Sun Mountain 50K, my first ultra marathon : it had been a dream for about a year. While on a training run for a road marathon with a buddy, we dared to dream about “the next step.” A few months later, we found ourselves running in different company, and had somehow landed on Sun Mountain as our goal race for our first ultra. Sun Mountain became the mantra. As life would have it, my running partner was unable to race it- but was there to support my training, and so I embarked upon this adventure, not knowing what I was getting into.
I traveled to Sun Mountain with a new running friend, David, whom I’d been lucky enough to do several training runs with. Another running buddy Sean was also on the ferry with us, headed to the 50 mile race. The trip down was fun- we chatted, joked, and talked about the upcoming race. The scenery as we drove thru the Cascades and into the Methow valley was stunning.
Rumour has it that a snow angel happened.
We left Victoria on Thursday. Friday was spent napping, picking up last minute bug spray (as per the pre-race email) and packing our drop bags (which we had never done before). We went for a short “shake out” run as well, to get a general feel for the trails, and to scope out the evil Mt. Patterson, which we had heard about.
It rose ominously, and seemed to taunt me, but I refused to be intimidated. How bad could it be? Just another mountain (at the END of our 50K race).
I had run several marathons already, and a number of long training runs. Ultramarathons differ from road races in that there are very few aid stations (rather than one every 2ish kms), and so being self sufficient was key. Sun Mountain 50K would have 3 aid stations. Everything I needed I would have to either carry, or pack in my drop bags. Knowing that heat was a huge factor (which I could not train for) also caused some trepidation. However, I was as trained as I could be, and I was confident in my ability to problem solve on the go.
Saturday morning was filled with anticipation. David picked me up, and we drove to the start line at Chickadee Trail head. To my surprise, one of my trail buddies- Amanda- was there, directing traffic! It was great to see her, and to get a high five from someone I knew. The start line of this, my first ultra, was awesome.
Runners milled about, taking photos, adjusting shoe laces, and figuring out where to attach their race bibs. Instead of pace bands and split times, the conversations revolved around “what might happen” and a general respect for the sport that anything could happen, given any number of factors. There was a casualness and a community that I instantly connected with.
The pre-race briefing began with an apology- we’re sorry that James (the race director) couldn’t be here to do this but he had to go out on the course to deal with some errant cows. Follow the pink ribbons, pay attention to junction signs, scare off cows as necessary, close gates behind us, and be nice. And no throwing trash on the ground- this is not a road race. There was a 30 second warning, a 10 second, and then someone yelled “go” and we were off. A short piece of double track trail quickly funneled us onto a beautiful single track trail. We merged in, and settled into what felt like an incredibly slow pace.
David and I had decided to start the race together and see how it went, but there were no expectations to finish together. We chatted as we ran alongside Patterson lake on a well groomed trail, marveling in how easy this trail way to run given what we had trained on. It was warm, but I was comfortable in my singlet. I also knew that a hat would be key. As we emerged from the trees, we found ourselves on a beautiful meadow of flowers, blue and yellow. The sight and the smell were pure awesome. The runners started to spread out, and the race began to feel comfortable. I loved the casualness of it all. Here we were, running in the woods with some friends, some strangers who all love running, and beautiful scenery. You could feel the warmth emanating from the ground, bringing to life the smell of pine needles and dirt, as the sun beat down from above. Birds sang, and bugs buzzed around.
Right…..the mosquitoes. As we began our ascent to Thompson Ridge (highest point on the course at 3600 ft), we found ourselves on some shadier trail. As we hiked upwards, I swatted mosquitoes constantly. After a few frustrating minutes, it became clear that they were not going away, so I asked David to get my pen-sized bug repellant from my pack. I sprayed what I could, and then handed it to him to spray my back/shoulders. Before putting it back, he used it and then sprayed another gal who was wishing she had brought her own. This was a new thing for me, as I’d never encountered bugs this bad. It was a good lesson for me in trusting the pre-race email, and I will make sure I do it again. We continued on our quest, walking most of the uphills as per our plan, and running everything else. Rewarded with amazing views at every turn, we were in good spirits, and chatted to pass the time.
