Friday, March 23, 2007

03/17/07 Chuckanut 50k

This photo is by Glenn Tachiyama. He's the best photographer ever.

Chuckanut Mountain is located just south of Bellingham, Washington – up near the Canadian border. The weather this time of year is usually cold, windy, and wet, but that doesn’t keep people away from the Chuckanut 50k. Registration for this very popular ultra opens before Thanksgiving, and it is always full within a couple weeks. This race attracts the faster and more seasoned trail running crowd from around the Pacific Northwest.

Chuckanut wasn’t supposed to be my first 50k. It was actually supposed to be my fourth… but I missed the local “Pigtails Ultra” in December and a Mississippi 50k in March to play cancer buddy. I was also supposed to run Arizona’s Pemberton 50k in February, but one of my dogs decided to eat his leash on travel day. We spent that weekend at the animal hospital. And so Chuckanut, a fairly technical course sporting bad weather and very fast runners, turned into my introductory dance lesson with 31+ miles of mud and sheer terror.

Ok, it wasn’t that bad. In retrospect, I enjoyed myself. Somewhat. I was shockingly slow as measured against even the most conservative goals I had set. On the other hand, I did not spontaneously combust, and I learned a lot about myself… and my weaknesses on trails. I’ve run lots of trail races, including some really nasty trail marathons (I’ll come back to that at the end), and yes, I still can’t fly down the hills properly. I don’t do the whole speed up, slow way down, speed up trail thing very well. And, specific to Chuckanut, I learned about vampire mud. Not all mud is vampire mud, and you’ll know it when you encounter it.

So. The race. The rain started at 6a. Not hard, but steady. On the positive side of the weather ledger, it was not really windy, and it was not terribly cold – even by Island Boy’s standards. The race itself started at 8a. We were all kind of milling around the informal line and then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and we were off. The first (and last) 6.3 miles of the race are held on mostly… but not completely… flat bike trail. Except for a little single track by a creek somewhere around M3, it was all wide open. Weeeee. I hit the first aid station at M6.3 around 54 minutes. That would be the last “fast” running I’d do.

Exiting the aid station, we curved around the euphemistically titled “sewer lagoon”, back up the bike trail a little bit, and then the world changed. Honest to Pete trail time, climbing up to something called Fragrance Lake. Given that we had just passed the sewer lagoon, I had higher hopes for Fragrance Lake. It would turn out that I was far too concerned with my footing to enjoy the lake. We climbed. We descended. People ahead of me claimed to have turned the wrong way. People behind me claimed that we were on the right path. The people behind me, who were now the people also in front of me, won the battle and we continued. At M10.4, wahoo, we found aid station #2.

My Maniac friend Kurt caught me here. “This next part is the most boring part of the course.” Indeed. We were on a wide gravel/mud road. We climbed. We played chicken with some cars. We climbed some more. I got a little muddy.

Wahoo, M13.6 and welcome to aid station #3. I checked my watch. 2:30. Huh. I knew I wasn’t going to break 5 hours on this course, but I was hoping to break 6. I could still do it, theoretically, but what I didn’t know was that the next section was over-the-top twilight zone another dimension harder than the previous sections. What I also didn’t know was that this much harder section was free of any aid stations. 7.6 miles before we hit the next station… which, surprise, was actually this one. Had I paid more attention to the map, I would have seen that this upcoming section was essentially a trip around the circumference of upper Chuckanut. Up and down and all the way around, and we’d come out… here. The thing is, I didn’t know this. So I didn’t fill up my mostly-empty bottle. I didn’t eat anything. Me and my stud self just took off running.

More climbing. Only the climbs were steeper. More descending. Only the descents were briefly terror inducing. More sliding. And, kaplooey, my first fall. Right into a soft bed of ferns. I got passed a lot in this section, and the main thing I noticed was that when people passed me on the downhills, they seriously burned rubber and disappeared. It was foggy and my glasses steamed up. On a nice day, I was told that there were good views to be had up here. But it wasn’t a nice day and I was too busy looking at the trail. Up and down we went. Surely there’s an aid station coming, right?

Heh. No. We dumped out onto an old logging road. It was raining noticeably harder here. I thought to myself “well, this is a road, so it’ll be easier” and off I went. It was not easier. This became my new personal vision of hell.

Hell is inhabited by vampire mud. Vampire mud is sentient. Vampire mud needs your essence to live, and so vampire mud steals your soul. And how? It takes your soul through your soles. Because, you see, vampire mud eats your shoes. Allow me to quote something that I should have read in the course description:

The road will become a trail and the trail will become a mudhole then a stream. Wet feet guaranteed! Don't bother trying to stay dry...tighten your shoes and just power through the slop.
Yeah, buddy. About a mile into this mess, the vampire mud removed my right shoe. I tried hopping on one foot, but it was not to be. Splunk. Right sock, sunk in the mud. Fine. I dug out my shoe, put my muddy foot back in, and took off. But I think I lost my will to live on this road. Vampires will do that. Except for a brief downhill section later, I could not run fast after I lost my shoe. Couldn’t do it. And the mud went on. And on. And on. The climb went on and on. More people passed me.

