Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The 2012 Chuckanut 50: The Full Details

To commemorate my first ultra marathon, I have written and extra long post. This post is like an ultra marathon: highs and lows, it is emotional, and in many ways too many words are just not enough to describe it, and all that goes along with it. I have tried to capture as much of what went down on St.Patrick's day 2012 in Fairhaven, Washington in this post. I do this for me when I am old, and for my kids as an open journal to inspire and motivate them when they are older, to show them that determination and mental toughness can often trump our own self doubt, and negative thoughts that creep in when we go into those dark places.
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The last two weeks have been the final lead up to my first ultra marathon ever, the Chucknut 50. From running 50kms two Sunday's ago, to another half marathon loop last Sunday, I was feeling prepared to tackle this mountain race.

After last Sunday, Lor and I took the kids to Seattle for a day, and I did not get another run in for the week. I chalked this up to a taper effect, but come Tuesday night, strep throat had set in, and I was on a major decline, health wise.

By Thursday, I was supremely ill, not even able to get out of bed at all, rocking a fever, super low energy, passing migraines, shivering, sweating, and the fact that every time I swallowed, it felt like razor blades over the tissue of my esophagus. My throat was swollen and closing up nice and tightly in my chest. Pop-sicles and tea were my only nourishment for all of Thursday. It crossed my mind to not attempt the run to not tax my body and become run down even more, and for the fact that I could not even walk to the bathroom without holding on to the walls.

This is where it is a bit of a gamble: do I not start the race and let my body heal, or run the race not looking at a time goal, but to go and finish it, hoping that It will not have a deleterious effect on my total overall health. On one side, I could end up in an American hospital for the night with a raging fever and IV drip. On the other, I might be fine and make it home for dinner. Sean, my running partner and brother-in-law, predicted a miraculous recovery. I was concentrating on just getting up enough juice to run.

By Friday, I was feeling a bit better, out of bed at 7am. Elijah fell on Noah dislocating his elbow, so Lor took the little guy to Children's  for the day for some treatment, while I got the other two kids organized to go to Fairhaven to pick up our race packages. Lor got back in time to have the whole family make it stateside, and the road trip began. 4 hours later, we were back at home, and I was preparing for the run come 8am Saturday.

I woke at 5:10am to have my typical pre-race breakfast: steel cut oats, water, Tim's French Vanilla, banana, and a couple of gels. I said to Sean that we did not have to eat much because we would be fueling all day. My race clothing choices consisted of:

Sugoi marino sleeveless undershirt
Icebreaker merino longsleeve
Midzero tights
Sugoi Zap Vest
Sugoi Knit gloves
Race touque
New Balance MT910 (This is my last run in these--they are now retired due to abuse from the race)
Camelbak Delaney Race hydration beltpack

Sean arrived dark and early to chauffeur us across the line, and we made it to the start area just after 7am, giving us little time to use a biffy at the Greyhound station, trot across the road to give our post race bags up, check in and take our places in the start corrals. At 8am, we were off, running a comfortable 5 min/ km pace for the first 12 kms in the cold, driving rain all the way down the Interurban (IU abbr.) trail. Familiar territory for Sean and I from our summer runs in the Chucknut Footrace. The first aid station afforded me a pee break and some clif shot block, all which helped keep things going. I nearly decapitated myself on the climb just after Aid #1 by trying to duck a low hanging branch that was more like a low hanging log. Darn thing took my toque clean off, and gave me a nasty bump on the head. Head injured 13kms in to the race.

Descending Two Dollar.
Photo Credit: G. Tachiyama

The climb up to Fragrance Lake was technical, but not too scrambly. This is where the trail running began and got really, really fun in a hurry. We got to the snow line in short time, and for the next 4 and a half hours we would be in the thick of pristine, snow covered forests, with no sense of where we were, the direction we were travelling, or how far to the next aid station. A very liberating feeling knowing that all we had to do was run. The climbing became tougher, the descending more gnarly. Soon, we made it to aid station 2 at the base of Cleator Road where we stocked up on goodies and drink. This was where the long fire road climbing began. It was a matter of simply finding a rhythm and sticking to it. Uphill road for as long as one could see, and not only that, the snow was coming down in an undecided form--as if it was a one quarter rain, and heavy and solid for the other 3/4s. Cleator road was a slug, but still our surroundings were magical. One dude ran by us in a slicker-style camo trench coat.


Running the Ridge.

