A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Month: August 2016

Falling: A Cougar Mountain Race Report

“Failure doesn’t come from falling down. Failure comes from not getting up.”

-The Internet

The Seattle Running Club sponsors a trail race series on Cougar Mountain, and this August found me registered for the 14.5 mile course. I had hiked Cougar once when I first moved to the area two years earlier; in fact, it was my first real hike outside of Tacoma following the move. I am almost positive that I was taking my first pair of trail running shoes out for their first spin, but as a hike. I remember seeing a runner out there on that first hike and thinking to myself that I couldn’t imagine running Cougar. Two years later, I was in the same pair of shoes, now well worn, but I was no longer a hiker. Two weeks earlier, I had run my first 50-miler, and this 14.5 miler was just a fun run.

Several groups of friends were there as well, and the start area had a great energy. SRC brought in some great vendors who offered some of the best race swag I’d seen. After chatting with friends, we each toed the line, and I prepared to run my own race. Much as I was tempted to run with others, I also wanted to push myself on the course and see how fast I could go. This was not on the training schedule for the day. I needed 17 miles at an easy pace with 2-4k feet of gain. I ran 2.5 miles before I drove up to Cougar and would get the rest of the mileage and elevation on the course. The “easy pace/effort” part I was going to modify. Usually I follow the schedule to the letter, but having a coach who is also competitive, I figured he wouldn’t be too upset about this. The RD, Eric Sach, gave us our instructions, and then we were off.

We started with a lap around a large grassy field; I find grass to be the most difficult surface on which to run. It’s uneven but you can’t see the uneveness, so that always trips me up. Once we hit a gravel path leading to the trail, I was able to start pushing forward to position myself solidly in the front-middle pack, and as we reached the trail, I continued to pass runners. The initial trail was relatively flat and not too technical, so it made picking up the pace a breeze.

Then came the mountain. The first climb was pretty steep and tore straight up the slope. My goal was to practice my power hiking, as this is the area I’m in most need of improvement. I kept up with the pack, passed a few, and was passed only by one runner. She would continue to catch me on the uphills and I would leap frog past her on the descents. I wanted to ask her secret, as it didn’t look like she was pushing harder or moving faster than me, but she put distance between us on the ups with seeming ease. I had to remind myself not to focus on other runners too much. I was two weeks out from my first 50 mile race; I was still recovering. I couldn’t expect to be the fastest runner out there. I had to keep my focus on myself and remember this is a race of one.

There were some nice rolling sections, and overall the course was very runable. This was exciting because so much of White River had involved power hiking and plain walking. It was great to cut loose on the trail and zip through the forest. I felt strong and fast. Reaching a long series of switchbacks with some technical footing, I hesitated to pass the runner who had passed me on the ups. I was riding her a little too close, but I didn’t have complete confidence that I was faster than her on the downs (or that I should even be running any faster.) I was so distracted by this inner debate that this itself became dangerous. I needed to concentrate on finding good footing and not breaking my neck. I finally let her know I was coming by on the left, and instantly it was clear that this was the right choice. I really picked up the pace and took in the sheer joy of flying downhill.

Soon, I was alone on the trail and zooming along some rolling hills sprinkled with flat sections. Trucking along one of these flat stretches, and for no apparent reason, I fell crashing to the ground. I was able to catch myself on my palms, but the impact bruised my hands and rocked my shoulders. I muttered a four-letter word under my breath, stood up, and moved on, albeit a bit rattled.

Cougar Mountain: 1; Ellen: 0

I hadn’t had a fall on the trail since I broke my ankle, and this fear had lingered in my mind ever since. I proceeded more cautiously, but not a quarter mile later, I stumbled again and went sailing through the air. If only a cameraman had been there to record it, as I am not sure I can even describe the motion. Something tripped me, and I fell forward. I yelled a different four-letter word, quite loudly, with, thankfully, only the birds to hear. There was a giant downed tree blocking the trail, and I was set to crash into it. Instead, I somehow managed to turn my fall forward into a flying leap across the log. It wasn’t one of those flawless Olympic landings; it was 50/50 whether I was actually going to stick it or knock myself unconscious. Balance somehow prevailed, and I managed to avoid an actual fall (as well as a certain blackout if I had hit the tree.) I thought of Mike Birbiglia’s routine about how even the most flailing vaulting gymnast still holds up her arms in triumph even if she bungles the landing. This felt like something akin to that.

