blerched and proud

My pattern in recent years has been towards smaller events, low overhead, and low key.  So back in March when The Oatmeal announced that he was going to put on the inaugural Beat the Blerch Marathon (along with the Half and 10k events), I wasn’t sure I wanted to brave the crowds to register.

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early miles – photo by ross comer

It was Kris’ fault that I did.  Five minutes before registration started she texted me saying “could you register me for the Blerch thing too?”.  After twenty five minutes of refreshing non-responsive web pages, and retrying I thought I’d gotten both of us in.  Turned out they bumped her, and then I was left with a registration that I felt sort of ‘meh’ about.  Sunk cost.  Damn.

When race week rolled around, I was one week off of a new PR.  I was still soaking that one in – a new PR at age 49.  Made me wonder what kind of self-imposed ceiling I’d been working under in the sixteen years I’d been doing marathons.  Think about it.  How often do we assume a perceived limitation is real?

So legs tired, and spirit still reveling in that new PR, I lined up with the costumed crew at the start on a foggy morning in Carnation.  It had been a very tough week at work, which made it even more of a grind.

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the start – photo by ross comer

Aside – I never ever thought we’d see people flying in from all over the country to run on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.  But there we were.  Matthew Inman sprinted to the front of the pack in his inflatable suit to send us off (he would run the half, as he did the day before).  And off we went …

I kept a steady sub 8:40 pace for the first 9 or so miles.  I was unaware of the slight uphill grade on the way out, so didn’t plan accordingly.  The smart thing to do, especially given the fatigue I still felt from the week before would have been to go out verry easily.  By the time I hit the halfway point, it was too late.  I was clicking off consistent sub 9 splits, but didn’t feel good about being able to keep that up in the second half.

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mustering  a smile, but feeling the miles – photo by ross comer

By the time I came back through mile 15 and 17, I pretty well toasted.  This stretch passes by a firing range in the distance – so the sound effects were an apt metaphor for how I felt – like I was being assassinated – albeit slowly.

At mile 22, I began walking more.  My sub-four goal went out the window.  But along the way, despite me feeling done, I appreciated the silly vibe the race had going.  Not my best day running, but a fun event nonetheless.  I came in just under 4:15, just under my time for my first marathon, sixteen years ago.

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Having had some time to reflect on the race now, I’m not sure I would do this one again.  It’s too big, and the hassle factor was a bit much for me.  On the other hand, race day was fun – it was great seeing many first timers out there taking on the Blerch.

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it’s all downhill from here–the tunnel lite marathon

 

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I’ve run all of my events on trails this year.  And seven of eight of them had been ultras.  But when my wife Kris qualified for Boston several months back, I got the itch to try doing a fast marathon again, just to see whether I could qualify, or even get close.

Another reason to shake things up is that I’ve struggled a bit with motivation in recent months.  This is why when we were at a birthday party for a friend last month, I excused myself to register for the Tunnel Lite Marathon.  When all the other guests were enjoying cocktails and food, Kris and I were huddled to the side with our smartphones entering our info.

This event starts just east of the Snoqualmie Tunnel, near the pass.  We run downhill into North Bend, most of the way on a nice railroad grade, through the mountains.  It’s quite beautiful, and it’s an excellent route to attempt a Boston Qualifier (BQ) as well.

I was confident that I could cover the distance.  I’d done adequate weekly mileage, and some good long runs.  But it would have been better to actually do some intervals, mile repeats, and tempo work to prepare.  You know, actually train?  But as is often the case, things got busy.

One downside of being on the marathon or ultra per month plan, as I’ve been for nearly three years, is that it’s a veritable treadmill.  Other than the White River 50 miler, I’m usually pretty well trained to cover the distance, so I tend to get lazy about strength and speedwork.

Back before I started doing these marathons and ultras so often, I’d focus on One Race for months.  I’d do more structured workouts, knowing each day whether I was doing long slow distance, speedwork, or recovery pace. 

So when I lined up at the start, I had no idea what I’d get.  I’d fly a bit blind too, since the band on my GPS watch had broken – I wouldn’t have a way to check my pace easily.  Turned out that there weren’t mile markers until mile 14 here, so I really had no idea how I was doing.

