The view heading up Thompson. Photo credit: Justin Richards
“Honestly, I just really don’t want to do it.”
“I haven’t felt good in a month.”
“I’m just over running I think. I need a break.”
These were all the things I said leading up to Saturday’s Sun Mountain 50 Mile, the spectacular Rainshadow race held each May. Friends and loved ones were excited for me, but I didn’t really want to run and if I had to, I just wanted to get it done and get to my rest month. I hadn’t had a solid, happy long run since Grand Canyon- my ankles and calves seemed to have lingering maladies from the thrashing they took at Orcas 100, I’d been slacking on my core and leg strength in favor of playing in the sunshine every day and my lower back was starting to hurt on uphills and after long days on my feet at work, and my thighs seemed to have hardened into tree trunks, unyielding even to the mighty foam roller. I run because running makes me feel good, but for most of late April, early May, every run just left me feeling tired, uncoordinated, and generally blah.
I wanted to write off the race and take it easy, maybe run with some friends who would keep me laughing all day. However, the dark side of the semi-quick sword is the pressure to ALWAYS finish well whenever you run. As much as I try to ignore it.. the notion is there, and it’s a hard thought to have sitting in the back of your head leading up to a race you know you aren’t in top shape for.
Regardless, with so much support behind me, I couldn’t give up before trying so I toed the line, not sure what would happen, but fully expecting to suffer mightily. I tested a new aggressive start strategy which turned out was way too fast, and left me feeling nauseous and tapped out at mile 3. I recovered, lowered my heart rate by walking a bit, and started the climb up Thompson. This went okay, but I tried to jog some of the uphill sections I’d normally power hike and that’s when my back started to tighten. There were some beautiful sections along here- balsam root and lupine, views across the Methow valley, open and mossy pine forests. The first time downhill was a good cruise but I didn’t feel like I was gaining much ground on the people in front or behind me. The twists of the mountain bike trail* weren’t doing much for my back either. I got to Homestead and moved out quickly, despite all the friendly and supportive faces. I was looking forward to Black Bear trail, and even in the gray, it was about as fun as single-track can get- rolling, tight, fun, not too technical. Then the climb up to Sun Mountain Lodge. Beautiful, but I spent a lot of time moving on and off trail to let runners pass on their way down. I was disappointed in the switch to the out-and-back, because like I mentioned, Black Bear trail is the best, and having no idea how far the turn-around was mentally challenging. I was hurting, I was losing ground, and even though I was working as hard as I could, it didn’t seem to be getting me what I wanted.
The downhill into Patterson Lake aid station should have revived my spirits, but my ankles started to flare up, and I had flashbacks to their post-Orcas state, when I could hardly put weight on them. When I saw Justin, I started to cry. Everything was hurting, I was fighting, and I knew from the out-and-back that there were many ladies right behind me. It didn’t seem worth it. Luckily, the aid station volunteers were SO supportive, giving me tips on how to loosen up my back, reminding me how strong I was on mountains, and making me feel semi-powerful again. I got myself out of the aid station, and at some point, something Liz said before the race came back to me: “Just do your best and see what happens.”
So cliche, but so powerful in keeping me from totally breaking down. At some point, on that painful, slow climb up Patterson, trying to unlock my cramping back, I realized that I WAS doing my best. And with my body behaving the way it was, my best looked different than I wanted it to, but it was still my best in that moment. From then on, I just kept focusing on “what is the best I can race in this moment?” This little mantra was a constant reminder that I could only control my effort, and that let me relax and focus on doing what I could do with what I was being given (good weather, bad back, strong lungs). I enjoyed the downhill on Patterson, although much more gingerly than my normal full tear due to the sore ankles. I was surprised to find some smooth speed for the mile into Chickadee aid station (Mile 31), and was happy to see a few of the ladies who’d gone past me earlier fueling and changing and otherwise using up time.
I dropped my stuff fast, grabbed a sandwich, and figured I’d “get it while I got it” (another running mantra gem, from Rich White @ Angels Staircase 2013). I managed to stay in front of the next-fastest lady for the whole stretch along Patterson Lake, and figured I’d have a pretty hard time on the climb- my back wasn’t any worse, but it wasn’t good, and the gradual, runnable uphills seemed to strain it the worst. My biggest fear pre-race wasn’t so much suffering, but not being tough enough to push through it. Each time I asked “is this my best right now?” I was fighting a little battle, and each time I was winning. All these little victories (plus sun breaks and some friendly 100k folks) got me up to the top in pretty good mental and physical shape. I knew from there it was downhill, and mostly easier downhill. The ankles still hurt, but they were less painful after the initial steep drop off Thompson Ridge. I felt pretty confident that I could hold onto whatever place I was in just due to my downhill speed, but I still kept working the whole way down. I couldn’t go full throttle, but I gave it as much as gas as I had in me. When I hit mile 48 at Homestead aid station for the second time, the rain was softly falling and I was so so happy. There were 2 miles of “downhill” (James Varner downhill, which is to say a lot of flat and a few little climbs), and before I knew it, I was crossing the finish line, in 4th place for ladies** and just 1 minute off my time from 2014. (I didn’t have a watch, or maybe I would have found a minute in me somewhere earlier).
It generally seems that the faster you are, the more modest you have to be. Less celebration, less pride, make some self-deprecating comment about how bad you felt, etc. Since I’ve been “faster”, I’m not sure if I’ve ever finished and said, “I’m so proud of myself!”- the focus is always on how I should have been better. Even at Orcas I don’t remember feeling especially proud- I wanted to be faster than I was. But I was so damned proud of myself yesterday that I cried. I cried because I fought harder for this race than I think I ever have before, and I knew I’d done as well as I could on that day. Faced with C- physical game, I pulled out a strong mental game and managed to scrap together a decent finish.
All that said, I am still really looking forward to not racing again until Cascade Crest. The next 3 months will be focused first on healing, then on fun adventure runs, and lots of rest and relaxation. We’ll be prepping for and then undertaking the biggest travel adventure we’ve ever done, and I’ll get to run in some amazing spots around the US and world. This race, rather than being the crash to accompany my burnout like I expected, rekindled my love and motivation. Running isn’t always easy, but then there are the moments when the sun breaks through the clouds, the mountains are calling, and you can find something inside yourself to be proud of.
Congrats to all my fellow rockstar ladies and Team 7Hills teammates (Katlyn Gerbin, Keith Laverty, Jess Mullen, Jon Lumb and Jodee Adams-Moore all killed it!)
Thanks to Justin Richards for being the best husband ever, and taking great shots, to everyone at Team Rainshadow for organizing and putting on such good races, to Liz for the hugs and amusement and bed, to Mark for the beer, to Jim for the perfect pizza, and to Phil @ Seven Hills Running Shop for keeping me hooked up with such good gear! Also check out Oly Mountain Boys because they are really damn good.
Scott Kinabalu (Sorry beloved All Out Peaks, I needed light and fast, and your cute brother All Out Crush wasn’t available)
Seven Hills Running Shop Pearl Izumi tshirt
UD Women’s Jenny vest (RIP)
Black Diamond Z-Poles (carried only for Sun Mountain lodge and Patterson climbs)
Fueled by Tailwind (and Snickers and potato chips!)
*I would change this trail if I could- it seemed to be half built- not actually technical, just lots of debris and twisty.
**Not sure how I ended up in 4th- the girl who passed me climbing Thompson somehow ended up behind me again- I’m guessing maybe bathroom or aid station? Whatever, I’ll take it!
***Jenn Shelton was at Old Schoolhouse on Saturday night- very strange….