Cougar, we’ll call that one a draw.

Cougar: 1.5; Ellen: 0.5

Still not entirely scared as much as I should have been, I continued to push forward at a faster pace. I couldn’t quite get out of my head, though, and this seemed to be part of the problem. Earlier that week, I had started telling people that Alexander and I broke up. (If you’re learning that here by reading this instead of me telling you, I apologize. It hasn’t been easy to talk about.) It was in some ways a relief to be open about it after more than two months of secrecy and feeling ashamed of failure, but the situation itself, and the discomfort of broaching the topic with others, clouded my focus. Typically, the trail commands my full attention. I don’t daydream or work through problems on these runs. It’s so important to find your footing and move forward efficiently, that there’s not much space for reflection. This is, perhaps, what I love most about trail running. It’s a respite from thinking. On this day, though, I couldn’t escape my thoughts, no matter how fast I ran.

I made a brief stop at an aid station manned by the RD for Rainshadow Running and a couple other guys. We had a delightful exchange, which helped me regroup, but I didn’t linger. This was still a race, and I didn’t need a break. I shot down the trail, still without another runner in sight, and wasn’t a half mile out on yet another flat path when I fell again. Hard. On rocks. The pain was instantaneous. Much cussing out loud ensued. I knew nothing but skin was broken, but the force of the impact was shocking. Unlike the first fall, this one brought me fully to the ground, on my left side. It took a couple of seconds for me to collect myself and get up. Once standing, I assessed the damage. My left arm was torn up in several places, covered in grit and pebbles, and bleeding. My left knee had a larger gash and was similarly covered in blood and grit. I walked forward, swishing out the wounds with water from my bottles the best I could, but that only made it sting even more.

Cougar: 2.5; Ellen: 0.5

This time, I proceeded a bit more cautiously, talking to myself. “What is wrong with you? Get out of your head! Focus! Stop running like an idiot! Stop thinking! Slow down!” The actual dialogue would have made sailors blush.

Of course, the more you try to get out of your head, the more entangled you become. I slowed my pace and ran more conservatively. I wanted to run this race as fast as possible, but it wasn’t worth an injury. This was, after all, a training race for the BFC. It wasn’t worth the risk of injury.

And then I fell again.

This fall was similar to the previous one. A hard crash on a flat stretch, seemingly for no apparent reason (no roots, no big rocks, nothing technical.) I fell to the left again, which only further ripped my wounds open. This time, however, my response was different. No cursing. Not a word crossed my lips. I looked down at my ankle to confirm nothing was broken, stood up, brushed off, and moved forward, in silence.

I’m going to claim that one, Cougar.

Cougar: 2.5; Ellen: 1.5

Something clicked in that final fall. I let go of the frustration, the anxiety, the frantic, scattered thoughts. I was ashamed of my lack of composure earlier in the race. Ultra running demands mental toughness, and I lost sight of the task at hand. True, I had a lot on my mind. It had been a crap week. It had been a crap summer. But you need to leave that off the trail. Leave it at the start line and come back to face it with renewed strength after the race. I won that last battle with Cougar because I learned my lesson. I accepted the pain and the fall, pulled myself up, and pressed onward.

Ultra running has clearly become the perfect metaphor for my life.

The renewed composure was well timed, as the course saves the worst hill for the end of the race, and it demanded some mental strength to haul myself up that thing. The day was heating up, which only added to the difficulty of the climb. It was no Sun Top, though, so there really was no room for complaint. I rolled into the last aid station to add a little water to my bottle, thinking I had at least 2 miles to go. One volunteer said, “It looks like you took a tumble; do you want some trail aid?” I thanked her and said I would make it to the finish line, to which she responded, “Well, you’re only one mile away.” I had never been so happy to learn that my GPS watch was off by a mile.

The last mile was smooth sailing. My spirits lifted, my confidence boosted, and, when I heard the noise of the finish line, my inner sprinter leaped out. A friend yelled, “Yeah, Ellen!” as I sped through the finish line.

14.5 miles

2,650′ of gain

2 hours, 52 minutes, 42 seconds.

51st out of 93 runners

15th out of 36 women

Sure, this is middle pack, but my fastest trail half marathon to date was a 3:13. Cougar was 1.4 miles longer, and I ran it faster. That’s what I call #winning.