When we ran those two early miles in the dark through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, it really was a fitting metaphor for my race plan.  I kept my eyes straight ahead towards the light, and tried to keep a steady turnover.

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Exiting the tunnel, I doffed my headlamp and began the trek downhill.  We were on a steady (railroad grade) descent for most of the course, with the bulk of this happening over the first 21 miles.  It’s kind of like running with the wind at your back, until your legs get trashed from the pounding.  I paid more attention to form than I usually do – low glide, slight forward lean, and engaging my core as best I could not having done any actual core work in forever.  It helped.

I started feeling the wear in my legs around mile 8 or 9.  At the same time, I wanted to see what I might have in me.  This course can do that to you.

I glanced at my watch when I reached halfway.  I’d run a respectable road half marathon pace.  If I could maintain the pace, I’d PR or maybe even BQ.  Now things got harder.

We wound through the trees, over the beautiful bridges.  I’d run this part several times before.  I remembered coming around the corner near Rattlesnake Lake, feeling like I could fly.  I also remembered my wheels coming off after taking this part too hard several years back, and having to walk most of mile 25-26.

When we leveled out a bit by Rattlesnake Lake, I gave myself permission to ease up a bit.  By now we had mile markers, so I was taking my splits.  I was hovering around 8 min/mile, sometimes less, not often too much more.  I’d need to keep under about 9 min/mile in order to PR.  Some quick math told me that a BQ would require pushing under 8’s for the duration.

And this is where things get interesting.  I sort of told myself “I can’t”, lacking confidence in my training.  It might not have been realistic, but I have to wonder what would have happened if I’d not been doing the math.  I might have pushed myself so hard I had to walk.  By now my hamstrings had spasms, and I was worried about that.  On the other hand, maybe I checked out a bit too soon, thinking that the BQ was out of reach.

Ultimately I missed the BQ by about 5 seconds per mile.  Realistically, I could have made this up by slowing down a tad in the early miles, so that I had enough left to push a negative split.  I lost about five minutes in the second half.  I’ll never know, but it’s good food for thought.

Those final five miles were tough ones.  I held together pretty well until mile 25, when I walked a bit.  My hamstrings were starting to cramp, it was getting warm.  I crossed the finish in 3:31:54, over seven minutes faster than my previous PR.

This was one of those days I went out and surprised myself.  I got better than the race I’d trained for.  Next time I run down from the Tunnel, I might prepare more for it – would be interesting to see what that gets me.

photos by ross comer

charts and graphs for running geeks

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This is the pace chart, taken from my Suunto Ambit.  I don’t place much faith in it telling me that my peak was a 4:41, nor that my fastest mile was a 5:04.  I think it more likely that I peaked just under 7, and my fastest mile may have been around 7-ish.  Given that the late miles were all over 8 min/mile according to my watch (slowest was 10), I must have done a goodly number of sub-8 miles early on.

First half was about 1:43:26.  That means the second was about 1:48:28, a positive split of five minutes.  Strength and speed work are the best way to address that.  It’ll be interesting to see whether being sooo close to a BQ motivates me to actually do that.


start together, finish together–the white river 50 miler

 

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Team Red Shirt – photo by Amy Wismer

The night before the White River 50 Miler, I fidgeted in my room at Crystal, wondering why I was there. I’d not trained for the 9000+ feet of ascent, let alone the distance. Work and other part of everyday life had impeded my grand plans to train. Those three repeats up and down Mount Si? Nope. Those trips up to the pass to get in some long work? Nope. Those back-to-back twenties? Nope. My first DNF (did not finish) in seventy marathons and ultras was a real possibility – and part of me was afraid of that.

Kris, my wife encouraged me to try it. “You should go do this – what do you have to lose?” she said. This was her polite way of saying “Can you please stop moping, just go out and do this thing?”. The more I thought about it, the more I saw her point. Also, it had been too late to cancel my room at the Alpine Inn – meaning I would have been out about $100 in addition to the race fees.

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Bob and I before the start, with no idea what we were in for – photo by Amy Wismer

At the start the next day, I hung out with two ESR friends Justin Carpenito and Bob Wismer at the start. An injury had dashed Bob’s wife Amy’s plans to join us, so she was providing logistic and moral support. Amy reminded me that I needed to represent those of us entering a new age group this year. Now there was some more motivation not to drop out. As we started shortly after six AM, I was thinking that I really had no idea what I was in for.

