was under a heat wave – unseasonably warm, dry and sunny conditions, with record highs.  Except Oregon and Washington.  Forecasts called for rain turning to snow and temps in the high-30s for race morning.  Mom Nature didn’t disappoint.  The precip was a merciful drizzle as we assembled near the waterfront in Fairhaven for the race start. 
Chuckanut truly is a Jekyll-Hyde course:  7 miles of dirt path (read: road), three miles of singletrack rollers, then another three of dirt road that cedes to the famed Chuckanut Ridge – a rocky, wooded, technical stretch on the ridgeline overlooking (on a clear day) Puget Sound and the North Cascades.  The midsection, including the infamous “Chinscraper” climb, is all trail that eventually cedes to a three-mile dirt road descent back to the flat rail path – another six-and-a-half miles to the finish.  In all, the split is a true 50/50 road/trail. 
Having run it a year ago, I knew what I was up against: the need to run fast on the roads and nimble on the trails.  But with the weather indicating big rain and snow, the choice of footwear was a difficult one.  I ultimately chose the bulkier Mountain Masochists – with their solid rock plate and deep treads – ultimately because I forgot my Rogue Racers at home!  I knew the heavy Masochists would be tough on the flats, but I hoped they’d pay off on what would surely be miles of nasty mud and snow.
The Race
The field – burgeoning with fast road guys  suddenly drawn to the ultra distance for varying reasons – got out quickly, the roadies and shorter-ultra strong men leading out front.  The hard-charging Jason Loutitt gapped the field (as he’s known to do) as we made several short climbs away from the waterfront down the Interurban trail.  Like a year ago, I struggled to get comfortable: with stride, breathing, and even my water bottle carriage.  I hoped to sneak in amongst Tim, Dave and the other trail guys, but I couldn’t seem to close the gap.  And, like the year before, I was pooped out the back even farther after the middling singletrack segment (~Mile 3) that wedged between the two rail trails.  Two UW-La Crosse alums, Jim Parejko and Steve Vesbach, passed me around this time, as did Hal, whose stride looked good and strong as he rolled past. 
Once back on the main rail path, I struggled even more to get comfortable: breathing was out of whack, and my stride felt like garbage.  The other pack stragglers were well ahead and pulling farther away. Split checks using trail markers had me as slow as pace(?) by the time I hit AS 1 (43:35) at the base of the singletrack climb.  Quickly refilling water, I found Dan-O only seconds behind me.  Still struggling, it wasn’t long into the climb up away from the road that he passed and pulled away.  Behind him was FastEd, but rather than pass he hung behind me and pushed me along the uncomfortable ups to Fragrance Lake.
I came around a bit once at the lake, managing to find an efficient gear for this flat, winding, and at times muddy terrain.  Even here, perhaps only 500’ above the road, there was already light snow.  The tree branches sagged with the weight of the heavy snow, necessitating the first of probably forty head-ducks or face-slaps.  I lamented to FastEd how I would’ve like to be Max King or Gary Gellin height for this race. 
We rolled along mid-ridge before descending to Aid 2 (32:41/).  FastEd got a sizeable jump on me as I stopped for Heed and gels before beginning the long, long climb up Cleator Road.  I felt quite awful on this climb, which before long was inundated with two to four inches of fresh snow. The traction was solid in the Masochists, but my pace was dreadful. Ahead of me were Ed, Vesbach, and another guy, but they all pulled away on this climb.  All I seemed to manage was a harmless shuffle. 
I reached AS 3 (25:49/) and quickly refilled and pilfered gels before starting down the ridge.  My physiological and competitive decline plateaued like the ridge itself – steady, with some ups and downs through the technical stretch blanketed by at least four inches of sticky powder.  I ran more nimbly than a year ago, but still slow on the short, steep rock climbs.  One runner passed me, but I nabbed two – Jake Putzy and Vesbach – before we descended to the backside of the ridge. 

Atop Chuckanut Ridge - wishing Mr. Lebowitz a good morning.  Photo: Michael Lebowitz/LongRun Picture Co
The race was half over but my own outcome was far from being decided.  It was promising to pass some folks, but a lot of hard running remained.  My stride was feeling OK, but any uphill felt like about 6K’ of altitude – shuffling and heavy breathing.  I plugged along solo, with no one else in sight, downing gels every :25 and guzzling “head water”, though trying to ration it for the climb to the Chinscraper AS. 
Though much lower than the ridge, the snow persisted on the Jeep road; at times it seemed to mitigate the deep mud; other times, it only made it worse.  But the Masochists made good work of that terrain and before long I was climbing again. 
A year ago, it was on this climb – the thin single track, straight-upward ascent away from the valley bottom – that I walked for the first time in a competitive race.  Despite the snow and fatigue, I managed a slow shuffle up the entire climb, and then pushed it hard on the descents leading to the Chinscraper AS (/). 
My aid station transit times were much faster this year; quickly in and out of AS 4 with liquid and gels, I started the climb, feeling “good, not great”.  On a switchback ahead was Jim, who yelled down, “Hey, TRAN!” from above.  I slowly reeled him in and implored him to down one of the S!Caps I gave him pre-race, as he was struggling up the climb.  I bid him adieu and plugged along.
Though passing him and feeling competitive again, I had really only one thought in mind: how to not get beat by Ellie Greenwood.  I love Ellie – she’s a terrific person and a great competitor – but I was determined to break the 0-3 skid I've had with her in the past year of racing (with losses at AR, WS, and TNF).  And I knew how hard she ran Chinscraper to the finish this year.  So I pushed it up the hill, S!Cap in cheek-and-gum, putting on a good show for Glenn T. before power-hiking the latter portions of the climb before the trail spat me out to the road. 