It was both surprising and, admittedly, a relief to learn that my badass runner neighbor had also fallen on the course, twice. Not that I wish that on anyone, but it made me feel like it wasn’t entirely me that was the problem. Even the strong runners fall. Back at my car, a woman parked behind me let out a sigh when she saw me and said, “Oh good, you fell, too. Now I don’t feel so bad.” I knew exactly what she meant. She tossed me some wipes to clean myself up a bit. She had fallen twice as well, and her friend commented, “I told you, that’s Cougar. You got bit by the Cougar. I’ve been there plenty of times.” There was a strange solace in that shared experience of eating dirt. I now took a strange pride in my Cougar Bites.

I’ve been doing a lot of falling in my life off the trails recently, and it hasn’t felt good. The more that I have opened up and talked to others, though, I have learned that I am not alone in this regard, either. This extended metaphor feels so corny, so the use of an inspirational quote from the internet seemed like an appropriate epigram. There is, nevertheless, a truth to it, and I’m grateful to have the ability to run as a means to discover my strengths and to heal the cougar bites.

“Gratitude Attitude”: A White River 50-Miler Race Report

“Your life is so good you paid to get into this situation.”

Yassine Diboun

Yassine offered many words of wisdom in our final pre-race talk, but this idea in particular returned to me throughout White River. While I’ve heard many runners laugh during races and say, “we paid to do this!,” this idea that we are privileged to do so is incredibly important to remember. Yassine instructed me to keep a “gratitude attitude” throughout the race, and it became a mantra I chanted in cadence with my footsteps. Yes, running 50 miles is challenging, and, yes, White River is particularly demanding, but I am infinitely privileged to be in a position to do something like this by choice.

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke each hour, anxious I would miss my alarm. When I did sleep it was a sleep punctuated by bizarre nightmares: my contacts turned to goo leaving me unable to see the course; missing the start because I didn’t have my arm buff; someone driving me away from the start line in a car and refusing to let me out.  I was awake when the alarm went off at 4:00, and I stumbled around in the dark hoping not to wake my bunk mates. Alexander and I were on the road by 4:30.

We checked in at the registration booth and I started my pre-race preparations. I heard someone say, “Good luck, Bev,” and I spun around to see one of my ultra idols, Beverley Anderson-Abbs, who thanked him as she walked away. I had wanted so badly to say hello to her but figured right before a race was not a good time. I was glad to see Karey and Sabrina for some pre-race well wishes, and before I knew it, the RD, Scott, was lining us up for the start.

WR pre race

Ready to run! Photo by Sabrina.

There were some rough guidelines I hoped to follow along the way:

  1. Consume at least 100 calories every 30 minutes.
  2. Take an Endurolyte tab every hour.
  3. Stay within the 10 hour and 12 hour finish paces, but be prepared to let go of this goal if necessary and simply finish.
  4. Focus on running aid station to aid station.
  5. Keep the gratitude attitude, no matter what.

We counted down from 10, and were off.

Aid Station 1: Start Line to Camp Sheppard (Mile 3.7)

I started out in the front of the middle pack. The first two miles were over relatively flat terrain, so it was easy to keep up with that pace. I knew it would be important to avoid the bottle-neck that can be a problem further back. Plus, my competitive nature took hold and I considered trying to keep up with the front-middle pack. I found myself behind the infamous Van Phan (“Pigtails”), who, I had learned, ran the WR course twice in the same day last year (once in a bathrobe.) Another runner plied her with questions about running, and she graciously humored him. It was fun to listen to them, as it kept my mind occupied.

Alexander stopped at the aid station and, knowing he would catch me, I kept moving forward. It didn’t register until well after Camp Sheppard that I had come out way too fast. I was supposed to get there between 45-57 minutes and arrived in 34. My brain said, “you’re running with Van Phan! Stick with her! You can do this!” My legs said, “Don’t be an idiot. You have a long way to go.”

Aid Station 2: Ranger Creek (Mile 11.5)

About 3-ish miles into the climb, I was panting and really pushing to keep up with the runners in front of me, so I decided it was time to step aside, let some people pass, and move at a slightly more realistic speed. You win, legs. I was tripping over roots and rocks a lot. I was picking up my feet but this kept happening. I never ate dirt or fell but it was clearly a problem. Maybe from starting too fast? I wasn’t sure and was honestly a little worried about it. My breathing was heavy and I had trouble catching my breath. It’s a tough climb, but I kept pushing hard, and Alexander wasn’t catching up to me.

