Race Report! The Cougar Mountain 20 Miler.

We were supposed to have run the 50 km race but, as you might know from prior posts, we were injured for a long time and unable to train for the long distance. So, reluctantly but necessarily, we dropped back to the 20 mile distance. It was alternatively billed as a 19.5 or 20 miler. People’s GPS signals were all over the place, but the course was certified at 19.5 miles.

We prepared early Saturday evening, filling our vests with snacks and water. I wore my Osprey Duro 6, which is a great little vest but is no longer available in the USA. I also had a 20oz bottle with a couple of scoops of Tailwind in it. I carried some nutrition bars, but I didn’t end up eating any of them, because the aid stations were full of delicious things.

I was a bit worried. I was way undertrained. As anyone reading this probably knows, I’d spent most of the late summer and early fall injured. I suffered a hip impingement in July, and didn’t run for the second half of July all the way into early September. I tried to stay fit by cycling a lot, and going to the gym, but it was challenging. Then, once I was running again, I tore my quad on our hike up to Lake Colchuck, And couldn’t do anything for almost a week. After that I had just gotten back to running when I somehow threw my back out, and could barely walk, much less train. I lost about a week in early October, when couldn’t do anything at all.

So my first real training run for this race was on October 11th, 17 days before race day. And all I could do was walk/jog for four very flat miles. So from there, I had to build to 20 miles and 4000′ of gain in two and a half weeks. Now obviously, I wasn’t totally detrained. Otherwise it would’ve been impossible. But I was definitely out of “20 mountain miles” shape. But I worked hard and built fast, in the two weekends leading up to the race doing 10 and 14 miles with 2100′ and 3000′ gain respectively.

I got to where I thought I could finish. And that was all I wanted to do. So we got up at 5:15 am and headed out to Cougar Mountain Sky Country to start the race. Race time was 8 am, but we got there at 6:30 to pick up our packets, eat breakfast, and psyche ourselves up. And from 6:30-7:45, it poured. I was afraid the whole day was going to be soaking wet and freezing cold, and I know BB was concerned too. I’m fortunate that as long as I keep moving, the weather can be sleet and I’ll stay warm. But for BB, well, it could have been a bad day.

Luckily, the weather mostly dried up right about race time, and it only showered off an on during the race. But the rain had ensured that the course would be nonstop mud for 20 miles. And given the time of year, the course was also non-stop maple and oak leaves. Which made seeing rocks and holes challenging. The trails on Cougar Mountain (which is really a 1600′ hill, not a mountain) are not technical, but there are rocks and holes like anywhere.

Mentally, I was prepared for a long, hard slog. I’m glad I did. A couple weeks ago BB and I decided we’d each run our own race. She was in much better shape than me (as usual) and I encouraged her to see what she could do. It was the first race longer than a 10 km that we ran separately, but I’m glad to see her pushing and discovering her own limits. For my part, I was just hoping to make it the whole way.

When the gun went off we headed out at the back of the pack. I knew I didn’t want to slow others down by making them pass me on narrow, single-track trails. But I felt like I was making good time, and knocked out the first few miles it around a 12 minute/mile pace. That was important, because there was a time cutoff at 9.6 miles and 2.5 hours. I didn’t want to get swept, and have to take a bus back to the start. I made the first aid station at mile 5.8 and caught up to BB for a minute. We ran together for about a mile or so, and then she had more pace going up a hill than I did.

There weren’t too many big ups in the first half. About 1400′ of the total which they said was about 3700′, but which was actually closer to 4000′. So I made pretty good time until mile 8 or so, when I began a long steep downhill into the second aid station at mile 9.6. I happened to run into The Ginger Runner and his wife right as I made the second aid station. He’s a great filmmaker, podcaster, and an ultrarunner and local celebrity. They were cool and encouraging.

After the aid station (which I made in 2:05, and was thus greatly relieved that I would not be removed from the course), I turned around and stomped up the hill. The first (and worst) of the major climbs on the back half of the course. A 900′ climb over 1.9 miles, it works out to about a 9% sustained grade. It took me 50 minutes, and I was passed by a number of fitter people heading up the slope. There was a third aid station right near the top, and then it was a couple of long cycles of ups and downs.

It was about this time I realized that I had absolutely certainly made the right call not trying to push for the ultra-distance. The 50km was 11 miles longer, and had about another 3500′ of gain going up and down Squak Mountain twice, which is steeper and more technical (we “ran” Margaret’s Way back in the spring). I was in a decent amount of pain from about mile 11 on, with my feet and ankles bearing the brunt of it, but my shoulders, back, and glutes all giving me a lot of complaints. Surprisingly, my calves didn’t complain at all, which they normally do when heading up long hills.

Somewhere around mile 13 an older man caught up to me and told me, “I like your pace” and we ran/hiked together for a few miles. He was a doctor from Texas, so I figured at least if I fell down he’d know what to do. The biggest issue for me at this point, beyond all the muscles which were hurting, was simply my CV fitness. My heart rate had been pegged up in the 170s for the whole first two hours, and that’s a lot of work. I simply couldn’t keep that level of exertion up. And so I did a lot more walking and slow jogging.

Two more sustained climbs on the back half were sapping my will to live. One of about 400′ over a mile, and one a bit more than 700′ over two miles. There were a few longer flat sections, but I wasn’t able to do a lot of running. Even when I was it was a shamble. I lost my running companion at about mile 15 when he had more to give than I did.

I spent a fair number of miles running or hiking alone, hoping I was following the trail markings correctly. It wasn’t hard, but four or five hours into a long race, tired, cold, and it’s easy to miss, or misinterpret, a signal. Luckily, I didn’t make any mistakes.

I finally saw the ending coming up, and was able to hoist up my courage and jog the last quarter mile across the finish line, to complete the race in 5:18:49. I had a couple pieces of cold Domino’s pizza, grabbed my t-shirt, and we went home. BB finished about half an hour ahead of me, in 4:47:01.

I was second to last, among the finishers. There were also 4 DNF’s. I’m proud of the effort. I’m impressed with my ability to endure pain and discomfort for a bunch of hours to test myself. Trail running and hiking are hard. They take endurance, pain tolerance, some courage and some grit. The ability to be miserable and enjoy it. To take satisfaction from exhaustion. As my work colleague says, “type two fun”. The kind of fun that sucked when you did it but is fantastic to have done. img_3798.png

So I’m proud of myself. I’m incredibly proud of BB. And I’m sore and tired. But my hip feels good. My thigh feels good. My back feels good. My injuries are healed. My ego is intact. I’m ready to step forward and take on an ultramarathon in the spring. And I’m still coming for Mt. St. Helens.