We loved the flowers. We indulged in the beauty and stopped for a few seconds to take pics of the amazing sunflower meadows, smiling, and just taking it all in. Mountains rose in the distance, as we chatted with other runners we had never met. Heck, we loved everything about it.
Thompson Aid station: we arrived here after an hour and 40 mins of running. As we approached, small children ran out to greet us, asking if they could help. “Can I fill your bottle for you? Do you need anything? What can I get for you?” I was surprised, but even more surprised when I realized how capable these kids were. They knew what they were doing, clearly having been trained by family members. And they had my back.
I had been warned by friends who were veteran ultra runners to not spend too much time at the aid stations…. and I’m so glad they had told me. It was like walking into an oasis! Food, candy of every kind, drinks of all kinds, and a general awesomeness. I cannot say enough about how fantastic the volunteers were. I felt so taken care of, in every way. Despite all of this, we managed to limit our time at this aid station to 3 minutes, partly due to the fact that I decided I did not need to go to my drop bag.
Leaving Thomson Aid station, we crossed a cattle guard. I smiled, knowing that a road race would never include things like this.
It was quite a climb, and we quickly resumed hiking. After a bit on the road, the route turned and we found ourselves back on the trail. A climbing section eventually gave way to a fantastic downhill. Stuck behind slower runners on the singletrack, we waited for opportunities to cut past runners on the inside…. the more courteous runners moved over to let us pass. We finally found ourselves in the open and I decided I was ready to open it up. Bombing down the mountain full tilt, I felt as if I danced effortlessly down that section of the trail. I knew David was close behind, but for those minutes, it didn’t matter and there was no chatting, just running. It was me, alone on the trails, celebrating the raw freedom and joy of running. I even took some video footage of it while I ran.
Homestead Aid station appeared, just on time. Roughly halfway into the race, I was pleasantly surprised by how great I was feeling. It was hot, and hydration was becoming a concern, but I felt strong, and happy, and there were no aches and pains. This aid station had the only toilet on the course, and I had planned in advance to take the time to use it. (although, it wasn’t necessary!). I handed my pack to a volunteer, made sure my bib number was recorded, and grabbed a few glasses of ice cold water. It tasted so good in contrast to the water in my pack (which heats up quickly due to body heat and the sun). I also recognized a need for extra electrolytes and had some GU brew. Orange slices were great…. but the grapes tasted terrible to my taste buds. Strange. David and I quickly went to get our dropbags, and grabbed what we needed. Some dates, glide, and that was it. Hydration packs refilled, we shouldered them and started off again, congratulating ourselves on departing only 6 minutes after arrival. We were pros! Unfortunately, less than 300 m down the trail I realized that I had not re-attached the drinking hose to my pack, so I had to stop to re-attach it.
Leaving Homestead, I felt strong. My legs felt fantastic, and my heart rate felt like it had barely risen despite the ever-increasing heat. My only issue was that I probably drank too much water at the aid station, and it was sloshing a bit- but it settled quickly. The trail became a nice rolling singletrack, winding through tall trees with bits of shade and low foliage. There is a push/pull that happens during a long run, and running partners often switch places without even giving it much thought. When one feels weak they step aside for the stronger one to lead. Occasionally, the one feeling energized will pick a spot to dart past on the trail. It’s not a competition, but rather, a sharing of the job of leading. Along this section, I darted past David up a small incline, saying he’d catch me at the bottom of the little hill that followed. He smiled, and said no worries. As I continued on, I kept looking back for him but didn’t see him…. and I would not see him again until the finish line. We had parted ways just after 26 kms. As the reality of this sunk in, I was sad that I would be finishing on my own, but I knew I was strong enough to get it done so I carried on. The views along here were some of my favourites on the course. The mountains in the distance looked like postcards, they were so awesome. I popped a salt tab, had more gels, and carried on.
