Saturday, undertrained and still a bit injured, BB and I took on Tiger Claw, a new trail race that’s the brainchild of Ethan Newberry, who along with his wife Kimberly Teshima-Newberry, hosts the popular Ginger Runner podcast. Tiger Claw is a strange beast, set on one of the Seattle area’s signature wildlands, Tiger Mountain. The Issaquah Alps are a series of three or four smallish (compared to the Cascades) foothills as you head from Seattle out the I-90 corridor.
But a “smallish foothill” is not a fair way to describe Tiger Mountain. It’s 3000′ high, and a rat’s nest of steep, rocky, technical, difficult trails. It’s a popular destination for hikers and runners of all skill levels, but this race definitely tested the limits of my abilities. Here’s how the race works:
There are three loops, Pink, White, and Yellow. There’s also a short green “loop” of Lake Tradition to begin with, which got the runners all shaken out and warmed up. The three loops each ascend Tiger Mountain to the West Tiger 3, which is a 2522′ subordinate peak. The gain of each loop is between 2500′ and 3000′ depending on how much up and down are required to get to the top.
The Pink and White loops are just shy of six miles. The Yellow loop is just shy of 9. Add the mile and a half around Lake Tradition, and it’s a 22 mile course with 8000′ of gain. Three steep ascents. Three challenging, technical descents (they all share a single descent that we did three times). As the website says: this should not be your first trail race. This was a monster race. And as I agreed with another runner I met on the way down the first loop: this was an ultra-marathon effort, even if it was technically short of marathon distance by a few miles.
The upshot is: this race was murder. In a good, good way. I’m writing this about 48 hours after the start, and my quads are still shrieking with every move.
We got there at about 0500 on race day, and because we had two bibs, we got to park close to the start. We geared up, headed to the start, and listened to the course descriptions and instructions. The timing system was new to me, as we were allowed to choose the order we did the loops, and so we needed to do a complicated (but as it turned out fairly intuitive) system of checking in at the bottom and top of each loop with a hand-help electronic wand. This was called “booping”.
We made the decision to run this race separately rather than together, as we each wanted to attack it in a different way. I’m often a little faster on the ups than BB, and she’s always way faster on the downs. I wanted to save the hard loop for last, and she wanted to do it with fresh legs. So we went our separate ways to make this an individual challenge.
I took on the Pink loop first, which is supposedly the “easiest” of the loops. It’s a 2.6 mile 2500′ ascent. Basically, all day was going to be 1000’/mile going up. For those keeping track at home, that’s about a 19% grade on average. Many places were steeper. But the Pink loop has good footing, and I was on fresh legs. My thinking was, this is the easy loop. Might as well have one of them feel pretty good, and do it early. BB took the opposite approach.
The Pink loop took me almost exactly an hour to get up. I was feeling good and excited to make it to the aid station for the first time. Because the three loops all took different routes to the same peak, there was just a single aid station at the top, and another at the bottom. I topped out and ate some chips and grapes, and then started on my way down. BB passed me. I felt like I was flying down the hill, feeling good. I even turned in a sub-12 minute mile.
Up next was the Yellow loop. This one goes to a higher peak and then back down, and had a smashing view of Mt. Rainier from the top. It took me longer, because it was longer, and had more gain (about 3000′). The Yellow loop trails are less technical, in my opinion, and definitely had some runnable portions. But it was six full miles up between the lower and upper aid station, which is a long time to be climbing 500’/mile without support. I always carry water and food, though, and I had studied the routes so I knew to expect this and was prepared for it.
The descent from the Yellow loop was much slower. I wrenched my ankle about a month ago, and it still isn’t in full running-condition. And somehow on Friday before the race I’d done something to my right middle and “index” toes. My foot was black and blue. So I took it slower, and tried to stay steady.
My last loop was the White loop. This is the “hard” loop. It includes the famous “Section Line” trail, which ascends about 850′ in well under a mile. It’s not a maintained trail, so it’s rooty, rocky, lacks reasonable switchbacks, and has blowdown logs. I saved this for last because I was thinking, “Section Line is going to suck no matter when I do it. Might as well lean in, and do it last, so that I have fresher legs for the easier parts of the course.” I don’t know if this was a good idea or a bad one. But BB started Pink about the same time I started White, and we both got to the top in about the same time.
When I got to the top aid station for the third time I checked my watch. I had a 3.5 mile descent, and 6 hours and 14 minutes elapsed. I had to pee. I had a rock in my shoe. And I decided I was going to try to finish in under seven hours. A long, somewhat technical descent, after almost 20 miles and nearly 8000′ of climbing. I peed. I cleared my shoe. And then I got running.
I’m not going to lie. These miles hurt. My quads were already trashed from the prior two descents. My feet, especially my right one, were aching. My upper body – back, arms, shoulders – was a mass of exhaustion and pain. And I ran down the mountain as fast as I could. I kept checking my watch. I didn’t think I would make it. I ran a hard, steep mile and thought, “I’m making great time!” My watch: 16 min 6 sec. I picked it up. My heart rate had been pegged to 170 for almost seven straight hours. I started to feel a little asthmatic.
I calmed my breathing and pushed as hard as I could. I checked my watch. Only a couple minutes left. No end in sight. I started to slow, and then just decided, “don’t give up until you see the 7 in the hours-place.” So I pushed. Suddenly, the finisher’s chute was on my right. I didn’t know how long it was. My watch said 6:59:05. I sprinted. I actually sprinted. I saw the arch. I saw The Ginger Runner. I came across the line, and gave him a bear hug, tearing up from the effort, and the relief that I was done.
Image Credit: @runtigerclaw Instagram feed
I’d done it. 21.4 miles, according to my watch (which often reads 3-7% short on wooded trails), and 7703′ gain. I wasn’t fast. I finished 107/115 men, 146/163 overall. And I was second-to-last among men 40-49. BB finished about seven minutes ahead of me. I’m incredibly proud of this. As always, I wish I were fitter or faster, but this was a long hard day, and I performed beyond my own expectations (I’d been expecting to finish in about 8 hours).
And we got these spectacular medals and the coolest recognition I’ve ever heard of: our names are being put on a plaque (with the names of all the inaugural finishers) that will be mounted on the start/finish arch for as long as the Tiger Claw is a race. That’s something I’m going to be super stoked about for a long time.
Would I do it again? Hell yes. But I’m also ready to try some races that aren’t right at the limits of my ability. Time to do a couple chill half-marathons and more NW Trail Runs events. And maybe next year at Tiger Claw, I volunteer.