“Hey, did you call me?”
“Oh yeah, sorry, I butt-dialed you.”
“OK, you’re sure you don’t need anything from me?”
“Nope! Everything is good here. How are you? What are your big weekend plans?”
“I have that 50k race tomorrow and Julie has the half on Sunday. We’re heading to Silver Falls in a couple hours.”
“Great. Now I have to worry about you this weekend.”
This was the conversation my mother and I had while I waited outside of Namu food cart for my bulgogi beef plate on Friday afternoon. I’ve discovered that no amount of logical evidence will ever convince my mom that my running adventures aren’t doing great harm to my body. She just knows we’re going to tumble over a cliff one of these weekends or have a heart attack right there on the trail or wind up bear food. All of these things are certainly possible, sure. But I work really hard to build strength and endurance. I could show her my training logs and…she’d probably faint.
Most non-runners don’t really know what type of preparation goes into a major endurance effort. I’ve had people tell me I’m crazy. I’ve had people tell me to look forward to my knee replacement in a couple years. I’ve had family members wonder aloud why I’m not working as hard at raising a family as I am at running in the forest. I suppose just a couple short years ago, I thought running ultra distances was crazy too.
On November 7, 2015, I attempted my first 50k race. To this point, I had run three marathon races and a 30-mile end-to-end on the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park. This would be my first official ultramarathon and my first true experience of the trailrunner lifestyle I’d read so much about. Do many people really hike up hills and mountains rather than trying to run? Do runners really adjust their pace from time to time to run with other racers just to have a conversation? Can several hundred people really get so spread out on a course that you wind up spending several miles alone during a race?
I found that the answer to each of these questions is an unequivocal yes.
At the outset of the year, I had made a New Year’s resolution to either run 3 marathons or to run my first 50k during 2015. After injuring my ankle and losing out on the Pacific Northwest Marathon in May, that left the San Francisco Marathon in July and the Chicago Marathon in October. I told myself that if my fitness allowed me to recover quickly from San Francisco, that I would sign up for the Silver Falls 50k when they started accepting entries on August 1. Feeling fine just a couple days after San Francisco, I took the plunge. The worst part of this entire process was the Silver Falls 50k website.
I’m not totally at odds with www.silverfallsmarathon.com, but anybody who visits it or needs to rely on it for information would agree it’s a poorly designed site with many, many flaws. Once I got signed up, I was frustrated that I had to constantly refer to the Breaking News section to find out what was going on. If they had a Twitter feed or Facebook feed, or if they emailed when they had actual breaking news, users wouldn’t have to frequently go to the site to see if they had missed anything. I understand that this is a relatively small operation, but in this day and age, take advantage of free communication tools. Start a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and connect them to the website. It takes no time, costs nothing, and allows all your users to stay up to speed. As a web designer, I’m sensitive to this stuff. But lets get back to the race, as this is my only complaint.
My wife and I arrived at the packet pickup on Friday evening and were in and out quickly. The tech shirts weren’t free, but the price of the race is fair and if you volunteer, you get a free shirt. The shirts themselves are stylish for racing gear and are decent quality. From there, we headed 1.5 miles down the road to the lodge, picked up our keys and checked in. The lodges are supposed to hold 12 people in six rooms. There are shared common areas and a men’s and women’s bathroom in each lodge. While we were thrilled to have the place to ourselves for the entire weekend, we were also a little bummed. We hoped to meet other trailrunners and to swap stories and strategies. Instead, we ate cold pizza and beer and went to sleep early.
On Saturday morning, Julie helped me gear up for the 50k and drove me to the race start/finish line. There was plenty of parking and lots of people milling about casually. The crowd laughed at the occasional joke from the announcer and lined up for the start of the race fairly promptly when asked. Nobody really stopped their conversations for the “race briefing,” which was more of an opportunity for the announcer to talk about how pretty the course was and to thank the sponsors. To the best of my knowledge, no information, critical or otherwise, came to light in this briefing. Ready or not, the clock counted down and soon we were off. On this same day, the marathon and 7-mile race would be hot on our heels.