Could it get harder? Yes and no. I hit a downhill and passed a sign that read “hammer this section, chinscraper is near!” Chinscraper. Now, I didn’t know exactly what this meant, but it didn’t sound happy. So I hammered. Unfortunately, it was like Curly and Moe hammering. After a bit, I came to another sign that read “hills are fun”. And welcome to chinscraper. Chinscaper, as you might guess from the name, is a very steep climb. A long one. And in the middle is something called “little chinscraper” – the steepest section of the very steep climb. About 3/4s of the way up little chinscraper, I slid back down. And almost took out another runner like a bowling pin. Technically, this was the hardest section of the course, and falling down was not fun. On the other hand, hey, I was out of the vampire mud.

The single track dumped out on a road and wahoo, M21.2 and welcome to aid station #4. 7.6 miles. My watch read 5:00 exactly. Three things: 1) 5 hours to go 21 miles!, 2) 2 ½ hours to go 7.6 miles!!!, and 3) 10 miles left. So much for beating 6 hours, and based on how I felt, 7 wasn’t going to happen either. I was soooooo hungry. I ate an orange. And 3 handfuls of M&Ms (side note: when wet, they do, in fact, melt in your hand). And 2 handfuls of animal crackers. And another scoop of M&Ms. And 2 cups of coke. Plus 2 endurolytes, and 1 Sudafed. The only thing that didn’t go into my stomach was the partridge and the pear tree. I would have considered a pear and a partridge, though. Me so hungry!

7.6 miles in 2 ½ hours. Wow. I don’t have a good joke for that.

I refilled my bone dry water bottle. 10ish miles left… 3.6 on supremely steep quad-busting downhill and 6.3 across the same flat bike trail on which we had started. It was really foggy here and I couldn’t see anything. 5:04 on my watch… hey, it takes time to eat an entire picnic… and down the hill I went. I passed shadows of other broken runners. Some I talked to, and some I didn’t. Go back and scan what I ate at the last aid station. You know how we always say “don’t do anything new on race day!” ? Do you think I had previously practiced eating 3 people’s worth of party food in the middle of the race? No siree. Did I pay the price? Thankfully, no. My body must have really needed the sugar. At the bottom of the hill, wahoo, M24.8 and welcome to aid station #5. As I’m eating yet another handful of slimey peanut M&Ms, a woman runner pulls in and exclaims, “Hey! My panties are wet! Chuckanut was my 98th marathon-or-longer event since being sick and I have to say, I hadn’t heard that one before.

5:40 on my watch, so I made 3.6 in 36 minutes. That may sound slow, but it felt like a sprint. 6.3 miles left. Even Tergat, The Flash, and Mercury/Hermes weren’t going to help me beat 6 hours. But I had a fairly good chance at beating 7, and I set another goal for myself: except for the little singletrack section in the middle, run every step of this last part. Wet Panties Lady and I left the aid station, but she wasn’t as into the whole “run every step” business. I was on my own once again. Chug chug chug. This part was back on the flattish bike trail, and it even had some mile markers. I knew I wasn’t flying, but I felt like I was running a respectable pace. The mile markers disagreed. Chug chug chug. Back across the last little single track section, which included, rather unfortunately, a wide, cold, shin-deep puddle. Sploosh sploosh. My shoes? I had exited the vampire mud a good 10 miles behind me and I just went through an ice bath… and even so, my shoes were still coated in thick vampire mud. It was eeeeeevil.

Chug chug chug. Final turn. Down the hill. Wahoo, M31.1 and I was done. 6:54 on the clock.

6:54. I beat 7. And aside from the giant puddle, I did run that whole last part. 74 minutes to run 6.3… the same 6.3 that took me 54 on the way out.

6:54. Almost as long as it takes me to run two road marathons. Oh. And it was still raining.

Whew. I ate some soup. Talked to lots of people, including MM Hippo.

I have lots of room for improvement. I will say, however, that this was certainly not the hardest race I’ve ever done. Last year, I ran the Leadville Marathon in 6:53. One minute faster, but about 5 miles shorter too. And I was seriously trashed after Leadville, whereas I was fine the next day after Chuckanut. I consider the Volcano Marathon to be harder than Chuckanut too. I finished that one in 5:10, but I would have been closer to 4:15 had I not twisted my ankle. Volcano absolutely punished me and those around me, whereas Chuckanut just kind of messed with me.

Well, except for the vampire mud. That stuff has scarred me.

Next up: Back to Bataan, a race I once considered “the hardest”. Not even. But plenty hard. See you there.

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