Gene wrote about his experience of the Cougar Mountain trail event. In an unusual turn, though, we didn’t run this together as we do most of our races. So this is my take on the day… and the day leading up. If you don’t care too much about gear and race details, jump to the end for lessons learned and things to tweak—and please share your recommendations and experiences in the comments!
On Saturday, I was a bit nervous about the next day’s race. I spent the morning poring over the course and thinking through the preparations.
After I published that post, Gene and I headed out for some errands. We dropped by Seven Hills Running, picking up some nutrition for future runs and gloves for Gene. We checked out Fisherman’s Terminal. We headed to a craft store to pick up some Velcro for my gaiters (I’d run with them before but needed a back anchor so I wouldn’t have to adjust them so much).
I put that Velcro to use when I got home. Later in the afternoon, we laid out everything we’d need for the next day and threw a few things in the wash. I wanted to minimize the gear I’d be carrying while also leaving myself a few options that would assuage my anxiety about the weather—expecting a start in the mid 40s, potentially with wind and rain. I settled on:
- Icebreaker merino tights
- Brookes FineForm bra (this is my go-to running bra)
- 7Hills/Salomon T-shirt
- Icebreaker half-zip long sleeve top (not shown)
- Saucony ultra light rain shell
- Outdoor Research Surge gaiters
- Hoka OneOne Speedgoat 2
- Feetures max cushion socks
- Sugoi lightweight running gloves
- Option for day of decision: Shamrock half running cap or buff from Run Wild Retreats 2015 trip
I packed a small dry bag with another long sleeve technical, waterproof gloves, and a set of reusable hand warmers. I wanted to be prepared if I got drenched at the start and needed a dry layer later in the day. The dry bag went into my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, along with:
- 1 – 500 mL body bottle with water only
- 1 – 500 mL body bottle with 2 scoops of Tailwind Nutrition
- A collection of my favorite nutrition options
I knew there’d be plenty of calories at aid stations, but that it might take me an hour or longer to get between a couple of them. I often can’t down 200 calories at a time, so I tend to go with fewer calories more frequently. I also sometimes get a bit picky and wanted to be sure I had food I knew I’d eat. Plus I didn’t want to down a bunch of new stuff on race day.
We also loaded up our box for the car: granola for before the race; the standard supply of Body Glide, sunscreen, etc.; and changes of clothes and shoes for after the race.
Then it was dinner. We have a somewhat standard pre-race day meal: rice (usually long grain white rice), protein, some veggies, and not too much sugar. Typically this takes the form of Indian food, but this time it was a homemade meal of a nice piece of salmon from the Fisherman’s Terminal, rice pilaf, and beet greens. After a bit of Netflix, we hit the bed early.
Gene included a rundown of our schedule Sunday morning. By then, my energy was skewing more toward excitement than anxiety.
At the start line, there were just over 200 runners: 90 for the 8 mile, ~70 for the 20 mile, and ~50 for the 50K. We took a spot at the back of the huddle, not wanting to slow any one down.
The race started with a loop around a small field, perfect for getting our feet nice and wet and cold before hitting the trail 😅 I realized quickly though that it was really/also about spreading us out before we hit the trails. The first stretch (Clay Pit Road) is a nice wide trail, which stretched out the line of runners even more and allowed for some jostling of positions. By the time we turned onto the first single track, the scrum was easily funneled into single file.
Despite the overnight rain and pre-race downpour, the trails weren’t too messy. In fact, I think the rain helped soften the hard pack without turning it to mud (in most places). The first mile or so was relatively flat, as expected. I warmed up quickly and had to lose the rain shell. As we headed up the first hill, Gene stopped briefly for an adjustment while I climbed ahead. Per the typical strategy, most people slowed to a hike up the hills, and I did too. But in the first quarter, I was surprised at how much was more or less runnable. At a turn, my toe caught on something; I went down but not hard. I moved freely down the hills.
Judging which of the uphills were really runnable for me was a little challenging—the inclines were just shallow enough to move at faster than a walk but persistent enough that they’d spike my heart rate. At some point, an older 50K runner I’d passed on a downhill caught up to and passed me. He seemed like he knew what he was doing, so I fell into step and used him as my pacer for a mile or two.
The first aid station came up at about 5.8 miles. I stopped for a 1/4 PB&J and a wardrobe change. The layers were a bit warm, so I ditched the lightweight T-shirt and threw the half zip back on. Gene caught up to me while I was at the aid station, and we set back off on the trails together for a bit.
The climbs were more or less where and what I expected. Then the descent began, a major part through a series of switchbacks. A bearded runner caught up to me. “Fun way to make up time, eh?” he noted as he passed. And indeed it was.
I paused at one switchback to move a big limb that was partially obstructing the turn. As I stepped back to run, I somehow rolled my ankle. It smarted for a few moments but quickly released and, after a few more minutes, my mind relaxed.