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail and PCT talk about “trail magic,” and I experienced this phenomenon several times throughout the race. Despite the labored breathing, I wouldn’t back off my pace too much. The two runners behind me started chatting about their bee stings. I had been worried about this, as the RD mentioned this was the one thing on the course we really needed to be careful about. We reached the first vista point after a major climb, and I was tired so stepped aside and said, “Gentlemen, please take your bees with you.” One of them turned around to laugh as he passed, and he realized he knew me. It was Ron, who had been so inspiring to me on the preview run. We chatted for a bit, and I made sure to let him know how his story had stayed with me. There was something comforting in seeing a familiar face at that point. It was after a serious climb, I was exhausting myself, and it was nice having someone encourage me. Ron wished me a good race and sped ahead, and I felt a lift.

Soon after this, Alexander caught up to me. We reached another vista, and I broke a personal rule and asked him to stop and take a photo. After roughly 7 vertical miles, we were above the clouds. The Cascades spread out before us, and Mount Rainier loomed large. It was breathtaking, and I said, “we get to run here!” It really was worth stopping for a minute to take it all in; plus, we were well ahead of the 12 hour pace and could afford to stop.

Chanting “gratitude attitude” in my head, I sped on to Ranger Creek. I didn’t need to stop and was anxious to keep going, but Alexander needed to stop, so we took a few minutes for him to refuel. We headed out still somewhere between the 10 and 12 hour pace.

Aid Station 3: Corral Pass (Mile 16.7)

I really like this section because it’s more runable and has consistently gorgeous views. It was exciting to see the front runners on their way back down the mountain. They each said “good job” as they passed. Every. Single. One. What true sportsmanship. I love that! One guy yelled as he passed, “I will tell you the dirty little secret of this loop: it’s uphill on the way back, too!” There was a group of men behind me who were adding some colorful commentary as we made our way to Corral Pass. I wish I could remember some of the things they said, but I remember laughing out loud a few times and enjoyed their conversation as a distraction. The sun was out and it was heating up; keeping myself distracted prevented me from focusing on this fact and from worrying about how it would affect me as the day wore on.

I was still tripping through here, and a guy in front of me had a bad fall on the rocks. He spit some blood and I waited to make sure he got back up and was ok. He said he was fine and kept moving. It shook me up to see it. The middle pack was pretty bunched up at this point, and a fall could mean a herd trampling you.  I remained careful but pushed as much as possible.

I knew there was a photographer 3/4 of a mile from the Corral Pass aid station, so it was wonderful to see him as I turned a bend. Bonus that the mountain was out, making for some gorgeous race photos.

WR Corral Pass

Happy to be so close to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Corral Pass. Photo by Pronounce Photography.

At Corral Pass, a volunteer walked up to me, grabbed my arm, and said, “What do you need? What can I do for you?” I needed to refill my water bladder but was fumbling with the vest given my swollen fingers. She took the vest from me, assuring me she would take care of it and would find me at the food table. I had been told the volunteers would do this, but it truly blew me away to be taken care of in this way. The volunteers really do play an important role in your race day, and I am so grateful to all of them.

I ate fruit with reckless abandon. I seriously felt like a wild, hungry animal.  Matt caught up to us here, and he didn’t linger long. It was fun to see another familiar face. I grabbed my drop bag and refilled nutrition, then went back to the food table and ate potatoes and more fruit. The volunteer put my vest back on me, and another instructed runners to “eat and climb, eat and climb.” In other words, get moving.  We left right on pace for 12 hours.

Aid Station 4: Ranger Creek (Mile 22.1)

The lollipop portion of the out-and-back started with a climb, and I needed to hike it. I must have eaten too much at Corral Pass, because my stomach felt like it had a brick in it. The views here were stunning, and I made sure to appreciate it. When the ascent turned to a descent, I willed myself to run despite the upset stomach. The trail was pretty treacherous; there were deep, narrow grooves in the center, and it was difficult to find good footing. We passed Monte and then Karey, Nicole, Amy, Bill, and Nicole F. on the way back, giving high-fives and sharing encouraging words. They looked awesome and were all smiles.

We didn’t need to stop at Ranger Creek, so it was on to the descent: 5 miles of steep switchbacks. We had caught up to Matt, who was having some trouble with his calves. I told Alexander to go ahead because I’m slower on the downhills, and Matt had me go ahead of him since he was hurting.  Still on pace for 12 hours.