Chinscraper Hill - practicing my new "swim move" running form!  Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama.
The plan going into the race was to push hard from the penultimate AS (the shared Chinscraper AS #5) to the finish, and to do that meant to be fully-upped with fluid, calories and salt.  I stopped for a fill at AS 5 (/), then tried to get the feet moving quickly down the snow- and slush-covered road.  I had one quick stop down the Fragrance trail/road – the requisite deuce, albeit with a snow wipe! – then pushed it, all the while pushing calories and water.  The lower I got, the better I felt.  I passed two guys on the road going into the last AS at the water plant (21:44/3:23:07), where I got one last bottle fill and three shots of Coke before hitting the road. 
The road was slow and tough going: heavy-shod feet churned slowly like the arms of a steam locomotive that, ever-so-gradually, gained steam and speed.  I passed one guy 8K from the finish, then set my eyes ahead: there was one other guy within reach, then far ahead was the while and orange shirt of Dan-O, who I hadn’t seen in 30K.  I churned along, trying to generate hip extension and lengthening. 
With about four miles to go, I rolled alongside a guy and gave the requisite – but earnest – “roll with me”.  I needed help and so did he.  We chatted.  He was Luke Nelson.  I introduced himself; he’d heard of me.  “You’re a legend!”, he said.  He briefly explained why (iRunFar?), but by then going into a full-out bonk,  burning the last mmol of sodium and going hazy.  I sought out my S!Caps from my pocket…but they were gone! I solicited an S!Cap from Luke but he had none. Thankfully, I packed  a ten-spot of the weaker E-Caps and started popping.  Even with 2-3 in my system, my left leg began to cramp – both quad and hamstring, so I popped several more E-Caps, draining the remainder of my water to wash them down. 
With the bits of salt and some form cues the cramping abated and we pushed on.  The rail path was long and unremitting; it was so great to have a guy to run with, matching strides, and saying little.  With three miles to go I was out of water, but there laid a gushing waterfall directly next to the trail; I stopped and filled the bottle halfway.  It was so convenient that I was able to catch up with Luke within thirty seconds.  We pushed on. 
I was doing well on the flats – heavy emphasis on mechanics.  My stride had been way off early; I’d been struggling with a push-off issue on the left leg for weeks now, but I found myself overcompensating early in the race, with not enough right leg push.  Mid-race I felt the usual nemeses of my long-term “trunk left” issue – soreness in the right flexors and cramping in the right abs, but with conscious thought corrected those well in the second half. 
What I love about ultras is the extreme distance and effort exposes stride flaws with incredible clarity.  Over those last five or six miles I could feel when I was braking, with poor turnover and backward trunk: my calves would get crampy.  I could feel when my left leg didn’t recover well: thigh cramps.  I was able to address those problem areas and nicely emphasis forward trunk and arm/shoulder blade power to maintain a strong pace.
However, my energy was so low that it didn’t take much of a hill to lose ground to Luke.  Back on the singletrack segment, he gapped me by upwards of 50m as I fumbled with my bottle and E-caps, as well as popping one last gel with <3 miles to go.  Now off the trail and climbing back to the path, I pushed hard to catch Luke.  I finally did, and just up ahead was both Dan-O and, closer yet, FastEd! 
I was determined to reel him in, and with Luke’s help, I was certain we could.  We pushed and churned down the path, dodging the occasional jogger or dog-walker as we re-entered Fairhaven City limits.  At 49K Luke and I pushed past Scott, who was already giving his all, and we now set our sights on the last turn to the finish. 
My lone critique of this great event is that the course isn’t always the best marked: a  year ago I accidentally turned up a road section, thinking it was Fairhaven Park.  I was saved only by shouting  passersby an eighth of a mile up-trail.  This year I had to quickly redirect Luke with a hand when he wanted to descent a side trail only a quarter mile from the finish.*
(*It’s also quite noteworthy that presumptive race winner Max King missed the hard turn onto the Fragrance Lake Road cutoff trail at mile ~23, eventually running over two miles down hill before realizing his error.  Allegedly, there were neither course markings or marshalls yet on site when he – and 2nd placer Sage Cariday – arrived.)
Back on course, we quickly descended and up ahead was the sharp left to take us to the finish.  Luke had been climbing the small stuff strongly, so I made a strong, decisive push up and over the berm to separate myself into the downhill finish. 
When the dust settled, I finished in (45:xx last 6.5), good for 18th place.  Dan-O was right in front at 17th, and to no one’s surprise, Ellie Greenwood was first woman in at a course record 4:.  Whew!  Big relief – and increasingly honorable – to finish in front of her and break my 0-for streak. 
It was a gift to have Luke there in the last 10K - we were able to push each other to the finish, undoubtedly saving minutes of time, and pain.  Those moments aren't about competition as much as they are kinship -- rallying together to get the job done. 
Shared some beers with Fast Ed, who finished just behind Luke to round out the top twenty.  Chatted with several ultra folks and tried to get warm beneath heat lamps, eating soup. 
We spent the afternoon relaxing back at the hotel, watching Seinfeld DVDs and dozing off, before hitting the post-race party at Boundary Bay Brewery in Downtown Bellingham.  The party was outside, so we struggled a bit to keep warm – eventually finding choice spots beneath more heat lamps.  More fun socializing and good beer drinking, including some smuggled-in Ninkasi bottles.  Incredibly, we stayed out until nearly midnight, eventually relocating to a “nightclub” that featured free Street Fighter and NBA Jam videogames, which was clearly the highlight for me.

