Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sun Mountain 50k race report 2015: a beginners' guide

finish line! right before I burst into tears...

I should have titled this post: "how I let my spirit animal carry me through 50 kilometers of mountain running" because I still can't believe that I ran that far in my own body/mind.  But I guess I did...

... For those of you who haven't spent 5 or 6 hours (or more) running in the mountains, I'll tell you why it's awesome (for me):  these races are one of the rarely available times in my (modestly privileged) North American experience when I am able to really test myself, to see what I am made of, dig deep, get to the actual essence of my physical and emotional abilities.  The edge.  Flow.  There are lots of terms, I guess.  Running like this helps me find the stripped down and most raw version of myself.  This is the closest thing I know in my life to meditation, the constant requirement to stay present, to discard thoughts as simply thoughts, and to focus on the breath.  And so, with this fluffy stuff having been said, here is my race report:

We all met in Winthrop at Corky's Cabin the night before the race, which was a perfect, quaint little spot to gather hungry runners for pre and post race eating, etc.  I got to Winthrop and decided to get down the the potato peeling task, as we all prefer to eat boiled/salted potatoes for our fuel during racing.  Faron and the Canadian crew arrived a few hours after me, and hit the ground with a highly organized orchestration of food preparation, wasting no time in preparing large quantities of spaghetti, burgers, cake, smoothies, bread....  

peel those potatoes, sailor

what the hell is that salad doing in the picture?

 5:55am pre-race jitters with Chris and Faron

This was my first 50k race.  This would be the first time I ran more than 30 miles in one go.  I woke with Fiona, Faron and Chris so that I could see them off for their 50-miler 7:00 am start (my own start wouldn't come until 10:00am).  I was strangely calm, I think, because I was watching "other people" get ready for their race and it helped me with my denial about my own impending endurance charge.  After watching the 50 milers head into the hills, I headed back to our cabin to get fired up with Liz for our distance.

stretching and drop bags and other serious stuff

 a bunch of crazy people in the woods

Both Liz and I had decided that this would be a power hike, or as Liz put it, "a fast hike that we would power survive."  All of my training runs had told me, by my most optimistic calculations that I would run this thing in 7 hours 15 minutes, give or take 15.  I was prepared to be really happy just to finish.

The race was amazing.  Off we went, through wildflowers and pine trees, rambling through mountains and hills with views of the the North Cascades National Park, high mountains covered in snow and lush green fields of the Methow below.  I don't actually remember much of the run, I have to admit.  It was a Zen experience.  I remember checking in with myself about my breathing and heart rate, but it wasn't because of any devices beeping at me.  I don't wear a GPS or any other kind of device when I run these races.  This is because I really want to tune into my body without any kind of external stimuli.  I carried a small map of the course with the mileage of aid stations and expected cut-off times for each one.  I wore a watch, but just a run-of-the-mill watch that you can buy at any variety store, just so I could know if I was making the aid station cut-off times or not.  When I found myself breathing too hard I would say "okay, time to cool out.  time to walk and slow your breathing.."  Every 30 minutes I ate a fruit leather (about 50 calories each).  I drank my sugar water and ate salt tabs on a fairly regular basis.

Prior to race day I realized I needed an "ultra" vest, which seemed funny to me as I never felt "ultra" anything walking up all the hills around my local forests during training "runs."  I chose the A.K. Ultimate Direction race vest with the two 20-oz water bottles mounted on the front.  I like this vest because it is very minimal, and allows me to use water bottles that are easy to fill, the bottles sit up front where I can easily grab them, and it is easy to see how much fluid I've consumed.

I arrived at the first aid station, Thompson Ridge A.S., mile 8.6, in 1:42:00.  I was feeling awesome!  My (very empty) water bottles were grabbed by helpful kids who filled one with plain water and one with GU brew per my request; I ate 3 orange slices and grabbed a banana for the road.  Nothing looked good in terms of food, but I forced down a 1/4 PB & J sandwich and left the A.S. less than 2 minutes after arriving.  I really felt like this was where the race began.  I often feel this way at longer trail races:  that we are all sort of clumped up until the first aid, then depending on runners' strategies getting into and out of the vortex of food and water and human support, the race begins to take shape.

I left Thompson A.S. feeling awesome and power walked the remainder of the climb.  From there it was an 8 mile descent, mellow and runnable to the next aid, Homestead A.S. at mile 17.  I was pretty detached from my body during this section of the run, however, and I forgot to eat.  I arrived at Homestead in 3:11:00 very thirsty, once again having drained my two 20 oz bottles before arriving at the Aid Station.  Once again, helpful folks grabbed my bottles and had them filled with water and GU brew before I even knew what was going on.  I was super stoked with my time, coming in much faster than I had anticipated when I planned the run.  This stoke gave me confidence and a boost of energy.  However, Runners Brain had begun to set in at this point, and looking back I can say that the effects of my insufficient nutrition during that long descent had taken a toll.  I was hungry.  I opened up my drop bag and downed a coconut milk-pineapple-matcha smoothie that I had planned on as a boost.  That would have been perfect, but I decided to follow that with 5 mini dixie cups of Coca-Cola, 4 orange slices and a handful of potato chips.  I was behind on my calorie intake, and despite knowing better, decided to try to make it all up at once.  I also got into my drop bag, slathered on sun screen, grabbed my trusty ziplock baggie of salted boiled potatoes and threw them into my vest, and off I went. I think I did that A.S. in about 3 minutes. 

