After crossing the ridge on top of Hamilton Mountain the trail takes a sharp right into the trees and what begins is about half a mile of the most beautiful running trail of the course. THIS. This is why I love trail running I thought as I bounded down the mountain. A soft forest duff of pine needles and rich soil cushioned my feet.
This was the first loop of two 25 kilometer loops at the Beacon Rock 50k. I had drained both of my bottles of Tailwind at this point and settled into a steady rhythm back to the aid station with a light pack where I could refill fluids and push off for the last 5 miles to the campground – the end of the 25K course and the turnaround for the 50K.
The morning began at 5am when my alarm went off and I went downstairs to have a piece of toast with almond butter, a banana and a cup of coffee. Check in was at 6:45 with the race starting at 8am. On the drive across the bridge into Washington and out Route 14 East there was a little bit of rain and I had a mild panic attack that I hadn’t even brought a shell if the weather turned pear shaped during the course of the day. As I rounded a curve in the road, the Columbia River Gorge opened up below me and in the distance I could see the sun burning down through the low cloud layer.
Just before 8am we got the pre-race details from race director James Varner, who reminded us that this was not a road race…it was a trail race and we don’t leave trash on the ground – if we see a gel packet on the ground, pick it up and carry it out.
1, 2, 3. Go.
The race started out from the group campground and turned right down a paved road for a 1/4 mile before turning sharply back onto a fire road where it immediately began climbing. I made a point this race to not start too quickly and purposely keep my heart rate down – with the goal of picking up the pace in the second half of the race. I ran up the road and each time my heart rate began to climb, I slowed down to a walk and recovered, then repeated.
As we continued to climb the race pack began to break apart. As we turned to climb on single track, I was with a group of 5. We slowly made our way up the mountain on very loose and steep footing. There were short sections of runnable terrain and I was frustrated when the group continued to hike and not run those sections. Nearing the ridge the lead runner stepped aside and with a group of 3, I passed, crested the ridge and immediately began descending. The single track was very steep, loose and off-camber. Difficult to get into a steady rhythm in this terrain, but as we descended I remained steady, ran where I could and stepped gingerly where the terrain warranted.
After not managing nutrition very well at Gorge50k, I vowed to stick to a plan and keep the calories inbound according to the clock. I ate one gel 10 minutes before the race started and then continued to eat about every 30 minutes. Early in the race I was eating gels and drinking Tailwind, at about 1.5 hours, I took two S-caps (sodium and potassium). The temperatures were in the low 80s, shaded in the forest, full sun exposure along the ridges. I knew I would be losing a lot of fluids and in fact was soaking wet the entire race. Later in the race I began to eat Clif blocks and caffeinated gels. Just after 20 miles, I ate half a peanut butter sandwich and a few salty chips. From 25 miles to the finish I drank a few cups of Coke (last aid station) and plain water.
The only major issue that I had was with the Gu hydration drink they were serving at the aid stations. I consumed 4 bottles of Tailwind, but when I ran out, I switched to Gu Electrolyte brew. Early in the race the taste (and sweetness) was bearable – but later in the race as the temperatures climbed I began to feel naseuous when drinking it – to the point that I threw an entire bottle away on the trail and only drank water and ate gels. At one point after drinking a few sips of it – I tried to burp and felt like I may throw up. I kept it down and was able to eek out a few burps – but it was close. Gu Electrolyte Brew in hot weather doesn’t work for me… it’s disgusting.
Highs and Lows
The only true low that I had was nearly at the top of the 2nd climb on the 2nd loop. I was a bit disoriented and was expecting to see the amazing vista and then quickly descend 5 miles back to the final aid station. I just wanted to be off the ridge and on the way home. It felt like it never came – after reaching one summit, the trail descended slightly and climbed again. I was confused about where the ridge was and when I would get there – it was probably another half mile to the cutoff trail that led back to very runnable, shaded terrain. It didn’t come soon enough.
The course was challenging for a number of reasons – the runnable terrain was very *runnable*, but there was also so much elevation gain (~8000k) that my legs were very tired from climbing and descending the steeps that when I did reach the very runnable single track and fire roads my quads were screaming at me. The temperature was also a factor, I didn’t stop to pee the entire race, so I was probably not drinking enough. The start of the second climb was particularly tough as I was ascending a jeep trail in the full sun. It was very hot.
I’d be lying if I said I’m happy with the result. I got my ass kicked. I tried a different strategy (nutrition, HRM) this race with mixed results. I was checking time as I came into the last aid station and I realized I wouldn’t be able to go under 7 hours. I was bummed, but I closed strong, moving quickly the last few miles of fire road and running the climb up the road to the finish. Something with my training or strategy isn’t quite dialed in and I’m going to need to take some time to figure it out. I think my first shift is to stop thinking about 50K like an ultra and begin to think of it like a marathon.
I guess the thing I love most about running ultras is that things never go according to plan. You have to adapt and think on your feet. Is there any better metaphor for life? You have amazing highs… rolling through the aid stations to big cheers… chasing someone down steep rocky trails – feet barely touching the ground. Literally flying. And you have incredible lows… 18 miles back in the woods, completely alone, sun blazing down – nothing to drink … and too many miles to go. But most times it’s just the simple things – when it’s hot and dusty and you’re tired… and the wind picks up and cools you off. There is nothing more primal.