All of a sudden there were a few folks sitting under a brightly coloured beach umbrella, randomly situated on the side of the mountain. The trail turned to meet them, and as I approached they asked, “1st time? Or 2nd?” Perplexed, I said “first time.” They pointed me up the mountain, and said “see you soon- have fun!” It was then that I realized I was headed up Sun Mountain itself, towards the lodge. I vividly remember this part. It was hot hot hot, and sweat poured down my entire body, dripping off my elbows as I switched to mostly power hiking. Although the hat felt stifling, I kept it on to keep the sweat from running into my eyes. Midway through the climb, we popped out above the treeline, and started zig zagging our way up the hot dry dusty switchbacks to the top. As I glanced both below and above me, I could see a line of runners, all hiking. It felt odd that no one tried to pass, we all just kept putting one foot in front of the other. A small set of stairs at the very top was a welcome surprise, and I scampered up them, pleased to be at the top. And then, there was no trail! I meandered across a manicured lawn (at the lodge, where people were sipping cool drinks and watching me with bemused looks) and continued on towards the trail head again. Returning to the cover of trees was a welcome treat, and I soon realized I was back on the same section of trail as before.
As I settled back into a comfortable rhythm, I felt strong. I was beginning to think more about electrolytes and hydration, but I still felt decent. Rounding a corner, I saw a runner stretching out his legs. As I approached, I recognized the cheery face of another training buddy, Richard, who was doing the 50 miler. I made sure he was OK, then offered to run him up to the junction. It was refreshing to have a friendly face to chat with, and it was wonderful to hear about his adventure so far that day. We joked and ran for about half an hour, until we got back to that blasted beach umbrella. This time, I gleefully announced I was on my second trip through so I headed of the to the left with a great sense of relief. I remember telling Richard that the views he was about to encounter were fantastic!
And then as I rounded a corner, there was the Patterson Aid Station! The sharp downhill to get to it surprised me, but I felt fine. As I got there, my Trail Angel Man came over and asked how he could help me. I needed a water refill. Trying to remove the bladder from my pack, I was surprised to see my hands were shaking and I struggled to get it out. Frustration washed over me and to my surprise, I realized that this little thing was overwhelming to me and I got angry that I couldn’t make it work. The amazing Trail Angel Man instantly recognized my plight, and reassured me that he would take care of it for me, and he suggested I get some food. I went over to the table and saw the most amazing thing…. a bowl of pickles. Yes, pickles. I ate several pieces, downed some more water, some fruit, and then returned to my Trail Angel. He apologized- he had filled the bladder but could not figure out how to get it into my pack. Bursting into tears, I was aware that this was not a big deal, and I recognized that this was a reaction to having been running this long. Between us, we managed to get the 2L of water back in the pack. As I calmed myself, he asked if I needed anything else, and my joking self said, “Yes. Do you have any beer? I could really use a beer.” He looked at me with a smile and said the words that would ring in my head for the last chunk of the race. “I have an idea. Why don’t you go for a nice little 5.6 mile cooldown run, and then grab yourself a beer at the finish line?” His words were perfect. They gave me an exact distance (which was totally runnable), reframed this as a cool down run, and reminded me that a great party with beer was awaiting me. I smiled, thanked him profusely with a hug, and started off.
I wondered now how David was doing, and tried valiantly to mentally send good wishes his way. I hoped he was feeling strong and still running well. A group of several guys and I chatted as we left the aid station, all pumped up and excited for the last stretch. There seemed to be a lot of uphill, which seemed a bit early for The Big Evil Mt. Patterson, but I switched to powerhike mode on the inclines, and carried on with running whatever I could. A couple kms in, I asked someone who confirmed what I was suspecting: I was partway up Mt. Patterson. There was no tree cover now, just scrub bushes and tumbleweed.
A jolting pain in my adductor (inside of the quad) was the first indication of trouble. And suddenly I recognized that I was in big trouble. Muscle cramp. First the right leg, and then about 15 minutes later, the left leg started. It was so bad that I could not lift the leg to walk. I calmly started thinking thru what the problem might be, and came to the conclusion that it was likely an electrolyte issue. I’ve only experienced this once before, also in extreme heat, and based on that I knew I needed to act quickly. I chatted with the Guy From Spokane who was just ahead of me to keep morale boosted as I popped my last salt tab. Nothing. Randomly, I heard this voice in my head, another training buddy Sean, who had told me only 2 days before that he “ate dates for potassium.” And I remembered I had DATES in my pack! Chewing them was like chewing sawdust. My body was hardly producing saliva, and I needed to drink water in order to choke them down.