Aid Station 5:  Buck Creek (Mile 27.2)

I had been worried about aggravating my knee on this descent, but shortening my stride as Yassine suggested did wonders. No issues! I was able to pass quite a few runners, too. I was still tripping, though, and one time was particularly bad. I made a bad choice when negotiating some gnarly roots, and I flew into the steep side of the hill to break my fall. My chant became “pick your damn feet up!” which I actually said out loud several times. Each runner I passed said “good job,” or “go girl” or some other words of encouragement. Those small kindnesses can do so much for you.

I was thinking about my talk with Yassine during the descent, and it occurred to me that all of his advice had been about the mental component of the race, not the physical. Realizing that gave me a real boost, as it suggested that he was already confident in the physical part; he just wanted to make sure I had the right mindset on race day, too. Other than this, I really didn’t think much on the course. I was so incredibly focused and aware but completely dialed in to each footstep. It was a surreal feeling. I had never felt a sharper focus in my life. I zoomed down the hill, trying to keep a good pace without blowing out the knees or killing myself on a root. When I heard water streaming, I knew I must be getting close to the bottom. Next, I could hear cars, which meant I was even closer. In a few minutes, I was crossing the highway and heading toward friends and food.

I had a moment of panic when I reached a trail head that said Skookum Flats. I knew this was the final leg of the race and worried I somehow took a wrong turn. Another runner kept reassuring me this was correct, but I had “ultra brain” (not thinking entirely clearly, despite the sharp trail focus) and hesitated. She was so patient with me and waited until I finally followed her down the path. Before long, I could hear cheers and relaxed. I arrived at Buck Creek exactly on pace for 12 hours, and ran in to the sound of friends cheering my name.

I was so moved to see so many familiar faces here. Alexander was already relaxing in a camp chair, and Adam directed me over to my own camp chair, with my drop bag waiting. Rick had stayed, and Staci, Shannon, and Ginger had driven up to support the runners. Eric walked over, pointed at me, and said, “Don’t sit too long!” I needed that reminder, as it would have been tempting to linger. Adam filled my water bladder, Shannon brought me fruit, and Staci applied body glide to the chafing on my back. They took great care of me, which I greatly appreciated. I was developing blisters on my big toes (never had that problem before) so I reapplied body glide on my feet and changed socks and shirt. I should have asked someone to find me some band aids and regretted not doing so. I said to Alexander, “3 minutes.” We couldn’t stay long. Adam was a bit appalled by the ravenous manner in which I ate my watermelon. I ate a sandwich, which tasted good in the moment but didn’t feel good later. I pulled a special treat, a Twilight bar (a vegan Milky Way), out of my drop bag  and decided to eat and walk. Alexander zoomed off, followed by Matt. I brought up the rear.

Aid Station 6: Fawn Ridge (Mile 31.7)

This was the most difficult leg. I had that brick-in-stomach feeling again after eating real food and couldn’t run on the way to the Sun Top trail even though it was flat for a mile or so. I felt really tired and my stomach hurt. I really tried to push the ups but was having a lot of trouble. Alexander and Matt were out of sight and other runners were passing me. I’m not entirely sure what it was about this leg, but physically it was really tough for me, and that affected me mentally. I never had dark thoughts, but I was a little too focused on not feeling well and being frustrated that others were power hiking up much faster than me. The day continued to heat up, and this leg included more exposed areas. Later, other runners would tell me they found this leg to be the worst as well. Not what you would expect from a ridge named after a cute little baby deer.

The Fawn Ridge aid station was like a beacon is this hellish stretch. I could hear the volunteers from a ways off, and they had inflatable fish and a monkey lining the trail to lighten the mood. There was one last, steep incline, and they cheered as I plowed up it. I was instantly surrounded by people asking me what I needed. One man poured ice cold water on my head and hat, asking if I wanted ice in my hat, too. Another refilled my water. A woman put ice in my Coke. They were so cheerful, wearing hula skirts and blasting music. They also had band aids, so I applied them to the blisters and didn’t have issues after that. (Should have applied them to the chafing on my back. Big mistake.) Alexander had waited for me here, too. I felt sorry for him losing time on my account, but it’s always nice to see a friendly face. This station was another bit of that trail magic. It showed up right when there was a risk of losing my gratitude attitude. These volunteers really lifted my spirits, and I blew out of there feeling renewed. I was behind the 12 hour pace now, and wanted to make up time.

