Fifty miles was a distance that I found a little scary. 50K had seemed achievable, just another 5 miles beyond a marathon. At my pace, 50 miles would mean all day on my feet no matter what. The challenge I set for myself would crank up the intensity a few notches: three loops on Tiger Mountain, each offering about 2300-3000 feet of vertical gain, which I’d have to do twice to get close to 50 miles.
Yet I felt surprisingly at ease as I set out under rapidly brightening skies at 5:10 am on Friday, July 10, 2020. I had trained to build strength. I had tapered to have fresh legs. I had a dependable crew (Gene) waiting for me at the end of each loop. I had planned and prepared…
Five minutes later, I realized I had forgotten the Squirrels Nut Butter (an anti-chafing balm). Fortunately I was starting with a short warmup lap that would bring me back close to the car. I made a short stop lube up before taking my first run up the mountain. It did not signify an inauspicious start to the day, just a little blip and nothing to stress over.
I was quickly off to start the Yellow Loop, the longest one with the most climbing. But it starts with a flat mile that I clicked off in about 10 minutes. My legs were feeling good as I started the first climb, even picking up some PRs on Strava segments. The trail was in good condition. I took in the expansiveness of the forest around me. It was a great day for a run.
Tiger Mountain can take on different tenors over a few miles stretch, and true to form, its morning mood shifted at the usual spot. On one side of the copse of trees, a clear day; through the portal and into the misty, cool mountain. I moved comfortably along Poo Top Trail, breezed by West Tiger Summit #1, onto Hiker’s Hut Viewpoint—a lovely white wall once again.
I took the logging road to West Tiger Summit #2. This is where all the mountain routes intersect, an open gravel flat just below a broadcast tower. It’s the location for the upper aid station of Tiger Claw. I took a quick break for a few calories and a text to let Gene know I had reached the top. It was time for the first trip down.
Downhill running is one of my happy places. It’s where I make up ground, and it’s just plain fun. From West Tiger 2, the trail drops into a bowl that never gets much sun and is usually a few degrees colder than everything around it. There’s a short steep climb to West Tiger Summit #3, and then it really is all downhill—some of it steep and gravelly. I took a relaxed run down the first time, letting my legs ease into the day. I reached the bottom of the mountain feeling great, cruised through the point where I’d started, and turned to the parking lot.
I took a couple of minutes to resupply, rolling out at about 3 hours and 10.4 miles as I headed to take on the Pink route for the first time. The new Pink ascent isn’t much shorter than the Yellow route, and it delivers about 2800 ft of gain. This route climbs pretty gently for a couple of miles. The trail flattens and bombs down for a mile along the Tiger Mountain Trail before climbing up to West Tiger 2, though there’s a lot of variability—flat sections to gentle rolling trails to a steep climb at the very end.
As I tread up the initial climb, I heard a sound and looked up to see a deer further up the hill that disappeared quickly into the brush. As I ran along a flat portion, I hear a small bird shouting and looked up to see a barred owl gliding silently between trees. Heading up the steep final segment to West Tiger 2, I met another runner on the trail. She paused as she passed and asked, “Are you Melissa?” When I confirmed, she wished me luck, asked what my goal was, and told me I was looking strong. (She had seen my post on the Seattle Mountain Running Group page, where I noted I had a big day planned.)
Returning to West Tiger 2, I got a text from a work friend. “Have a wonderful day off doing what you love!” I was.
I moved more freely and quickly down the mountain this time, encountering a few more folks on their way up to West Tiger 3. It was time for cold brew and refills when I got to car. Gene loaded me up, and I was off for the final loop of my first Tiger Claw course for the day.
The White route is a beast. It’s the shortest of the routes up, just under 3 miles, but it is STOUT, with 2200+ ft of gain. The “easy” portion rises about 500 ft in 1 mile. After a short reprieve, it’s on to the unmaintained portion of Section Line trail, which basically goes straight up the hillside, over root, rock, and tree, for 800-900 ft in about half a mile or so. Then there’s a half mile break along the West Tiger Railroad Grad, before knocking out the final 700 ft in a half mile. These grades drag my pace down to 30 minutes per mile.
I ground through the White route. It wasn’t painful, just tiring and relentless. I listened to a Ginger Runner episode with Ann Trason, a fitting chat for a trail ultra. Hitting West Tiger 2 for the third time, I took a moment to shake out my legs and text Gene my ‘lunch’ order before rolling down the mountain again.
Back at the ‘aid station’, I took a little more time to get food onboard. One Tiger Claw down in about 7:45—24.7 mi and 8000+ feet of vertical gain. It was a bit slower than the 2019 race, but there were a couple of more miles, and I was intentionally taking my time with some of the climbs and the pit stops at the car so I didn’t burn out too early.
I had decided I was heading back out for the White route again. I was actually feeling pretty great, and I didn’t want to save the steep climb for the end. This time up the mountain, Levar Burton Reads me a story. I took it easy on the small flat sections because my legs were feeling gassed and my feet were starting to ache a bit. When I finally made the summit, I sat down to give my body a quick rest and down some calories. I was at a new vert PR—and still had close to 6000 ft remaining.