I made the 9.5 mile cutoff in just 2:03, almost a half hour to spare. Another 1/4 PB&J, a water refill, and I was on my way back up. I made a point of slowing my pace and started checking my heart rate periodically. At one point, I looked up and was struck by just how vibrant the green mosses and ferns were against the browns of the trees and grays of the mist. I understood the charm of this place.
I kept climbing, slowly but surely. I passed a guy who hadn’t realized what was ahead until the aid station volunteer had told him. I kept going. I have a time alert set to sound every 40 minutes on my watch—my cue to eat. I started on a Muir Energy and was just halfway through when I found the crest (~925 ft over ~1.6 or so miles) and the third aid station. I got an Oreo for the road, the best Oreo ever despite its slightly damp exterior.
I continued on. I was alone on the trail, no runners visible or audible ahead or behind, though I encountered a few hikers (the trail was still open for regular use). I hiked the climbs. I bounded over roots. I realized I was holding back a bit, a little anxious about slipping or tripping. Trust your body. Trust your feet, I silently chanted and relaxed into the flats and downhills, weaving along Deceiver Trail with ease.
I came to a stop as I rounded a bend, noticing something big and brown and roundish off the trail ahead. A bear?! I thought for a split second before realizing it was just a large fallen tree and continuing on my way.
After some relative quiet, I heard a runner behind. A tall guy with fluid movements breezed past—the 50K leader.
I came into the fourth and final aid station. More PB&J, another water refill, a handful of BBQ potato chips. A pair of older women came in. The volunteer told us that someone had tampered with some of the course markings early, and the 20 mile front runners had looped back past the aid station—but a race volunteer had reset them.
The pair of women set off, and I wasn’t far behind them. Before long, one asked if I wanted to pass, but I said I was happy to hang out. And I was. They were keeping a somewhat “easy” pace for me, and it was nice to hear voices other than my own again. They introduced themselves, and we talked trail running for a while.
As we turned up the final climb on Quarry Trail, I took the lead and gradually (though not intentionally) distanced myself from the pair. When I made the turn onto a wider trail, a portion we’d covered in the opposite direction, I knew I was in the home stretch and started to pick up my pace as I could. A faster runner—the second 50K finisher—passed me with a friendly, “Great job!”
Another turn, Old Man’s Trail—almost there. I saw the trees open and the timing clock ahead. I’d been hoping to finish in 5 hours. I made it. I had covered 19.5 miles and almost 4000 ft of gain in 4:47.
- Miles make everything taste better. I have known this, but seriously that was the BEST OREO EVER at mile 11.
- The trail running community is really delightful. Almost every runner I passed or who passed me, no matter which direction we were going, offered words of encouragement or friendly exchanges.
- Running alone on the trails can be equally wonderful—nothing but nature and thoughts and finding the joy and peace of running again.
- It was tough and sometimes a bit painful, but I kept going. And though I couldn’t have done it Sunday, I can imagine being able to continue on another 12—or maybe more—miles.
Things to Improve
- Better adhesive for the shoe side of the Velcro: It held throughout the run but then came off with a tug when taking the gaiters off.
- A more effective anti-chafing solution for the chest strap HRM: I waffled on wearing it, aware it sometimes chafes. But I wanted to be able to keep my heart rate in check on the climbs. I don’t recall this issue with the Wahoo Tickr X (which was lost a while back). Now I use the Garmin HRM-Tri, and beyond an hour or so, it chafes in the center of my chest—even with Body Glide or an anti-chafe cream (though the latter is a little better).
- More accurate GPS tracking on trails: I run with the Fēnix 5S. It does fine on roads and pretty open areas. The altimeter/gain seems to be fine. But distance was almost 2 miles short, and that was with GPS + Glonass. No GPS will be perfect, I know, but mine definitely lagged behind others.
- More “perfect” running shoes: There’s a lot I like about the Hoka Speedgoat 2, but after about 10 miles, I start to blister on the inner forefoot. This was true in training runs too, but not so severe as to justify trying new shoes so close to race day.
Any suggestions from you, readers?
Any lessons you’ve taken away from long days on the trail?
[…] here we are, a week after 19.5 mi and almost 4000′ of vert. I had a pretty good day last weekend—tired and a little achy but overall strong (but not fast). Gene’s was a little […]
[…] of course, our plans were laid waste by injury. While we did do a big, difficult race, and we feel quite justifiably proud of that, we didn’t get to complete our true life-goal, […]
[…] race in October. Then injuries happened, and we didn’t do the ultra. We staggered through the 20 miler instead. So the Grand Ridge Half became an opportunity to see how we’d improved in three weeks, and […]
[…] for the 50, we did a 10K trail race. Then we lost the 50K to injury, but were able to run the 20 miler instead. And then we did the Beat the Blerch 10K Holiday Fun Run, and then this past weekend we did the […]
[…] is the most ambitious day of my life, from a distance-and-gain perspective, more than rivaling the Cougar Mountain 19.5 miler. I’m a little nervous, especially as I twisted my ankle – yes, AGAIN – on […]