“Race” Preview: Cougar Mountain Trail Series, 19.5 Miler.

Tomorrow we tackle our first endurance race in almost a year, and our longest trail race to date.

If you’ve been here before, you probably know that we were originally training for the 50K distance. But with injuries this summer, and even into fall for Gene, we lost about 2 months of training and dropped back to the 19.5 mi event.

Maybe it’s the injuries or just being aware of how different trail races are (and how challenging this one is likely to be), but I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about the race, what I’ll wear/carry, and my strategy for it.

The event is the fall bonus to the Cougar Mountain Trail Series. Cougar Mountain is in the Issaquah Alps. Don’t let the name fool you—the highest summit of the “Alps” is around 3500 ft and for Cougar, it’s under 1600 ft. Our event will have about 3700 ft of gain over the 19.5ish mile course.

Weather

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Cougar Mountain Forecast via Mountain-Forecast.Com

After an uncharacteristically dry month with highs regularly in the 60s, fall is hitting Seattle this week.

The forecast for Cougar Mountain calls for up to an inch or more of rain tonight. With the leaves falling, this will make for some messy and potentially slippery trails tomorrow.

We’re looking at about 46F with light rain and moderate winds for the start. This makes me a little nervous. The worst race I ever had—physically uncomfortable and mentally challenging—was cold and rainy.

The Shamrock Half at Virginia Beach in 2015 was just miserable. But that was more like 40F with driving rain to start and little cover from the wind throughout the day. I was soaked through before we crossed the first timing map. The cold, wet start messed with my body and/or mind—I couldn’t keep a pace that kept me warm, and then the wind made me colder (my hands ached), and the cycle continued.

The temp should be warmer and the rain lighter tomorrow. Cougar Mountain is heavily forested, so that should give further reprieve from the wind and rain. The weather won’t change much throughout the day, other than the shift from just rain to thunderstorm risk around midday.

Gear

img_6952I’m leaning toward my Icebreaker tights. They’re merino wool, so they can be a little warm, and I feel like the temp is right at the edge. But I can tolerate warm legs, and the tights are breathable and have good mobility/stretch.

I’ll definitely carry a rain shell. Given that it’s looking like very light rain, it will probably be one of my light running shells. That means I’ll probably wear a lightweight, long sleeved top. Maybe one of my Icebreaker half zip layers.

I’ll probably start with my light running gloves and a cap too.

img_6955I’ll lace up the Hoka Speedgoat 2. They have good grip and cushion, and that’s what my longer and more technical trail runs have been in of late. I’ve still not found the perfect trail shoe for me, but they’ll do.

I’ll also wear my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0, even though I’m not running an ultra distance😛 The pack is lightweight, fits snugly (but not too tight), and is easy to adjust on the fly. I’ll carry the 2 body bottles, which each hold about a half liter. One will have just water, which I can refill at aid stations. I’ll add a couple of scoops of Tailwind to the other, which I like to sip on between nutrition breaks and is great when I’m not feeling like I want food. I’ll carry a few nutrition options in the front pockets. Even though they’ll have food at aid stations,

img_6953I prefer to be able to fuel on my schedule—plus it could easily be an hour or longer to get between a couple of them.

Likely I’ll toss a top layer and my waterproof gloves in a ziploc or dry bag in the back, as insurance against a Shamrock-esque experience.

Schedule

Check-in/registration opens at 6:30 am, and the race starts at 8 am. The trailhead is about a half hour drive from home. I’m usually awake at 5:30. So I think we’ll aim for a 6 am departure, grabbing coffee from Starbucks before we hit the road and taking some granola and milk for the usual pre-run breakfast onsite.

The run has an 8 hour cutoff overall, with a couple of earlier cutoffs too. I’m expecting to be on the trail 5-6 hours.

Course

We’ll be starting out from the Sky Country Trailhead (about 1200 ft elevation), then out Clay Pit Road to the Klondike Swamp Trail. This means the first mile or so will be pretty flat—good for me because my legs can warm up a bit before the climbing starts.

Then it’s a short climb along Lost Beagle Trail before a mile downhill along Shangri La and Surprise Creek Trail at moderate grade (~5-10%). Next it’s a similar profile uphill along West Tibbetts Creek and Tibbetts Marsh Trails.

Harvey Manning (or Anti-Aircraft Ridge, depending on the map) Trail dips down then up a small knoll, bringing us to the first aid station just after 5 miles and, by AllTrails mapping*, 1000 ft of gain.

After the break, it’s down Cougar Pass, Mine Shaft, East Fork and Shy Bear. There’s a small rise coming off Shy Bear followed by a short, steep hike up to Wilderness Peak.

Then the fun part: About a 1-1/2 miles downhill with 1000+ ft of descent along Wilderness Cliffs and Squak Mountain Connector trail to the second aid station. This is a a key point in the run. It’s about the half way point (9.6 mi, about 1/3 or so of the total gain) and the turnaround for our event. It’s also the first cutoff point: 2-1/2 hours after the start to reach this station or you’re pulled off the course. A month ago, I was edgy about this. Two weeks ago, we got 10 miles in under this time—those trails were a little less technical but with more total gain (2100 ft vs ~1400 ft we’ll have at this point in the Cougar run). So I’m still a tiny bit nervous but I think we can do it.

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Elevation profile per route I drew in AllTrails

Of course, in mountain running, what goes down must come up. As we return along Wilderness Creek and Long View Peak Trails, we’ll have 1000+ ft to climb over about 1-1/2 or so miles. This will be a slow slog, but I’m not too worried since the towering cutoff will be behind me.

Aid station #3 sits near the top of the climb (about 11 miles and 2/3 of the gain for the course). From here, it’s what I would call rolling, with a couple of short(ish) steep climbs as we continue on—Deceiver, a different section of Shy Bear, Far Country, De Leo Wall.

The fourth and final aid station is situated as De Leo Wall intersects Marshall’s Hill, with about 4-1/2 miles to go. This is the second cutoff point—7 hours after the start and the 15 mi mark for us. If I’m concerned about this cutoff tomorrow, the day has gone off the rails.

After following Marshall’s Hill Trail, it’s time for a run on the Wildside. On to Red Town, Quarry, Fred’s Railroad and Bypass to Cave Hole. Then it’s Old Man’s Trail to the finish.

* AllTrails is great for mapping out hikes and trail runs. It’s far closer to accurate than apps relying on Google Maps. That said, there are some discrepancies from actual trails. In our experience, AllTrails drawn routes underestimate distance and vert by ~5-10%. For instance, my AllTrails route for tomorrow’s race pegs it at 18.7 mi and 3500 ft gain. So I trust the organizers estimates here.

Head

I’m edgier than I usually am before an organized event. I mean, I’ve written 1300 words about a thing I’ve not done yet 😅 Notice I even hesitate to call it a “race”? But I think I can do it. It will be a long, exhausting day. I will start at the back of the pack, and I will be perfectly happy if I end up DFL.

Today is about preparation and (attempted) relaxation. Tomorrow we run.