Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sun Mountain 50m/50k

50k finish line 1 week after my 50 mile finish.


Sun Mountain 50 Miler - May 11th, 2019

Sun Mountain is one of my favorite races.  It was my first 50 miler, back in 2015. It had a differet course then. It felt like a first again this year because I hadn't raced at all since October 2018. I've been dealing with sciatic nerve pain caused by a bulging disc in my lumbar spine since November. It's impacted a lot of basic daily things like bending to put on my own socks, the ability to sit without pain, or sleep for very long without waking, but it has not hurt my running. Running is when I feel whole and normal still. If anything it is causing me to run more. I started the race with fear though. Fear that 50 miles would be too much for my back and running would be taken from me.

Starting line smile
It was 6 am and the day would only get hotter, but we had a good laugh at the starting line as James explained if anyone were to get eaten by a cow they should make sure to report in as DNF. At one point we would be running through a field of cattle. We headed out with a half mile on the paved road and quickly funneled onto the trail up Patterson Mountain. I made sure to start front of the mid-pack to not get too delayed on the crowded single track climb. Normally I am social, but the day found me looking for my zen and listening to the conversations around me. A man and woman behind me were chatting. He was explaining that he had started the race with a broken toe, in case it wasn't going to be hard enough already. He had kicked his bed frame the night before apparently. The woman was not the slightest bit phased by this. She had been talking about her love of Cascade Crest 100 and added on that of the eight times she ran it one year she broke her foot one week prior, and ran it anyways. As I listened, smiling to myself, we summited Patterson and I caught my right foot pitching forward, but catching myself in a ricochet move. Normally that sort of movement causes a painful nerve zinger from my left hip to my calf and throws me off for awhile. No zinger. This and the crazy, but lovely, conversation around me felt like a good omen on which to begin a long day.

After descending Patterson we took a right onto a fun flowy trail called Black Bear. It would lead us to one more big climb before the first aid station. Less than a quarter mile before the left turn onto Moose there was a split in the trail and the group in front of me headed down the hill as I headed up it. The group of four saw me veer and called out, "no, this way!" Group think and not being awake got me. I know these trails well and I knew better, but in the moment I just thought it was nice they made sure to correct me and I followed them. A short bit later the wrong turn was obvious and we headed back up for about a half mile of bonus trail before rejoining the course. I had been pushing hard and was frustrated with the delay. My watch, the Coros Apex, tends to measure noticeably shorter than Garmin and Suunto so I reassured myself that maybe I'd need that extra mileage later for Strava.

Back on course we took a left onto Moose, a steep climb that eventually pops out via wooden stairs to the back side of Sun Mountain Lodge and the first aid station, on the lawn at mile 6.6. I blew through quickly grabbing a pickle, watermelon, and refilling my reservoir with what I thought was water, but later turned out to be Nuun. I always want to like Nuun. I like the idea of Nuun. But it always messes with my stomach. My stomach feels this way about most liquid electrolyte products. As soon as I realized I'd mistook which pitcher was which I quit drinking it. I'd hydrated well so far and could afford to not drink till aid two at mile 11.2.

Aid two was a bit of a tease in that I thought it was closer than it was. It was located at Chickadee Trailhead which used to be the course start and finish in prior years. We ran through the woods hearing happy voices and the joyful clamor of aid volunteers, but first had about 1.5 miles to loop around up a hill and back down before arriving at the aid station. A festive group of costumed crew were out cheering us before the Magpie loop. I almost asked the one dressed in the rabbit costume to snap a pic with me, but reminded myself I had pace goals it was too early on to disregard. My watch read 12.0 miles at the 11.2 mile aid. Despite the bonus half mile I was surprised and happier with my Coros than usual. I'll take a long course over a short watch any day. I grabbed Skratch chews, Honey Stinger chews, and a pack of olives from my drop bag. I ate the olives, pb&j tortillas, watermelon, and banana and drank Coke from the aid and replaced my Nuun with fresh water.

Aid three wasn't until mile 18.5 and had a big climb around Overland and Inside Passage before arriving at Thompson Ridge. On this section I started doing a lot of what I call intervals: run when it feels doable and do something else when it doesn't. Repeat. Frequently. By the time I arrived at aid it was getting hot out. I loaded up on watermelon, banana, pb&j tortilla roll-ups, took a shot of pickle juice and coke, put on more sunscreen, and stuffed my sports bra with ice before a much welcome bit of downhill to cool me.