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Off and running – photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Start to Ranger Creek (mile 0 to 11.7)

The first several miles were pretty mellow. I was so focused on moving that I ran past the first aid station at Camp Sheppard without stopping. It was a really good thing I was carrying two bottles and lots of fuel, because the big climb started within a mile.

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Near Camp Sheppard , very early miles – photo by Ross Comer

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Things get steep fast – photographer unknown

The steep switchbacks spread the field out quickly. By now, I’d fallen back from my friends and was soon running solo in the woods. By the time I reached the Ranger Creek aid station, I really wasn’t sure there were 38 more miles in my legs. Doubt lurked in my head.

Ranger Creek, out and back (mile 11.7 to 22.1)

At Ranger Creek, I topped off my bottle, ate a bit, and then set out for the last part of the climb before we’d drop towards Corral Pass. This was really nice – we’d run along cliff’s edge with amazing views down to the start, and out to mighty Rainier.

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Looking down towards the start – photo by Eric Sach

Falling in with Bob and Justin around then was a good boost for me. I confessed that I wasn’t feeling good about my training, or my mindset. Bob turned and looked at me, then pointed out to the amazing panorama of Rainer off to our left, saying “Where else would you rather be than here?”.

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Justin near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

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Bob near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

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Your author near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

Bob and I first met about ten years ago while doing the Nookachamps Half in Mount Vernon. Since then, we’ve logged miles during a number of marathons and ultras together. I’ve long admired the way he and his wife Amy pursue things like this as a team. Even when one of them is injured, they’re actively supporting and cheering on the other (like today). And they’ve accomplished some pretty amazing things along the way. Always positive, always thoughtful.

I dropped back from the group as we headed back towards Ranger Creek, but I thought lots about Bob’s words. I never thought I’d be running the Cascades as I approached age 50. When reflecting on what brought him to the starting line of his record-setting 24 hour run in Brive-la-Guillard France, Scott Jurek talks about how when his discomfort and fatigue become unbearable “I will run because I can”. He tells us that when he struggles to hold a pose, his yoga instructor reminds him that “this is what you came for”.

Today I had the opportunity to go farther than I had before. I’d been consumed by all of the things I’d not done to prepare, almost planning excuses to fail. The thing to do was to lean into this difficult pose, and just run – “because I can”.

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (mile 22.1 to 27.2)

The trip down from Ranger Creek was pretty smooth. I tried to take the downhill from Ranger Creek back to Buck Creek easy, saving my quads for later. I ran mostly solo, taking care not to turn an ankle on the roots and rocks arrayed on the trail.

I rolled back into Buck Creek, just past mile 27 at about 6:19. Bob had come in a bit ahead and Amy was making sure he had everything he needed. I took my fuel out of my drop bag, ate some PBJ, and downed a bunch of liquid along with some electrolyte tabs. We were in for a tough climb, so it was time to fuel up. Amy came over and gave me some sunscreen, and dumped water on my visor – it was getting warm, and this got me into the habit of stopping to drench my head and neck at each opportunity. Then it was time to go, before I had too much time to think about it. We had 23 miles ahead of us.

Buck Creek to Sun Top (mile 27.2 to 37)

The four and a half miles to Fawn Ridge started out easy, but quickly got steep and tough. Some negative mind-fog had rolled in again, and thought to myself “just keep moving”. When I saw the aid station up ahead at mile 31.7, I’d already been on the course for over seven hours. There I quaffed down more fluids and fuel, and then set out again.

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Slogging out that last half mile to Sun Top – photo by Glenn Tachiyama

The trip from Fawn Ridge to Sun Top was the hardest part of the day for me. The climbing was relentless. We hit a false summit around mile 34 or 35. Then just after coasting downhill a bit, we had to slog up to Sun Top on trail that was both steep and exposed. Just keep moving, I told myself, even as my confidence waned more. As I climbed that last half mile in the sun, my steps got small, but my feet didn’t stop.