This fourth trip down the mountain was slower, the first time I was really feeling fatigue on the descent. As the trail flattened out, a couple of runners paused on their way up and started clapping. I was almost past them before I realized—it was Ethan Newberry (aka the Ginger Runner) and Kimberly Teshima-Newberry (aka Mile Long Legs)! Creators of the Tiger Claw course and captains of the awesome GR community, they’d come out to cheer me on, 6+ feet away and buffs up. We chatted a few moments. They’d been surprised that I did the short punchy segment back to back, but after the first round, I just wanted to get it over with.
Back at the car again, I decided it was time to switch out shoes. My feet were just feeling the pounding, so I switched to the Speedgoat 2 with more cushion. Just under 10 minutes and I was rolling back out for the Pink route again. I was feeling OK, hiking through the climbs and cruising the downhills—a bit of leg fatigue, a bit of weird nausea but nothing too serious. It was warming up though. I reached a stream, but before crossing the small bridge, I took a short pause to splash some cool water on myself; Ruth’s Cove offered a nice little respite from the heat. Then it was back off to the top of the mountain again, and I found myself surprised at some of the stretches I could sorta run slowly (or maybe shuffle, but it was more than a walk).
I didn’t take much time at the summit this round. I was ready to keep rolling. I maneuvered the initial downhill and plodded up the short steep climb to West Tiger # 3, where I was greeted with more cheers! This time it was a GR crew member, Angela Kuzior, telling me I looked great. I waved and responded I had one more round to go. But considering I was already at my biggest day ever, I was feeling pretty good. I took care over the initial rocky and rooty descent, but once the trail widened and smoothed out a bit, I was feeling good, even better than the last trip down the mountain.
I cruised in for the last ‘aid station’ stop just over 39 miles in. I took a gulp of cold brew—ew. I took a bit of Oreo—nope. The only thing that was satisfying was pickle juice, which is delicious but doesn’t have much in the way of calories. Nothing else was striking a chord though. I told Gene to remind me to eat before we got too far into the loop.
I grabbed my headlamp, and Gene grabbed his pack to join me for the final 10. As I waited by the toilets for Gene to retrieve his own headlamp, a pair of hikers came by and alerted me to a mama bear and a cub up the way… Uh, I was not interested in ursine navigation today. Fortunately by the time Gene and I were out on the trail again, there was no sign of the furry critters.
It may have been more of a shuffle, but I was able to keep moving at a reasonable pace on the flat segment at the start of the final loop. The first mile clocked in at 12 min, 2 minutes slower than at the start of the day, but at mile 40 for the day, I’d take it.
I had to take the climb slowly. Nothing was quite perfect, or even great, at this point. But I took solace in knowing this was the last round and that I really was going to finish this thing. I took off my tee, hoping it would help with the heat issue. I put down some calories. And I just kept grinding out the climb ever so slowly. The biggest challenges were just general fatigue and sore feet. Oddly my feet felt better when I could run/shuffle along a flatter segment. Along one of the climbs, I was feeling demolished and somehow thought of the advice to smile. I tried it, and then I started thinking how ridiculous it was to smile at mile 43 when my body ached, and that just made me smile more.
We were making slow progress, I knew. We hit one steep hill, and I cursed. Then I took a breath and made my way up. I reminded myself to be appreciative and amazed at what my body could do. We passed the West Tiger #1 summit. I knew that meant we were closing in other end of this climb. I tried a couple of potato chips, which just turned to unpalatable paste in my mouth. We had dropped below the ridge line, and the light was getting thin. I picked my way over the roots. This time when I popped out at the Hiker’s Hut Viewpoint, I finally had something more than a white wall of fog to check out. We had a gloriously clear view of Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) and, when we turned to the right, the Olympic Peninsula.
After taking a few moments to gawk and revel in the gift of this place, we finished off the last stretch down and then up to West Tiger #2. By this point, my pace downhill was slowing significantly because my core was shredded. We paused at the summit to pull out the headlamps; heading back into the forest would plunge us into darkness. Together we forged down the trail that I’d already trod 5 times that day. I took much more time and care, physically and mentally extended in low light.
As we headed down the graveled section for the last time, my foot slid on the scree. It was a slow motion fall, my arm dragging down a tree next to me. The worst was the abrasion on my arm, no other injury, but a good reminder to watch the footing carefully. When the trail widened again, I tried to run, but I could only manage short bursts. I didn’t trust my balance on the rocks, and my whole body just kinda hurt when jostled. Slowly we made our way down the West Tiger 3 trail.
It felt like it took forever, but finally we were back at the bottom of the mountain again. When we reached the lot, my watch was reading just over 48 miles. I did not trust myself to run the final mostly flat green loop in the dark, certain I would catch a toe on a root and end up on the ground. I knew it was likely I had already run more than 50 miles, given the trail tax I usually experience, but wasn’t going to stop with the number 48 on my watch face. So I ran loops around the empty parking lot, while Gene went to check that we hadn’t gotten locked in the park (we hadn’t). He returned, and we shuffled along together along the road to the car, a little beyond and back until the numbers clicked over: 50.02 miles.
When I had started, I had been hoping to wrap up in 16 hours, the number of daylight hours available. It took all those and another 1.6 more. But I racked up 50 miles and 16,000 ft of gain. I accomplished what I set out to do. Showing up to try was already a win. I felt like this would be a test of my limits. And it was, but I realized that I have a deep well to draw from, even deeper than I’d imagined. I’m thrilled to have met this challenge, and I’m excited to see what’s next. But for now, I’m happy to appreciate this celebration of what I can do—and enjoying my new motto: Slow AF, stubborn as hell, and damn proud of it.
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