Before arriving at Meadowlark, aid three at mile 25.8 we swayed through many switchbacks in open sunny fields awash with bold blooms of wildflowers. Running this area in late Spring is not unlike running through a vibrant painting. Some of my mid-pack cohorts were starting to melt in the heat and full sun and walking more. I passed more runners than I expected to in this section with my run walk intervals. There wasn't anything crazy steep in this area so I was constantly challenging myself to mostly run and walk just a little to break it up. Meadowlark aid was on a little shady spot under some trees cut into the hillside like a mirage in the wildflower desert. They also had a view and chairs under a tent that drew a few weary runners. Not me! The next aid, Elbow Coulee #1 at mile 31.5 would be the first time I'd seen Bethany since the 6 am starting line and the first I'd seen Charlie awake that day so I was feeling motivated to get there. I made good time descending Rader Creek before cutting right into the neighborhood to run along the gravel Elbow Coulee Road. Soon the aid station was in sight and I was emotional to see my people and grateful to be feeling good with 50k of the course done.
Elbow Coulee Aid #1 Mile 31.5

Charlie popped out and ran me in. Aspire Adventure Running was working the aid and my friends Kelsey and Alex were there volunteering. It was such a good aid station with hummus veggie wraps, bacon, lots of help, and all the watermelon, coke, and pickle goodness I'd been enjoying at previous aid stations. I left the aid with more ice in my sports bra and all 60 ounces of my reservoir full hiking up a steep hill to the cattle zone of the course. My pack is distractedly awkward that fully loaded so I made an error. I took it off to drain some water. I drained too much by mistake leaving only 24 ounces headed out on a fully exposed ridge line for 12 mile in high 80's heat with intense sunshine smiling down. There was supposed to be a water only aid station at mile seven of the loop, but I kept stressing myself with worrywart fantasies that it would be out when I got there and I would be in trouble. I slowed down a lot. I hoarded my water and fantasized about drinking it all in one gulp. There was a lot of climbing in this section and it was really hot. We had also been on the course for eight plus hours already. It was understandable to feel some fatigue.

Maybe two miles from the water only aid I started feeling pretty out of it. I think I was showing early symptoms of heat stress. The high that day was 89 degrees. Descending towards Frost Road other runners and I spied the water only aid. I was expecting a plastic table with big blue bottles unmanned on the roadside. Instead, a magical dream appeared. There was a big shaded canopy and volunteers. A car pulled up and coolers full of ice were being unloaded. A warm kind man with the kind of shirtless deep tan that speaks to being outdoors as much as possible was ushering us under the tent to sit and load up with ice and water. He had small micro fleece towels he was dipping in ice water and draping on our necks. It was so nice. It saved the rest of my race and did the same for many others. I stayed in the tent with the group for 10-15 minutes. When I got up to leave I told the man who'd been taking care of us that he was my hero and I needed a selfie on my way out. Later on that led to my learning he was Doug McKeever, co-founder of the Chuckanut 50k. No wonder he was so adept at restoring us. I felt silly for not knowing who he was in the moment.
Doug - Our Ice Savior at Water Only Aid Mile 38 or so.

Immediately upon leaving the aid we were faced with a steep single track climb. Possibly the steepest yet. It was beautiful. The trees on it still showed char from a past wildfire and the vegetation was lush, full, and healthy. It was soooo steep. It sucked a little bit. It wouldn't have worked if not for Doug fixing us first. It was on that climb that I met my swearing friend. I didn't get her name, but she was a pretty blonde woman whose daughter's birthday was that day. It was her first 50 mile race. Rather than a hello she said something along the lines of "can I swear right now? I'm so fucking over this." I said, "by all means yes please. That is the appropriate reaction right now. It would be improper not to." I told her it was a tough day and not to blame the mileage. Between the weather and the new course she had landed on a tough 50 miler for her first.  After the hill was over we leap frogged back and forth climbing the seemingly endless ridge line and I learned she had a son Charlie's age and it was her daughter's 14th birthday.
My 'swearing friend' on our climb.

The wind on the ridge wanted to steal my hat so I had to take it off and hold it for awhile. It felt refreshing and exhausting all at the same time. Shortly thereafter Glenn appeared for the second time that day. It had been nearly eight hours since he'd first snapped our pictures on the Kraule Trail after the first aid station. It was good to see him again.
Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama Mile 41ish.

There were finally downhills to be had again. I picked up speed as I started to realize how much time I'd lost on the ridge. As I passed other runners I got a lot of "good for you" and similar shouts. I kept explaining that my son and my partner had never been to one of my 50 milers before so I had to finish it for them. That is what made me run again. I was worried about the math. I'd expected a 12.5 hour day, but was now worried about the 14 hour finish line cutoff. Kelsey was running up to check on people after they had someone in late stage heat stress at the aid. I was happy to see her and told her I felt good. I just had about a mile and some cows in between me and the second pass through Elbow Coulee aid. The cows were on a flat grassy road. One was staring me down from the middle of the road as if I was a problem. I slowed to a walk and looked at the ground. It walked off into the grass and I picked up pace again gratefully. It would have been a real shame to have been eaten by a cow and had to report by own DNF from the afterlife with 43 miles run and only seven left to go.
Cows on the course.

