“Not this year,” Max implies that the high-level of competition meant that all the top runners were going to shave seconds whenever they could – even if it meant taking in less fuel/refilling hydration bottles.
We’re following the lead back of a half dozen very accomplished trail/ultra runners when I made this first realization. Unlike Max and some of the other top guys who had camelbak-type hydration packs strapped on their backs, I was holding a 12 ounce handheld bottle full of water and a limited amount of energy gels. I had figured that at every one of the 5 aid stations along the gnarly 50k trail course I would grab some more gels, empty trash from used gel wrappers, and refill my bottle full of water. I had foolishly assumed that all the top runners in the race would be doing this as well – however, after stopping at the first aid station (for what felt like the longest 20 seconds of my life) I went from being in 2nd place to 8th place. This theme occurred at the next couple of aid stations.
Midway into the race I found myself tailing Max as we tore through 2inches of snow, a few large slippery rocks, and hilly single-track trails complete with mud pits and fallen trees. Max would effortlessly hurdle such fallen trees (often close to 3 feet high) with the athleticism that only an Olympic Trials qualifier in the steeplechase (and a 2:14 marathoner) would have. The pack behind us had thinned and there was the eerie quiet of our footsteps and breathing as we navigated around the mountain. I fumbled with the lid on my bottle and accidently spilled all of my water on the ground. “Well, I guess I’ll just take my Clif shot gels dry for the next 7 miles” I thought to myself. Then I got a better idea: how about grab some snow off of the forest floor and eat it? Not quite as refreshing, but I took what hydration I could get – even in the damp, 35-degree weather.
I took my first fall at around mile 20 trying to climb up a slick rock slab on the infamous “Chinscrapper” hill. The picture below shows off my clumsiness:
As we began a brutal descent down Cleator Road, Max slowly pulls away from me. I was quickly amazed by the speed at which all these top trail/ultra runners seem to run the downhills: they run with reckless abandon. In my 10 years of competitive cross country racing I have never seen so many runners fly so fast down the steep parts of a course – especially on such uneven terrain. Then again I suck at downhill running so when Max gapped me I wasn’t surprised [note: Max was also the 2011 World Champion in Mountain Running). Unfortunately at this point in the race Max and I missed a key turn onto a trail and ended up going the wrong way down the hill. After about half a mile I was stopped by another runner at a different stage in the race and was told that I was off-course. By then Max was long gone down the hill and wasn’t stopped for another mile or two later (he ended up finishing eventually after running 35+ miles).
By the time I got back on course I was 2.5 minutes behind the leaders and had slipped from 2nd place back to 6th place. I had my work cut out for me as the fatigue of running for over 3 hours for the first time of my life became somewhat demoralizing. Over the final 8 miles I slowly caught some runners, but I had trouble turning my legs over at much faster than 6:00/mile pace. About 2 miles from the finish my stiff legs failed me rounding a downhill turn and I tripped over a large rock. I guess my knee hit another rather sharp rock as I crumbled to the ground and started rolling in pain. When I got back up there was blood running down my leg and my whole body hurt. Stiff from my fall, I was still able to claw my way into second place before the finish. The eventual winner, Canadian Adam Campbell, had pulled away strongly and won the 20th Anniversary of the Chuckanut 50k race in 3:48. When I finished about 30 seconds later I stumbled at the line. Dizzy from low blood sugar and a loss of blood I starting tipping backwards, but fortunately I was caught by race director Krissy Moehl :
I was immediately taken over for medical treatment and received 5 stitches from an ER doctor that the race organizers (thank you Ellen and Krissy) had brought in. I felt very fortunate to have such medical treatment and support at the finish of my first ultra/trail race and it made the event extra special and memorable for me.
As you can see at least one of my Brooks Pure Grit’s got soaked in blood:
Overall, the Chuckanut 50k was an amazing event and I met a lot of really cool people. The ultra running/trail scene is a little different from the typical road race marathon crowd and I like it! Everyone I met was really supportive, down-to-earth, and humble. From the sponsors handing out tons of food samples and products to the amazing race coverage from iRunFar.com (a media hub of ultra running information with interviews, videos, shoe reviews, advice, etc.) I felt welcomed to the ultra running community. It seems like trail running is a growing segment of our great sport and I can’t wait to get back out there and start training for another event!
Train Smart, Race Hard, and
PS. Video to follow!