“Journey” feels like a truly appropriate term.
If you follow us elsewhere, you may recall I first registered for a 50 miler late in 2019, scheduled for… May 2020. That was of course canceled due to COVID. I recognized then that I had no idea when races would be able to resume (and when I’d feel comfortable lining up at one), so I created and completed my own challenge with G’s incredible support, my Double Tiger Claw.
It was an incredible experience, but as hope of racing blossomed again in spring 2021, I knew I wanted to go for an “official” 50-mile event. I scouted around and found one that sounded awesome, the inaugural Kalapuya Crest with Daybreak Racing, slated for September 18. I spent the spring and summer training, with a lot of solo long trail runs (G was training for a full Ironman and spending his long days on the bike). Something happened with my training this year (and/or my relationship with it), and I found myself running faster and more comfortably on trails than ever. Early in the summer, I hopped into a local 14-mile trail race, took 20 minutes off my 2019 time, and still felt like I had gas in the tank. I started to get a little nervous about cutoffs for the 50-miler, but some solid runs in August assuaged my anxiety.
I really felt ready.
The race, however, was not. About 10 days before the race, the director communicated that the air quality wasn’t looking good due to wildfires in the region, and they might have to cancel the race. They provided clear criteria and a date for the go/no-go decision. Then over the weekend before the race, some rain moved in, and air quality improved somewhat. The forecast for race weekend was looking a little wild, and four days before the race, another email from the director. A major cold front was expected to bring wintery weather, cold rain and potentially snow at higher elevations. With smoke hazards for course markers, weather hazards for runners and volunteers on a remote course, and health systems in the area stretched due to rising COVID cases, they made the tough call to cancel the race.
I completely understood and supported the decision (not that they needed that). I also had been coming to understand and craft my relationship with running a little differently in the past 18 months. I knew that my training isn’t about racing. I’ve never been a competitive runner, but I’ve certainly trained before with the race as the endpoint. Now, the race is a waypoint to celebrate the training I put in. The training is about the love of the run, mental and emotional grounding of the physical activity, gratitude for and exploration of what my body is capable of, hours of play in the woods. Training is an act of self-love, carving out time for myself and stretching myself in “low-risk” ways that help me grow.
G and I still took a short break in Oregon. We started out on some local trails on what would have been race day and turned back shortly. I was immensely grateful to not be attempting 50 miles in cold rain and ankle-deep water. Over the weekend, we enjoyed a drive around Crater Lake, a winter hike at the Newberry Volcanic National Monument, and an amazing trail run in Mount Hood National Forest. It ended up being a nice little retreat.
Still, I wanted that 50 mile celebration. And I found an option, likely the last of the season in this region—Alpine Running’s Run the Rock at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. It seemed like a near ideal alternative. I’d have time for recovery and a short training block between Tiger Claw (27 mi and 7500 ft of vert) and Run the Rock. It was an easy day’s drive from Seattle. The elevation gain and loss was similar to what I’d been training for. The pace cutoffs were a little more aggressive than Kalapuya Crest, but I felt confident at this point I could make them. In fact, I thought I could easily best 12 hours and likely even beat 11 hours. These were rather ambitious goals, the sort that I rarely set for myself, but I realized this summer I’d been a little timid about pace on trails, and I wanted to push a bit and see what I could do.
On Saturday, November 13, 2021, I finally got to line up at a 50-mile start line. I passed off my warmer gear to G. I fired up my watch and loaded the course—and the watch screen went blank. In the minute before the race started, I frantically tried to get it to reset, to no avail. G offered me his watch, but I declined. I had the course map on my phone, and I could survive without the GPS tracking and mile splits. I set aside the glitch as I headed off with the other racers into the dark. As we started up the first moderate climb, I took on some calories, knowing that I felt better on long runs when I frontloaded intake, and I had the spark to set a timer on my phone to remind myself to eat, something I can sometimes forget or ignore until I’m sliding into a hole.
We were blessed with a perfect weather window—recent rain came to an end Friday, and a cold front would be moving in Sunday night. The start was cool, but I was warm enough to shed long sleeves just a few miles in. The scattered clouds made for a lovely sunrise, and the surrounding vistas near and far were spectacular throughout the day.