Aid Station 7: Sun Top (Mile 37)

I came into the race knowing this would be a tough section, and that the day would reach its peak temperature when I got there. I had also never run farther than 31 miles, so this was new territory. I ran when I could and power hiked the really steep parts. There are some nice rolling sections, so I made the most of them and ran as much and as fast as possible. I had leapfrogged with a guy for a while, and, after we stopped to dip our hats in a creek, we ran together and chatted for a while. He was impressed that I had jumped from my first marathon to a 50 miler in 5 months; it hadn’t occurred to me that this was quite an achievement. When I said that I had hoped for a sub-12 race, he asked if I could run down the Sun Top road. I said I thought I could, and he assured me that a 12 hour race was still in my reach. I settled into an easy pace behind him, but he stepped aside and firmly said, “Go. You have more leg left than me. Go!” Trail magic. I zoomed off, spurred on by his confidence in me. (I later learned his name is Evan, so thanks, Evan!)

There was more trail magic waiting ahead. As I headed down a hill, picking up the pace, I saw a biker who actually got off his bike to yield to me (most of the others I encountered so far hadn’t). As I got closer, I realized it was Eric. He gave me a fist bump and said, “Looking strong, girl, stay strong, girl!” I felt like I was on fire. My legs had new strength and I blazed down the trail.

And then, I reached the sign that said Sun Top summit, .5. That measly .5 is the longest half mile on the planet. It’s steep, exposed, sandy, rocky, dusty–just brutal. It was a complete slog. I had caught up to a few runners, and we didn’t even have the energy to talk. There was some groaning and sighing. Some stopped to catch their breath. I knew it was the last major climb, though, so I really pushed as much as possible (but it felt like I was crawling.) Turning the bend for the final switchback, I saw a course photographer. Nothing like a photographer to make you suck it up, fix your form, and get moving. I picked up the pace and laughed as I passed, telling him I would pretend that I had been running all along.

WR50 Sun Top Climb

I love the honesty of this photo. I’m tired and the camera knows it. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

WR50 Sun Top

Best race photo ever. Thanks, Glenn Tachiyama.

WR Sun Top 2

You would never know that I was dragging just a minute earlier. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I actually made up some time on this leg, but not quite enough to come in at 12 hours. Alexander was only about 5 minutes ahead of me at that point, and Matt had just left. Yet another kind volunteer refilled my water while I ate fruit and potatoes and changed socks. I told Alexander not to wait for me at the last station, to just go and finish strong. I had run a lot of the course by myself so far, and was alone at the most difficult parts. There was just a half marathon between me and the finish line, and I knew I had the mental strength to make it. I wasn’t worried about doing it on my own. We both said we were proud of each other, and then headed down the road.

Aid Station 8: Skookum Flats (Mile 43.4)

I was dreading coming down the Sun Top road. On the practice run, it was an endless spiral of loose gravel and deep ruts, mostly exposed and dusty as hell when cars passed. Surprisingly, it turned out not to be so bad on race day. It almost seemed as if someone had graded it recently, as it was much easier to find good footing. I took short strides and pushed without over doing it, as I knew the treacherous Skookum Flats was waiting. I still managed to pass quite a few runners and didn’t destroy my knees in the process. I passed a woman I had leapfrogged with, and she called out, “this is the most painful descent ever!” Instead of agreeing, I tried to encourage her and said I thought we were more than halfway down it at that point. I was glad to have taken my practice run friend, Mary Ann’s, advice about fueling on the descent. This gave me the energy I needed when I hit the flat road at the bottom.

I pulled into the final aid station to find a group of runners discussing the last leg. One guy said, “We’re not going to win anything, so we may as well relax. We’ll still finish even if we walk.” One of the volunteers replied, “You’re going to finish a 50-miler no matter how fast you come in.” It was so important for me to hear this at this moment.  A volunteer refilled my water while I ate some fruit. Another said, “Six and a half miles to go; you’re almost there. Just a couple of hours.” I thought to myself, “A couple of hours?! Are you fucking kidding me?” Fortunately, I did not say this out loud.