The momentary relief from the cramp meant I could carry on hiking, and we came to the stile. Basically, it was an evil 6 foot ladder that went up and over a barbed wire fence. The prospect of climbing up and over anything on tired and cramping legs was daunting, but it was the only way through. I made it over, and carried on. Patterson kept looming, and it felt like I was not making progress. The legs were cramping again, and now I could not lift my legs to take a step. “Relentless forward progress,” I reminded myself. “you got this. Stay strong.” The words of my marathon partner (who was not racing) ran through my mind. But it was not enough, and I recognized I was in serious trouble.
I began to logically think about DNF’ing (Do Not Finish…. aka bailing out). I could not walk. I could not run. My only other option was to try going backwards, so I did. I walked backwards up the enormous hill, relentless forward progress. I remembered the hard training runs. I imagined my other buddies running up this hill. And I reached for more dates, only to realize there were none left. And no more salt tabs. I had made a serious error at the last aid station- I had not grabbed those items from my drop bag. Too late now, I decided to do the best I could with what I had- which was pure mental toughness, and legs that were failing me. I tried changing my stride, and my footstrike, but nothing made it go away. Ironically, I discovered that stopping didn’t make it go away either- so decided that despite the pain of moving forwards, it hurt worse to stop. Gritting my teeth I decided to carry on, one effing step at a time. This was the moment of truth, the moment I had trained for and I decided that if I had to DNF, it was going to be as late in the course as I could be. I was not going down without a fight. Game ON.
Every step brought me one step closer to the finish line. As I saw the summit of Patterson, I got excited. I might have smiled. And then, horror of horrors, I saw the most awful sight…. the true summit of Patterson, still in the distance.
Shit. I was standing on a false summit. I fought back the tears, pulled out more strength than I knew I had, ignored the stabbing searing pain in my adductors, and carried on, determined to beat this brutal mountain.
And then, by some miracle, I arrived! I snapped a quick pic, and began to run down.
Unfortunately, running downhill requires being able to bend the knees and land softly- and my cramping muscles made it nearly impossible. Again I played with footstrike and stride, and discovered that running hurt less than walking. My shuffling gait caused me to stumble, and must have looked funny as the trail weaved between tumbleweed and hidden rocks.
I toepicked a rock and careened wildly down the mountain for about 20 seconds, completely out of control as I tried to decide the best side of the ridge to slide down on my face (I knew I could not land this one.) Miraculously, I was able to stay on my feet and regained control. I somehow made it down Mt. Patterson and found myself on flat ground. And SHADE.
The last couple kms of the race were a blur. I lost track of the distance, and could not seem to process how long it would take me to finish. My brain was no longer thinking clearly, despite my repeated attempts to estimate how much further I had left. My leg cramps settled a bit, only protesting when I climbed a hill. And then we came to a gentle uphill. I still had no idea how much longer there was to go, when a male runner passed me. He said, “hey- well done, runner! I’m not racing so don’t worry about me passing you.” I smiled and asked if he knew how much further to the finish line. “About 2 minutes, I think,” is what he said. I perked up and said “Hey- I can do that!!” Breaking into a run, the amazing runner guy said he’d run me up as far as he could before turning to his own trail. My speed increased as I heard cheering. He left me and wished me well, and as I rounded the corner, I saw PEOPLE! The Finish Line! I broke into what felt like a full sprint, smiling, and feeling victorious. Race director James Varner stood smiling in the chute, and high-fived me as expletives of joy burst out of my mouth. I was so happy. My friend Amanda appeared out of nowhere, and then took care of me, walking with me to cool down, and then making sure I had enough ice, and food and beverages after. 6 :01:38 was my official time, good enough for 3rd in my age group, and right about what I had expected for a finish time.
Time stopped for the remainder of the day. We pulled out blankets and lawn chairs, and listened to live bluegrass while waiting for our other friends to arrive. David arrived 27 minutes after I crossed the line, and I have to say, Rainshadow Running has figured out how to throw a great finish line party. We cheered, took pics, drank free beer and cider and ate free fresh pizza in the sun. I remember feeling amazing, and cared for, and happy. An epic day that will never be forgotten. I fell deeply in love with trail racing that day, and I cannot wait to do this all again. I’m proud to call myself an Ultra Marathoner. I’ve signed up for the Finalyson Arm 50K race in September, and look forward to racing again.