The course is sort of a wonky barbell. Part of a loop, a linear segment, a smaller loop, back along the linear segment, and finish the big loop to get 25.5(ish) miles. Then, do it again. Of course, I had no sense of distance or pace except for when I’d drop into aid stations, which handily had signs listing the distance when I had enough presence of mind to check.
I was feeling very good and strong, still running some lighter inclines even, through about 18 or so miles. At that point, two things happened. First, I was out beyond my longest training runs (up to 20 miles), and though my legs felt good, my feet started to hurt some. Second, and I think the bigger factor, we started hitting patches of sticky mud. The race directors had warned of short sections of “peanut butter” consistency, the sort that clumps and holds. My shoes were literally heavier as we slogged through the stuff and for a few minutes after. I finished off the first round of the course in 5:04, a good pace for me. But I was feeling a little low—sore feet, grit-filled shoes (even with gaiters), feeling like I should be able to run the gentle climbs but feeling warm and a little overtaxed.
I remembered from training that how I feel in this moment is not an indicator of how I’ll feel the rest of the run. I started game planning for my next aid station where I could access my drop bag, just a couple of miles ahead. I often will move quickly through aid stations, grabbing what I want and eating as I move, but I told myself to take 10 minutes—and no more—at the stop. I’d change my socks, pick up my fuel, have some cold brew coffee, refill my water reservoir, grab some snacks. I arrived and, as I tried to find a place to situate myself to swap socks, an aid station volunteer brought me a chair, saying, “You can use this. But I’ll kick you out if you stay too long.” I smiled. I did the things I had planned, grabbed some bacon and quesadilla from the table to add to my stash, and set out again. I felt like a different person. The pain in my feet went away and, though I knew I couldn’t be running as fast as the first time through, I was feeling pretty good.
I passed through the next aid station and shortly after did a time check about 35 miles in—7:05, nearly two hours faster than my first 55K race in 2018, not bad. I hit the rolling but relatively flat section along the river, starting to feel the fatigue of the day, but geared into my “grind” where I settle in at a steady effort and just keep going. When the course started to climb again, I just shifted into a hiking grind, focusing on keeping a steady, purposeful effort. I caught a third wind when I returned to flattish linear segment, which carried me—maybe not comfortably but confidently—into the drop bag aid station. A couple of hours earlier, I thought I’d be doing very well to make it by 3 pm, and I arrived 2:53. I had 10 miles left, and I knew that, with the final hills and mud, I wouldn’t get through it in 2 hours (which is what it would take to break 11 hours overall). Still, I was making good time and grateful for the beautiful day.
I powered ahead and popped on a Levar Burton Reads episode to shift my attention off the mud slog to come. And then, weirdly, it didn’t come. I began to worry I had missed a turn, even though I had been watching markings carefully, especially after I had missed one on the first round and was rescued quickly by the call of another runner. I remembered passing through a cow paddock and a field of grazing cattle, but I hit the final aid station without going through it. The volunteers told me I had just over 5K remaining, an encouragement as I thought it was more like 5 miles. But I was wondering if I’d have to disqualify myself at the end because I cut the course short. Still I pushed ahead, running slowly as I could. And then I found the cows! It just turns out my spatial memory can’t be well trusted 40-plus miles into a race, and the breeze and warm day dried out some of the peanut butter to tacky firm mud in the 6 hours it took me to return.
Soon I spotted the start/finish line from a distance, but then the trail turned. The sun had set and twilight was quickly fading, so I pulled out my headlamp. A couple of other runners caught and passed me, and I kept plodding along. Finally I could hear the cheers and then see the lights. I had done it. I came across the line at 11:10:17, and G was there to cheer me in.
Even though I didn’t break 11 hours, I didn’t feel disappointment about the run. I set an ambitious goal, I pushed throughout the day, I dealt with hiccups and challenges and feelings, and I tested the well of my capabilities. I’m already thinking ahead of how I can explore my boundaries in the coming year, continuing to cultivate my relationship with running in a way that empowers me to stretch while supporting my physical and emotional health.