The race started with a 3-mile loop into Silver Falls State Park and through the campground before winding past the start/finish line again. It was about half-road and half-trail. This was a good opportunity to stretch out, warm up, and spread out before we really hit the trails, where it can be harder to pass. There was a short portion in mile 2 where I felt like I was in the middle of a really fast conga line. Being my first trail race, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for passing or allowing people past on single-track, but I figured if people wanted to sneak past, they’d say something or tap my arm. This was indeed the case, although nobody seemed eager to pass until much later in the race.
I buzzed through the first aid station at mile 3 and pushed into the first small hill of the day, while sipping from a soft flask in the front of my Salomon vest. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty yet, but I was moving at a 10-minute mile and knew I’d start feeling the need for nutrition before too long. I finally took a gel and another sip of water as I passed through the mile 6 aid station and headed into the back country of the park.
There were some pretty steep hills and probably 750 feet of elevation gain in this next section while heading from mile 6 through 8. I basically did my best to hold position and power hike during this section. From just after mile 8 through the next aid station at 9.6, I had my first conversation with another trailrunner. It was her second 50k and her previous race is the next one that I’ll be running in 2016. I was surprised and thrilled that this first preconceived notion of trailrunning was a reality. Trailrunners really are cool and it is totally acceptable to have a conversation with another runner during the race.
After the aid station at 9.6, I started a long uphill on a rocky fire lane. At first, I was nervous climbing this hill, but then my hiking history kicked in. I’ve been hiking for the last couple years with friends all around the Pacific Northwest. I felt strong and fast and even though I was power hiking and some people were running, I still passed a whole mess of people on the way up.
This was when my confidence started to really kick in. I started to see fewer and fewer other runners and I was finding myself alone more often than not. My wife was volunteering at the mile 14 aid station and I was eager to see her. The marathon route collided with the 50k route around mile 12. I dodged a few marathoners and was chatting with a couple other 50k runners when we hit the obstacle on the course: a creek crossing. Everybody else made their way upriver to a small rock crossing 15 feet away. I quickly glanced and realized that it wasn’t as deep, but you would still get your feet wet if you went that way. I sputtered, “the hell with it!” and splashed right through. After a tenth of a mile, my feet weren’t water-logged anymore. After a quarter mile, I didn’t notice any moisture in my shoes at all. Wrightsocks and Altra Lone Peak 2.0 shoes did the trick for me. I wouldn’t have any moisture issues all day.
I was making really good time as I cruised into the mile 14 aid station and I planned early on to spend a minute or two there just talking to my wife and soaking up some positive vibes. I ate half a banana and a strip of pizza (I had cut pizza slices into strips the day before) and a cup of flat Coke and headed off at a slow pace while I finished eating.
The elevation chart showed that miles 15 through 18 were going to be tough. This was the climb up Buck Mountain and the next aid station was scheduled to be at mile 19. I took it pretty easy on this climb and power hiked a lot more than I ran, but there were some runnable portions as well. The trail was slick and muddy, but I was satisfied with my pace and soon I reached the next aid station.
This aid station was rocking. AC/DC’s Let Me Put My Love Into You was cranked. I dunked a boiled potato into a bowl of salt, shoved it in my mouth, took a shot of Heed electrolyte, and took a moment to celebrate being a true ultrarunner. I have read time and time again about boiled potatoes in salt. It always sounded gross until this moment. For some reason, the training mileage, the elevation, the race itself, nothing made me feel more legitimate. Boiled potatoes. You never know what’s going to charge you up. A young lady at the aid station asked me if I was feeling all right. I was surprised to hear the question because I was feeling so good. I answered with an emphatic affirmative and went bounding down the trail. I was feeling so great, I forgot to fill my soft flasks with more water.
I made it to mile 23 before I realized that I was carrying about four ounces of water. I had written down the aid station locations and goal mile splits on a piece of paper the day before the race. I looked at the aid station list that I had taken from the website and saw that another aid station was coming at mile 24. Perfect! I can take a quick sip at the beginning of each mile and still get a refill at the next aid station. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t run out of water.
I got to mile 23 and there was a funny trail junction. There were multiple signs pointing in multiple directions. I was pretty confident that I was going the right way, but I was nowhere near any other runners, so I was on my own. I started down the trail and it was all downhill. I ran until my Garmin watch chirped mile 24 and looked around. I was in the middle of a huge downhill section at a complete stop. I decided to wait until another runner showed up to see if I was on the right track. I stood for about 4 minutes before another runner came down the trail. She was fully confident we were on the right track. I was thrilled that I didn’t have to hike back uphill. I had unfortunately lost all momentum and several minutes to waiting.