The most fun part of this run was running the Chuckanut Ridge Trail. Snowy and slippery on two sides, rocky, rooty and muddy up the middle, the ridge was a trail not unlike the Powerhouse Plunge in the Test of Metal in terms of how technical it is. Unlike the plunge which has little climbing and not very good views for the trees, the Chuckanut Ridge Trail has spectacular views, and it undulates. 3 hour into the run,  pinballing off of all the rocks, roots, and logs, I thought it possible to break 5 hours, and things were so good that I passed a bit of judgement about the run. I considered it the best run of my life.

Those two things: the time prediction of 5 hours, and feeling really good about run, were about to head south. I did not know what lay ahead, namely Chinscraper, and the descent back down Cleator Road. The undulating trail up to the Chinscraper was fast, muddy/snowy and a challenge to navigate on two feet. It was like driving on snow and over mud pits with all season radials on the wheels. Lots of slipping and sliding. Through one section, the mud was so deep that my whole foot sunk in on one stride, and I thought that I was not going to get my shoe back. Sean and I had arrived at the base of the Chinscraper, and to my relief, an aid station.

This particular aid station seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, back country Chuckanut Mountains. I was relieved for the fact that my left calf and hamstring had begun to cramp on me, and hammering back some gels, shot blocks, and electrolyte drink kept those to a minimum. I tried a bit of Coke, but swallowing that stuff burned my throat. For the first 3/4s or the run, the Strep was not an issue. While putting that vile stuff in my stomach, it was a reminder that I was still very sick. Sean downed a shot of whiskey, which would prove to be part of his undoing on the climb to the top of the mountain.

Leaving the aid station, I was feeling great, and soft-climbed my way to the top. Many treacherous switchbacks, steep grades worn in from the runners before us, and soft dirt/mud sections gave us fits. one guy in front of me got to the top of a climb and then lost his footing and slipped and rolled down the trail slope halfway. I opted the far left line, avoiding the path he took up. Much of Chinscraper was hike-able only. Imagine the upper section of the Grouse Grind where the trail pitches skyward, and the technicality/difficulty goes up. That is Chinscraper. And it goes on and on and on. The snow falling through the bright fog layering the forest gave a heavenly feel to this part of the run, as many were probably going through hell.

11 miles to go--Happy at the top of Chinscraper.
Photo Credit: G.Tachiyama, PB Base.com

I made it to the top feeling great, my watch reading 38k, figuring that we had 12k to go. I calculated this to mean that we would have a descent of about 2k, then 10k back to the finish. How wrong was I. Sean made it to the top looking more pale and hurting that ever. He was battling a serious case of nausea, the victim of not drinking enough, and medicating with booze twenty minutes prior to the summit. He sweats so much that salt cakes on his face, around his eyes and brow. I suspect that he needs to take on more water and salt to replace what he loses. He was in rough shape, and I was doing my best to boost him up. I know that when someone tries to cheer me on and I am in the hurt locker, I want to punch them in the face at that moment, or tell them to leave me alone. The descent  to the interurban trail would have us run down some of Cleator Road, then continue down even further on Fragrance Lake Road, nearly 5 or 6k of downhill, quad destroying-running that would be a knockout punch.

The descent was seemingly never ending. Down the road the sun poked through the clouds, and for the first time of the day, at 12 pm.-- 4 hours and change of running, the warmth of sunshine was on our chests and faces. No more snow, or rain, but beautiful sunlight. Down the fire road we saw, people sitting in their cars that had slipped into the ditch, and were passed by many folks who were solid downhill runners. We reached the Interurban Trail and were told that there was six miles to go.

SIX MILES?!?!

Hearing that , doing the quick math in my head, I concluded that we had another 9.7k to run. That was enough to hurt just a bit more. From the top of the Chinscraper, it was 12 by my watch. Now the math was going to add up to 17k from the top, total. When I prepare myself for something, and it takes a dump, like this, the wheels start to fall off.

As you can see, I start to fade at the end, by a fair margin.

And they did.

I had little to give in the last 10 kms, which equated to about another hour or so or running in the sorry condition I was in. Sean and I made many stops along the trail, to pee, eat, walk, talk, or whatever to keep us going. The markers indicating the distance to Fairhaven Park seemed to mock me as I passed each of them on the Interurban trail, like a carrot on a stick waving in front just out of reach. On this stretch, I lost places to many other runners whom had saved energy on the climb, and had better descending skills. As we rounded the bend into the park and made our way onto the finishing stretch, Sean somehow had his water bottle pop out of his beltpack and roll on the ground. I stopped, turned around and picked it up for him. 55kms as my Suunto T6C and footpod had recorded, and now, after the most treacherous terrain I had ever run, Sean dropped his bottle on the lamest part of the run--flat pavement. I thought for a second that he might have done that to pip me at the line and take the competitive win between the two of us, but he waited for me, and we crossed the line together.

6:11:23.6. Of running.