About 10 minutes after leaving the aid station, as I cruised down a very runnable trail (in the blessed shade, even!), I was visited by my first bout of nausea.  I was determined not to puke, or the let my thoughts take me down a dark mental spiral.  I knew that it was just a result of my choice to put too many calories into my gut too quickly, and that it would pass as soon as my stomach had a chance to pass things along the way to the small intestines.  Still, I was feeling low and doubting myself, going through the whole mental exercise of self loathing that runners inevitably go through at least once on a long race.  I was so grateful to have plain water at that point, which I sipped as I walked.  I pulled over and let all of the runners who were coming up behind me pass as I continued to walk.   This was a good test of my ego, since I knew that, as a beginner, I was not going to run a whole "ultra" without getting passed, and that most of these folks probably had more experience than I did.  I just kept coaching myself with positive thoughts and eventually I felt better.  Just in time, the nausea passed and I got my energy kick from all of those Homestead A.S. calories....  now it was time to climb Sun Mountain:  the namesake climb of this race!

Starting up Sun Mountain was brutal.  It starts at about mile 19 or so, and it is in the middle of the day.  It was close to 80 degrees and the climb is 100% in the sun and goes straight up a dusty, steep ridge.  Beginning the ascent, there were signs of trouble ahead:   I could see runners bent over or stopped.  I popped some salt tablets and swigged as much water as I could stomach.  I passed a man who was bent over, vomiting and I thought, "yeah, this is the real shit here:  I'm in an ultramarathon!" and I was soooo grateful that I had digested my over-ambitious meal and that the nausea had passed.  People were grunting and cussing and puking.  It was awesome.  At the top, there was some water and that was a relief because it was an unmarked hydration stop.  I topped off my plain water and started the descent.  People were falling and stumbling, and I really felt like the race was in full effect at this point.  The views and wildflowers, of course, were spectacular, but I have to admit that I was too focused on forward progress to really appreciate where we were.  I was just struggling to stay with the task at hand:  finish this race.  Finish without injury or illness. Somewhere in that next few miles I began to feel really, really hopeless.  I had no idea where or why these thoughts were arising because I was way ahead of my predicted time (based on my arrival times to the aid stations) but yet I was feeling like I was in over my head.  Then, I had the realization that I was bonking.  It went just like this:

Me: Anslow, you're bonking!  Eat something.  Right now!
Myself:  But nothing sounds good.
Me:  Eat the salted potatoes.
Myself:  But they are all the way in my vest and that sounds really far away and complicated right now.
Me: That is ridiculous.  you are on a trail.  you are starving.  get the damn potatoes. they're on your back!
Myself:  Okay.  you're right.
Me:  now.... put one in your mouth and chew....

etc, etc.

I thank my long daily miles on the PCT last summer for the insight about eating.  I remembered how dark my thoughts would get each afternoon, almost on schedule, at about 3-4pm, when all of my glucose and glycogen had been depleted and my body was consuming itself in order to keep moving.  It's pretty natural to feel despair when your body starts eating itself.  I recognized this for what it was:  a cue to eat something immediately.  

And yes, it worked.  Like magic.  It was really hard to get food down at this point, as I had been running almost non-stop for 4:30:00 at this point, but almost immediately after eating I felt better.   My body hurt, but nothing acute.  Just plain old regular runners pain from no particular area but yet everywhere.  I remember reading a blog or some sage Ultra Runner advice, which was, "if it hurts to walk, and it also hurts to run, then run..." so I did that.  I just kept running, continuous forward progress.  And before long, I was arriving at the final A.S., Patterson, at mile 25.7. My time was 5:01:00.  I was so excited I could hardly stand it!  I asked how far we had to run and one of the volunteers said 5.7 miles.  What?!  I had this brief fantasy where I ran a sub-six hour 50k....

A fantasy that was quickly shattered after leaving the A.S. and beginning the final (and heart breaking) 1500+ foot climb up Patterson Mountain in the fullest heat of the day.  Again, people were dropping back and stopping, cramping up, cussing.  The last part of the climb is a 500 meter out and back, but it goes almost straight up.  I could see other runners going up and down, and at this point we were on the course with the 50 mile runners.  I kept looking for Faron, Fiona and Chris but I couldn't find them.  I was trying to figure out if these were the fast or slow 50 milers, guessing that they would be finishing in 9+ hours, based on my own time plus the 3 hour head start they got for their first 20 miles.  But at this point on the course, everyone looks slow and hell bent, and most everyone's form is falling apart, so I couldn't tell what anyone was doing.  We were all suffering together, which made me feel good, for some reason.

The top of the climb up Patterson is marked with gorgeous views of the Methow valley, the North Cascades and all of the blue skies and cumulus clouds you could ever want...  then you also know that you you are at the top, you are running down, running for home, the day is almost over, you get to eat soon, drink beer, and see your friends.  And that is exactly what happened... I made it down, and in the last half mile I was choking back tears the whole time.  Every step of the way I was overwhelmed with emotion:  gratitude that I have a body and brain and life and culture that allows me to experience such life-affirming things.  6:37:06!!  I crossed the finish line, and found Faron.   No one else from our posse was back yet.  Faron was right there though, and he gave me the hug I needed, and finally, I let it all go and cried.  He said, "I know you don't feel good right now, but you will soon... "

But I already felt amazing.  I was done.  I did it!  I ran my first 50k!!!

 Fiona, looking boss at the 50 mile finish, 10:44:54. Yeah!

 Chris and Fiona, status-post 50 miles each.

and finally, my favorite photo: Liz's utter joy and amazement at finishing, plus a good ass grope.