I had told Bethany and Charlie I understood if they didn't stay at the aid station so I was unsure if I would see them as I descended the hill back to aid. They were still there! This made me really happy. They were pretty fried though, they'd been there for five hours and my preteen was boooored, so I encouraged them to hit the road to the finish where the lake and pizza awaited. I had a two mile out and back from the aid and asked Alex if I was required to take my pack. He said no and went an extra step lending me a handheld to take with me in the heat.
Descending to Elbow Coulee Aid #2 mile 43ish.

This was great except about a quarter mile away I realized two things. My earbuds were in my pack and this was the one spot all day I wanted to listen to music. I also realized my Suunto Ambit 3 was still in my pack. I am really emotionally attached to 'collecting' my miles and because my Coros usually measures short I brought my old watch too. This is a neurosis I've decided to quit judging myself for and just own it. I am a Strava addict and I am not ready to change. I also thought 50 miles was a nice distance to compare the two watches on. In that moment I realized my Suunto would now be missing two miles of the course and it was time to let go and fully embrace the Coros. When I returned to Elbow Coulee aid for the third and final time and traded Alex back his handheld for my pack I did leave the Suunto recording. I was curious if it would still measure longer than Coros despite being benched for two miles.

I was pretty excited that my next destination was the finish line. The two miles of flat gravel road before the lake trail was mentally tough though. I stuck with Caitlin who I had met on the course that day for a mile of it. It was her first 50 miler and she told me some pretty cool stuff about injuries she had overcome to get this far with her running. She was feeling more energetic than I was and I encouraged her to go for it and finish strong. She did.

Once I hit the lake trail I was excited. I love that trail and have run it many times. I also knew it meant less than two miles to the finish! I ran everything that was flat or down and walked the little rolling uphills. There's a little dip in the Patterson Lake Trail as it turns a corner just before rising up to meet the Cabin Trail. I teared up there with the emotion of being about to finish 50 miles for the first time since sciatica took over my life and in the fresh memory of being there two weeks prior. Bethany and I had gone on a 27 mile training run and when we passed by that section I caught a root with my right foot and fell, landing on my back. My right leg is my good leg and when I catch it like that it sets off a zinger in my bad leg. From my low back down my left hip to to where my calf meets my foot. It sends tension through the whole nerve like a taught wire electrified and I can't move briefly from the intensity of the pain sensation and then it triggers sharply localized when I first try to bend again to pick myself up. It is jarring. On that run I had experienced one of my worst zingers, except my angel wouldn't let me get up. Bethany had stood over me calmly whispering, "don't move J. Everything is going to be okay." I acquiesced and stopped trying to get up right away. I am just so used to taking care of myself and forcing toughness that the gentleness got to me and I just started sobbing in her arms when she helped me up as she promised everything would be alright. It was the fear below the surface that I would lose running coming out in me that day because when the pain takes over like that I become deeply afraid of losing my freedom, Now here I was on that same spot two weeks later just about finished with the 50 miles I had feared I was so longer capable of. My angel was a third of a mile away at the finish line with my son. Her words were again right. Everything was going to be alright. I ran my best pace with my heart beating in my ears and met them at the finish 13 hours and 18 minutes after the race began.
All done with 50 miles in high 80's heat.

Even my Coros read long at 50.8 miles. The Suunto in my pack read 55.0 miles which felt inaccurate, but many others said it was a long course. Around 60 of the 240 runners who started the race DNFed that day. The heat made it harder. I didn't feel any sciatic nerve pain until Monday night when I tried to take an Epsom salt bath. Sitting posture in the tub set it off again. The race Saturday until Monday night is the longest break I've had from that pain since it began. It seems the longer the run the better I feel. Which leads me to the Sun Mountain 50k one week later.....








Sun Mountain 50k - May 18th, 2019

I started to write this race report from the contrast tubs at Prime because I thought concerted recovery tactics wise after a 50 miler and 50k one week apart.

Despite signing up for the 50 miler two months out I had not been able to talk myself into selling my 50k bib. I think maybe I subconsciously wanted to run both all along. I had been going to crew Bethany instead of run, but then she told me if I didn't run I needed to volunteer. She DNFed her last 50k, Deception Pass in December, while in pain with Achilles issues when I crewed her and she didn't want me available for an easy out at this race. I decided about two days after the 50 miler that the 50k was a go. Firm decision in place I was unsure what to expect. I started running two flat trail miles each morning before work the Monday after the 50 miler to have a sense of my recovery, stay loose, and I suppose taper. My body felt very good all considered. I had some right shin swelling that I’m familiar with healing from and leveraged compression and ice throughout the week to be smart about it.