Dan-O's hot dog + rubber glove combo basket.
Summation: Overall a fun day and weekend, but somewhat disappointing.  I was hoping for a top ten finish and fell well short of it.  But my overall energy and leg feel was so poor that I feel lucky to have finished 18th.  I consider it a good training event for the upcoming longer stuff.  It might also be a harbinger for things to come – the invasion-expansion of the high-level road guys into ultra running.  For now, I take solace in the thought that they don’t or won’t fare as well in the 50M distance or above (as they indicated at TNF).  But I will cling to that notion only as tightly or confidently as the American Indians did when they told themselves, “They won’t come West of the Mississippi…”.  Ultimately I’ll have no choice but to channel my inner Red Cloud and Sitting Bull and say, “Welp…bring it.”
Pacing:  B.  Not great.  I ran how I thought I should run, rather than listen to my body.  Wearing the Masochists was nice for the trail, but brutal for the road/flats – simply way too heavy, like wearing trainers for a track 5K.  I believe I split a ~45 for the last 6.5 which, if accurate, really sucks.  That’s easy run pace and simply won’t cut it for a national-caliber race.
Nutrition: B+.  Had gels consistently at :25 intervals and pretty good hydration.   No other solid food, period – which may be a first for me in an ultra.  Got low on salt after losing the S!Caps.  Had three S!Caps through the first 3:20, then had to pound a half-dozen E-caps to equal on S! on the last 10K.  On a positive note, I was in and out of AS’ very quickly.
Mental Toughness: B+.  It was OK.  I got a little down on myself on the early flats/climbs, but I more than made up for that with a strong push over the last nine miles.   I believe I passed five guys in the last nine miles, six in the last 11.  Based on the split sheet, I ran a 1:06-ish last nine or ten split to the finish -- respectable and amongst the top of the fied.  Ellie, it should be noted, ran 1:04!
Mechanics.  B-.  The stride felt way off early: running on one-and-a-half cylindars of hip extension and push-off, and really poor climbing up Cleator (with a flexed back, which is both slow and injurious).  My stride rate was, and continues to be, dreadfully slow and in need of ongoing attention.  The only thing preventing a C-grade was the nice downhill stride (and glut braking) down Fragrance Road and the strong push over the last 2K, which was entirely form-focused.  

Descending the Ridge.  "Bye 'til next year!" - Photo Michael Lebowitz.


  1. Still unbelievably fast to us average folks!! Nice work!

  2. Hey, Joe, I enjoyed your account, and the photos were great.

  3. @Unknown: Thanks for the kind words and for reading!

    @Snowbrush: Thanks for the read, hope you're doing well!

    @Bryon: If you and I did the Chuckanut 2x relay, do you think we could've beat Campbell? "HAVERFORD TRACK RULES!"

  4. I don't think they've crossed the Atlantic yet, much less the Mississippi... but imagine if they did.

  5. Joe, I read your account here years later, in 2019, so it isn't timely. However,in regard to your comment about the course marking in 2012, we hadn't anticipated the snoe, and the monitor who was supposed to be at the critical left turn on the descent of Cleator Roosd wasn't able to get the
    there in time for the early runners like Max and Sage.
    In following years, including 2019, we were fully prepared for the snow and icy conditions with closed access roads for weeks preceding the race. We worked long hours and hiked many extra miles to try to be sure the course was well marked. I hope it was better this year for everyone.

    1. Hey Doug, thanks for posting on this oldie!

      I didn't race this year due to injury, but my wife did. From all accounts the course was well-marked, despite challenging conditions. Well done!

  6. Thanks Joe.
    I enjoy informative column in IRunFar. Thank you for sharing your expertise.
    (pardon the obvious typos in my previous comments...."snoe?" !!!