Sun Top to Skookum Flats (mile 37 to 43.4)

At Sun Top, I met Bob and Justin again. We sucked down lots of fluid and fuel. I gingerly lowered myself into a chair, wanting to rest my legs a little. Knowing what the problems gravity presents after 37 miles and nearly 9000 feet of climbing my friends warned me to “beware the chair”. I lingered a bit longer there, catching up with them just down the road. That first turn on Sun Top gives possibly the nicest view of Rainier on the course – a great way to start down the hill.

This is where things turned around for me in a big way. We were all tired, our bodies hurting as we ambled down the road. There’s something about running as a team that shifted our focus away from those inner voices telling us negative stuff. It’s hard to describe how that emotional veil lifted as we swapped stories about life.

And we kept moving. One of us would set a new pace, and the other two would follow. Now we knew we’d finish this thing. “Start together, finish together” became the motto. We were a team, pulling each other along. Justin and I celebrated milestones marking new longest runs, and Justin got us to celebrate by running into the Skookum Flats aid station.

Skookum Flats to the Finish (mile 43.4 to 50)

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Recharging for the last 6.6 – photo by Amy Wismer

When we were recharging, Amy complemented our ability to speak in complete sentences that mostly made sense. I caught up with my friend Wendy, who was working the aid station – she’d been there when I’d completed my first marathon in Anchorage, sixteen years ago. Back then, I never would have imagined I’d do something like this. But here we were.

Team “Red Shirt” set out on the Skookum Flats trail with 6.6 miles to go. Quick math told us that getting in between 12 ½ and 13 hours was within reach. The problem was that the “Flats” really wasn’t so flat, and there were roots and rocks to contend with. We’d run a bit, then would walk a while. Eventually the trail narrowed and climbed until we were a couple of hundred feet above. Good thing most of my blood was flowing to my legs, otherwise I might have been more conscious of the steep drop-off on my left – not much to grab onto on the way down.

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Team Red Shirt running along Skookum Flats – photo by Ross Comer

With a bit under a mile to go, Bob started to run. No one said much, we just kept moving. As we got close to the finish, things leveled out and it got a bit easier.

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Bringing it in – photo by Amy Wismer

Winding out that last little section as we entered the airport, we could see the turn to the finish up ahead. We turned it up a notch as we got closer. We crossed the finish together in 12:59:28. “Start together, finish together” had worked. Amazing feeling.

I’ve completed 70 marathons and ultras in my life – roads, trails, flat, and not. Some were harder than others, but I’d never experienced anything quite like this. Next time around, I’ll prepare – more hill training, and more quality miles – build my spirit and body up a bit more.

But two weeks later, I’m still taking in the experience. It was a great reminder to trust ourselves to dig deep when we need to. To just keep moving, and focus forward. And the team feeling to finishing with Justin and Bob was amazing. Working together kept things positive, and brought us in smiling.

Start together, finish together – it works.

Some favorite moments

  • Believing Kris when she said “You should do this, what do you have to lose?”.
  • Conversation with Tom the night before at the Alpine Inn about races old (fast ones for him) and new. Tom also finished his first 50 miler the next day.
  • That moment just after starting that it really sunk in that I had no idea what I was in for, or what it would be like.
  • Bob’s pep talk as we headed back to Ranger Creek.
  • Amy’s smile and her help getting me focus forward for the second half.
  • Digging deeper on that last half mile up Sun Top. Wouldn’t have believed I’d be able to do it.
  • Falling in with the “Red Shirt Team” after Sun Top.
  • Learning that it’s easier to run level than downhill after 37 miles.
  • Bob running into someone he’d met at the Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin several years back – mile 40 was best small world story of the day.
  • Getting passed by Jess on the Skookum Flats Trail – she was running the course for the second time.
  • Internalizing Scott Jurek’s message that “this is what we came for”.

six years past …

On July 7, 2008 I woke up in Harborview Hospital in Seattle.  I’d been in an induced coma for six days, after being in a bad bicycle accident

I reflect on this each July, marking the anniversary of the accident itself on the first by riding my bike into work.  I take the same route I took that morning six years ago.  The first time I visited the site after it happened, you could still see my bike’s outline painted on the road.  That’s long since faded.  

Each time I ride towards the site, I hold my breath a bit, like I’m diving into water.  When I pass, it’s relief.  Strange ritual –but I do this each year to show myself that I can. 