I knew come race day that if something felt terrible I could DNF, but I also knew in my heart there was no way I would. When we parked race morning I gave my much speedier Bethany the car keys deciding there was no way I’d need them before her.
50k starting line. Race ready. 20 degrees cooler!

I lined up in the back of the upper third of the pack knowing we only had a fast half mile on the road before we’d be single file climbing Patterson single track. Uphill is my weakness so, just as the week prior, I mentally conditioned myself to push that 1.5 mile climb above my pace grade to not get bogged down below my pace grade. Others see it as something to offset later, but I feel behind and incapable of catching up if I begin below my average pace. Once we started climbing I surprised myself and passed a few people in the last mile up feeling good. I had a full body and mind tired feeling, but it put me in a sense of being on autopilot and just moving forward without thinking.

I had a little scrap of paper I’d printed cutoff times and 14 min pace times on for the aid stations. I surprised myself coming in under my targets at the first and second aid stations and within 5 minutes of target by aid three despite mileage reading longer on my watch, as it also had in the 50 miler.
Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama.

As the race continued I felt good all day. I was in my zone. I was definitely tired before taking a first step, but I felt capable. I also felt unnerved by a consistent feeling validated by my watch that today could finally be my day to break seven hours. Yes, this was my 11th 50k race run and I have yet to crack seven hours. It is just a number, but it means something to me. It was helpful to me how familiar everything was. The first 28ish miles of the 50 miler exactly mirror the 50k. Once you descend Rader Creek you simply turn left on the lake trail to the finish line and skip that whole Elbow Coulee hot sunny ridge-line with cows for company section that the 50 miler adds.

The best trails.
I slowed down a little bit between aid three and four. It was exciting that aid four was the last stop before the finish line. A 50k feels really short a week after 50 miles. I kept intervaling and I kept the mental pressure on about my seven hour target. I began to be at war with myself a bit. Questioning my “why” of running. I don’t do it for impressive times. I'm not capable of those. I don’t do it for specific paces. I have a pace zone I feel proud of and one I feel disappointment in, but I’m always going to be mid-pack. Often I’m back of the mid-pack. I run for the mindfulness and peaceful joy the time on trail gives me, the experience of heavenly natural beauty too few people get to see up close, and for the community that comes with being an ultra runner. I don’t really do the pain cave my fast friends do. I could probably push harder than I do, but it would directly cost me some of the lackadaisical joy I get floating along comfortably smelling the flowers (or photographing them.) So here I was fully knowing I was within reach of seven hours if I just pushed harder and I was torn. I came into Meadowlark aid and saw Doug again. It was 20 plus degrees cooler than the 50 miler so he had a shirt on this time. He didn’t recognize me right off, but noted by BTRC tank and said he was from Bellingham too. I thanked him for saving my race the prior weekend. Ali was there waiting for her friend Britt, a first time 50ker, to come in. I brought up my seven hour conflict. I think I stayed an extra few minutes purposefully trying to sabotage away the possibility. I don’t like running with pressure even if it is only internal.
Close, but not quite done yet.

I felt good leaving Meadowlark and walked uphills, but ran everything else. I knew I’d see Glenn once more on the lake trail and was looking forward to it. While still on the lake trail my watch hit 31 miles at 6 hours 55 minutes. The race wasn’t over yet though so it didn’t count. Many said it was a long course, just like the 50 miler, but who really knows with how much variation there is between different GPS watches. I’ll happily take a long course over a short one.
Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama. Mile 49ish.

I felt good coming into the finish and picked up my pace glancing around for Bethany. I couldn't find her anywhere. My friend Vern appeared right away though and was super chatty. It was good to catch up with him as he lives in Idaho so I only see him at races.

Eventually I found Bethany at the finish line. She had only beaten me in by 57 minutes when she usually beats me by 90 minutes. She had a strong day and placed where she typically does in the pack so this felt great that I was improving. In the end 104 women finished and I was 57th. For me, that's a strong finish. For perspective Bethany was 16th. I don't ever expect I'll become fast, but I do want to go farther and farther. A successful 50/50 training block gave me the confidence to push forward with this summer's big adventure. I'll be running the Bigfoot 200 in August. It's my favorite race distance times four with an equal number of days to complete it in. To me a 200 with sleep stations and wide cutoffs feels far more approachable than a typical 100 miler. Stay tuned :)

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