The Last Leg: Skookum Flats to Finish Line (Mile 50)

Despite it’s zany name, Skookum Flats is neither zany nor flat. It is a tangled mess of tree roots and rocks over a rolling trail that follows the White River. I had run it on the practice run and tripped within the first half mile. While we had run this segment first on that run, I later learned that it was the final leg of the actual race. This is what makes this race so difficult. After two monstrous mountain climbs and two demanding descents, you have to pick your way through this mine field when you are at your most exhausted. I was extremely anxious about Skookum Flats. It is so technical, and I had been tripping all day. Plus I was tired and my back hurt badly. The image of me crashing to the ground in a bloody heap felt very real. I decided to power hike most of it. That was the physical part.

This was a mental challenge, too. I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I was probably going to come in over 13 hours. I had to swallow my goal and accept this, which was tough, but it just wasn’t worth it to me to risk tripping and injuring myself.  I settled into it and tried to just enjoy it as a hike, but the thoughts of disappointment were tough to fight off. My mantra became, “Skookum Flats only wins if you quit. If you finish, you win.” I had to remind myself that I ran my first marathon only 5 months ago, and my first (and only) 50k just one month ago. I was probably the least experienced runner on the course. I was still going to finish a 50 miler. Once I took this mindset, things got better. It was a beautiful evening, and the scenery was lovely, even if the trail wanted to reach out and break your neck. There are waterfalls and mossy rocks in streams and deep forest greens. It was quiet and peaceful.

I passed some hikers but ran almost this entire stretch without seeing another runner. I had no idea how close I was to the finish line, when a biker appeared and said, “Great work! You’re about 2 1/4 miles away.” I didn’t realize I was that close. Looking at my watch, I realized I could get in under 13 hours if I pushed hard. Trail magic. I picked up steam for a while, but tired quickly. My leap frog friend passed me and we cheered each other on. Rounding a corner, I came to the place where the trail had been washed out, and runners were forced to cling to a rope as they made their way across the sandy edge of the hill. This runner was so kind that she gracefully waited to hold the other end of the rope while I crossed. What a thoughtful gesture; taking precious moments to help me. I expressed my gratitude and watched her disappear over a hill.

I still wasn’t sure how close I was, and fatigue had set in again. I was power hiking as quickly as possible but couldn’t muster the energy to run. The trail had one last bit of magic for me, though. Another runner came up behind me, seemingly out of nowhere. When I silently stepped aside to let her pass, she said “Come on, dig deep!”  I followed her and just ran, roots and rocks and Skookum Flats be damned. I soon heard a voice yelling, and I hoped that meant we were getting close. The voice turned into a man standing on the trail. He said, “Great work! You’re about 200 yards from the road, and then it’s 1/4 mile to the finish.” Our pace quickened. When we hit the road, the other runner stopped, turned, smiled, and gestured for me to go past her as she said, “Go get it, girl!”

I don’t know where it came from, but I found the strength to sprint to the finish. I came in tall and proud and the tears were already starting to fall. Eric Sach, who had coordinated the practice runs, caught me at the finish line. As in, he literally caught hold of me and stopped me. He held onto me and said in the calmest, kindest voice, “Stop your watch. Good. Now here, take this and drink all the water. Here, sit down until you finish your water.” He clearly knew exactly what I needed in that moment, and he did this, from what I understand, for everyone who came in. I started to weep with happiness.

50 miles.

9,200 feet of climb.

9,200 feet of descent.

12 hours, 51 minutes, 54 seconds.

It was such an emotional moment. I had worked so hard, faced so many setbacks, yet here I was. I no longer cared about my time and was able to fully enjoy the sense of accomplishment. It was the most powerful high I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t wait to do it again.

WR finish sunbeams

In the homestretch and still have some back kick. Photo by Nicole.

The same wonderful friends, plus a few more, were there to cheer me in and congratulate me. I thanked the woman who told me to dig deep, #223 (whose name, according to Ultrasignup, is Anna. Thanks, Anna!) I saw Ron again, and he asked how I did and what was next. I said, “The Barkley Fall Classic, six weeks from today.”

This experience taught me a lot about myself, but it also showed me that I am surrounded by the most generous and thoughtful people you could hope to meet. The finish line held old friends and new, and I understood that they each played in an important role in getting me to that point. So, to all of you who helped in your own way, I am eternally grateful. I may have done the running, but I’m not sure I would have completed this race without all of the help and encouragement I received along the way.

Finally, thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who donated to The Dandelion Fund in Dexter’s memory. I ran this race for him, and it’s comforting to know that the effort will help other pets in need.

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