When the accident comes up in conversation now, I’m struck by a sense of distance from it.  That’s good.  Over time our scars fade – even if they never quite completely disappear.

When I reflect on those days in 2008, I feel appreciation for the love and support from my family and friends that pulled me through this.  My strange ritual is a reminder to appreciate these things every day.

I wouldn’t have chosen this particular adventure, but I’ve been given a great opportunity with it.

Reflect, hold your breath, then dive in. 


a day in the woods with friends

Once in a while, we have the good fortune to be reminded about why we love doing what we do.  That was what doing the Redmond Watershed Twelve Hour event was for me.

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a married couple running the watershed trails – photo by Takao Suzuki

I’d done this run the previous two years.  The shift to time verses a set course length makes it much more about running your own race.  People settle into it, and have fun.

My original goal this year was to cover 50 miles.  That shouldn’t be  a problem, right.  You can almost walk that far in twelve hours, right?  The problem with this was that I’d not really built the proper mileage base.  I could confidently do 50k, but 50 miles?  Also, I’d just gotten back from a business trip to Chile the day before, and was feeling a bit like I’d run back from Santiago.

So the plan changed to a 50k training run with friends.  And that’s what we did.  What made it even better was that my wife Kris and I were celebrating our 20th anniversary with this jaunt in the woods.  In preparation for the Light at the End of the Tunnel, coming up in July, her day would be a 20 miler.  We almost never get to run together.  And what made this venue great was that there was no time pressure at all – we just needed to keep moving.

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running down the aisle, celebrating twenty years – photo by Takao Suzuki

We ran with friends too.  A bunch of the Eastside Runners crowd was out there, as were several folks I’d met doing local trail ultras.  We spent the time sharing stories, debating fine points of runner’s etiquette, and sometimes just enjoying some quiet time in the woods. 

This is what the race was about for me – enjoying time with friends (including my best friend), while getting some time on my legs.


dizzy daze–41 miles of looping

I’m celebrating a milestone birthday this year, and have decided to mark the occasion with a nice 50 miler in July.  My dilemma is that this requires some conscious training.

For the better part of the past five years, I’ve run marathons and 50k’s often enough that I’m more or less “trained” for them.  It’s convenient – I don’t really have to think twice.  If it fits on the family calendar, I can do it.  But adding another twenty miles or more makes it a new ballgame.  I’ll have to plan for this.

At the beginning of March, while running a marathon in the Redmond Watershed, my friend Brian Pendleton gave me some great advice.  The White River 50 miler can be viewed as a 50k plus another twenty miles of hiking.  The more significant climbs are ones I’d probably want to walk.  And with a net ascent of about 8700 feet, it will be important to build my base mileage up a bit.  The other suggestion from Brian was that I consider doing the crazy Dizzy Daze run, put on by our friends Betsy Rogers and her husband Matt Hagen.  It’s a 12 hour event – the goal is to cover as many miles as you want (or that you can) between 7am and 7pm.

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That’s what brought me out to Green Lake this Saturday morning in March.  I wasn’t sure what sort of effort I’d be able to coax out, so just decided to relax.  In fact, I relaxed so much that I ended up starting about 40 minutes after just about everyone else.  That’s a nice thing about timed events – starting late doesn’t have to be a big deal.  It’s about the miles you cover.

As luck would have it, Brian showed up at about the same time, so we set out together.  We spent the first several loops running/walking and swapping stories.  The week’s rain had let up, so the conditions were great. 

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I did my middle loops solo – keeping a steady 9:15/mile pace.  After doing this three or four times, I was ready for some company again.  Solo loops around Green Lake can be sort of like watching paint dry.  But spending it with friends make the miles much easier.  We saw our friends Leslie, Lee, Stan, Monte, Paige, Ross, Rick, and Lisa on the course.  There were other friends who volunteered (hey SRL!). 

We spent the next two loops circling together, and passing the time.  Brian’s goal was to call things good at 50k (he was going to do the Cupcake Run the next day, so needed to leave something in his tank).  I was aiming for about 41-42 miles.  That would be ten more than I’d covered in a day before.