Also unfortunate: the website had let me down again. The aid station was at mile 26, not 24. I was parched when I got to the next aid station. This was definitely my lowest point in the race. I was dehydrated and exhausted and I had lost a few places. Any of the pain I felt on the way into the aid station was quickly replaced when the volunteers started screaming. “What can we get you?” “What do you need?” “Can we fill your water bottles?” In moments, a wonderful woman had filled my soft flasks and replaced them in my vest for me. I had discovered at the mile 6 aid station that I was in love with potato chips, but they were fresh out at mile 26. I took down another pizza strip and started descending on a rocky trail. It was a few moments before I realized I was getting into the “pretty part” of the race.
The first thing I saw was the South Falls as they poured into the canyon. I actually stopped to marvel at it for several seconds. A big portion of the remainder of the race was on the rim trail, which takes you through the canyon and behind/around several waterfalls. This section was busy with hikers, but not to the point of being annoying or uncomfortable. I was surprised to make up a lot of time between miles 26 and 29. I passed many other racers in this stretch and felt great. Just under a month ago, I was struggling to finish 26.2 miles in the Chicago Marathon. Another ultrarunning truth proved accurate: road marathons are way more intense. At mile 27, I was measuring the remaining distance and still targeting a 6:30:00 finish.
I was moving at a good pace when I crossed the metal bridge at mile 28 and started heading uphill. Before long, I was on stairs. They don’t mention the stairs on the race website. Had they mentioned them, I would have done some stair training. Instead, I relied on my hiking training, drove my quads high, and hit them two at a time. This was the most difficult time of the race for me. I remember gripping the metal railing and feeling that I was actually digging deep with each pull of my arms. By the time I got to the next aid station, I realized something was off.
This race isn’t a 50k. A 50k is just over 31 miles. Somewhere along the way in this canyon, my watch shot out a full mile ahead of where I actually was. The watch had been super accurate all day. I wasn’t the only one who noticed and I was surrounded by people in the last few miles upset that the course signage seemed off. It didn’t bother me all that much though. As I ascended to the aid station at “28.6” miles, which was actually more like 29.5, the volunteers cheered and screamed and pumped me up. I downed a handful of potato chips and a cup of flat Coke and walked quickly back onto the trail. Before long I was running again. I knew now that I was less than a 5k from the finish.
A large amount of this last section was on road. Another runner by the name of Josh caught up to me. I accelerated a bit to keep up with him and we talked for quite a while leading into the home stretch. We saw the finish line area and remarked how cruel it was to throw in this road portion leading to a finish line, only to send runners into something called Nutcracker Hill. As soon as I hit the hill I went into power hiking mode. I caught three people on the way up and tentatively started working my way down the steep downhill portion. It was extremely muddy and I slid for several feet at a time, but never fell down. A woman caught up to me at the end of the hill and she had a full head of steam and passed me by. I caught up with her and we compared GPS mileage as we came to the finish line. We were both showing just over 32.1 miles.
I crossed the line, kissed my wife, received my medal, and officially accepted the title of ultramarathoner. My total time was 6:35:31.
I downed three cups of hot cocoa in front of a raging fire and my wife drove us back to the lodge. We had dinner in Silverton and I’m pretty sure I slept for 12 hours overnight.
The Sunday after, my wife hammered the half marathon at a 12:05 pace. I enjoyed seeing her off and checking in on her at the aid station at mile three.
When she came over the bridge to the finish line a full 45 minutes ahead of expected time, I was beside myself.
This was a great racing weekend. I came away with pride, confidence, excitement, and satisfaction. I didn’t set a marathon PR this year, but I ran my first trail race, my first 50k, and I don’t feel like an outsider anymore.
When I hear people talking about 100-mile races, it doesn’t sound crazy. I’ve learned that hard work, dedication, and knowledge can push you way beyond your boundaries. The next challenge is just that: a challenge. Nothing is impossible.
Tonight, I had a video chat with my folks and told them about my next race: The Gorge Waterfalls 100k. Mom asked if I’ve got a death wish. I don’t think I’m going to show her my training schedule for this race either.