Starts out gentle, gets hairy, then down, down, down. 


We picked up our backpacks from the bag check, and grabbed a park bench to change into our dry, warm clothes. Post race, the food tent ran of warm soup and  ran out of cream cheese for the bagels, so were left with bowl of chips, Udo's Oil, Clif products, dry bagels, and electrolyte drinks. We made our way back to the van via the shuttle, and off to get a real bite to eat at Subway. At Subway, I really could not stomach the thought of food, but there I was, trying to put back a turkey flatbread and some water. I figure that I was in shock from my shaking hands and wobbly gait, and shell shocked neutral facial expression. Off to the aquatic center to freshen up with a dip in the hot tub, and a shower.

After cleaning up, we went over to the Bellingham Bay Brewery where the post race party was held. I met Adam Campbell, an ultra-runner whose I have been following for the last couple of years on his blogsite and twitter. I felt a little starstruck, kinda like one of my students meeting their favorite Vancouver Canuck, or other athlete they admire. Considering how much time I put into running, and knowing how fast this guy is, it was a an honor to meet him. His climb into the elite echelons of ultra running were cemented on Saturday as he beat the deepest field of runners at the Chuckanut 50 in years. Past winners, locals, and a 2011 ultra world champion were all toeing the line this year, and local Victoria/ Vancouverite Campbell took them to task to win in the last few miles. I told him how happy I was for him and we shared some conversation. Quite soft spoken and humble, Adam is a worthy champion.

Sean and I dumped our full blonde ales on the patio of the pub, the sun setting over the bay, not able to stomach the strength and flavor of the local brew after our effort. Something lame like Rolling Rock or High Life would have been just fine--water with a beer flavor. Without anything left in the tank, and little patience to wait around to hear Scott Jurek, the MC for the evening speak (although that was the point of going to the brewpub), we made our way to the van, and left Bellingham. Aches, pains, and all, we went home. For some runners, as we left the brewpub, they were just crossing the finish line back in Fairhaven Park, making a finish time of 9 hours for those poor souls.

Movescount Summary of the run. The smile is fake.

Lessons learned from my first ultra marathon:

--If I want to make a better time at this race (which right now is not a priority because of the condition I am in 3 days later), I would have to be more self sufficient.  Relying on my own nutrition rather than the aid stations is key to dropping some time. Or at least limiting my time in each station. In terms of nutrition, I feel really good about how I fed and watered myself on the run. I would not change that at all, if not drink more on the run. Acquiring a Nathan pack would be useful in becoming more self reliant.

--I would also up the pace from a pedestrian 6:11/km to a 5:30/km. Even knocking 40 seconds off per km would reduce my time by one hour and nine minutes.

--Something that amazes me is that in spite of all the hiking terrain, technical trails, and potential for disaster, injury, or death, nothing happened. No turned ankles, no injuries, no tripping. This day went off without incident. Mental alertness was excellent. Next year, a stop at Tim's before crossing the border is something that should be repeated.

--Although the conditions of this race were the worst in years, they were also the most beautiful and fun to run in. I would am proud to have tested myself in such horrible running weather in very challenging terrain. Next year, who knows how hard mother nature will make this race. Perhaps colder? Perhaps dry and sunny. Keeping my attitude light and recreational made for a very, very fun 55km run.

--Hopefully in one year, my feet, ankles, and legs will be stronger for the minimal shoes I am weening myself into. And running more hills. And descents. Those two will be necessary for tackling this run again. I know that I was way under prepared for this run, and it showed in the last 12 or so kilometers. So SFU, North Shore mountain running will be on the list for race prep. Anywhere there is a hill, I will have to climb it. Again, and again, and again, and again.

--What I do know is this: the Vancouver Marathon is on May 6th. My goal this year will be to run a 3:05:00  marathon. I will need to get some more tempo runs in, and rest up, but my determination to do so is high. I know I get tougher when the chips are down, and that I will try not to contract a bacterial or viral infection days before the race. This race mentally put me in a dark place. Highs and lows of extreme proportions came out. I can work those things out. I know how to deal with those emotions. Not only being mentally and  physically tough, but emotionally tough are keys to my success in any race. I did this under prepared. I can do it better next time around with this experience under my belt, if I follow my own advice.

My work is cut out for me. I am stoked, charged, and yet still recharging. I can't wait for next year. Or my next ultra.

12 years of running, and I feel like I am just learning how to do this properly.

*A huge special thanks goes out to RD Krissy and all of the volunteers for putting this on in such horrid conditions. They made this race what it was. It takes a tremendous amount to time, commitment, and effort make this happen. Such a huge undertaking or organization and execution. Very well done!!