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Brian’s wife and friends had set up a “rogue” aid station roughly at the midpoint of our 3.2 mile loop.  They’re raising money for the ALS Association (Brian is living with ALS), and were out there cheering us on just when we could appreciate it the most.  The last time around was a bit tougher.  Brian’s IT band was bothering him, and my feet were hurting.  We can look past the immediate aches and pains, and focus on our goals.  For me, it’s about getting ready for White River.  For Brian, I think it’s about getting to event #200 (12 more to go).

We parted after he’d completed his miles, and I did my final two loops alone.  About halfway through the final loop, my GPS clicked over the 40 mile mark.  I’d never imagined I would do something like this.  You can argue that these are (very) flat miles.  And it’s true that there are going to be tougher runs ahead, as I prepare for White River.  But I was happy to have covered these 41.6 today.

Please consider giving to the ALS Association.  They fund continuing research towards a cure, as well as treatment and services for people living with ALS.  Do this in honor of people you know who have been affected by this wicked thing, or in honor of our friend Brian as he runs towards marathon/ultra #200.  Pictures provided by Christy Hammond.


chuckanut–running the ridge

The Chuckanut 50k is a northwest favorite.  It usually draws a good field, and the course has a bit of everything. The scenery feeds your heart, but parts of the course might make your soul cry a bit.  There is over 5000’ of ascent and descent – which you will remember when you’re trying to take that final flat 10k fast. 

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climbing up the chinscraper – photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama (http://www.tachifoto.net/).

I’d signed up for Chuckanut on kind of a whim, thinking it would be a great stepping stone on my to longer runs.  Drove up Friday afternoon, glad that I was staying about five minutes from the start.  It was nice to coast over about 30 minutes before the start, without a worry.

They sent us off at eight on the dot, all 400 of us packed into the narrow interurban trail leaving Fairhaven.  As we set off, I got to see a bunch of familiar faces – Chrissie out there doing her first 50k (just three weeks after breaking her tailbone!), Gunnar from work – intense and focused on the trail as he is at work.  I chatted with Barb and Lisa during that first stretch too.

By the time we reached the first aid station, the pack had spread out quite a bit – which made the single track climb that followed much more relaxed.  I settled into a steady walk (up the hills) and easy run (on the more level or downhill parts), knowing we had some hard miles ahead.

The hardest part of the course for me is the three mile stretch up Cleator.  Two years back, this had been an icy slog.  This time was much easier – we’d been blessed with great weather.  I reminded myself to be patient, but was very happy when we made the turn on to the Chuckanut Ridge Trail, around mile 13.1.

This is possibly one of the more fun places to run in this part of the country.  We run along a fairly narrow ridge, nestled between a long drop on the right, and one that would involve less-than-fatal injuries on the left.  Even those of us who don’t like heights will find this scramble liberating.  You focus on getting your footing right, while trying to enjoy the view along the way.

The run along the ridge, and then back on the Lost Lake trail reminded me why I was out there.  Along the way I thought about my friend who’d wanted to be out there, but was ill.  We’d shared some miles, and stories together.  I hoped he’d be out on the trails again soon – things had been tough for him lately.

When we came to the base of the climb to the Chinscraper, I was tired, but felt pretty relaxed about what was ahead of me.  The climb was longer than I remembered, with the steeper parts slowing me to over a 20 min/mile pace.  When I reached the final climb, I pushed hard – making up this time without having to use my hands to help.  Better than last time – felt good, but I definitely paid for it on the long steep downhill that followed.

And it was sorely tempting to pound down those hills.  But having done this once before, I remembered having spent my legs doing this last time.  So I downshifted and hoped I’d have something left during the final 10k.

I wouldn’t have guessed that my fastest mile splits would come so late.  I was on the edge of losing faith, but somehow managed to keep moving.  Each mile got a bit faster than the last.  Down below 10, 9:30, 9, then below 8:30.  It didn’t feel fast, just hard.  But it was great to keep moving.  Rounding the final turns before coming out into the open air I was able to dig even a bit deeper. 

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pushing to the finish – photo by Ather Haleem

I crossed the finish in just under 6:22 (chip time), and felt better about my effort than other recent events.  I put on some dry clothes, enjoyed some wonderful lentil soup, and watched some friends finish. 

charts and graphs for running geeks

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The splits mostly reflect the course topology, but comparing the first and last 10k makes me feel good.  By the orange line (indicating pace) you can see that there was a bit of walking involved.

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