McKenzie River Trail Run. 50 miles. Actually 51 miles. Just over 80km. That’s crazy talk. Who does that? It’s hard to believe that less than 72 hours ago, I did it. I don’t know where I got it in my head to do a 50 miler. I think the thought of it sounded good but the reality of it never really sank in until it was really too late. My Year of the 50/50 was going to happen.
Doubts of whether I would make the 12 hour cut off entered my mind for several weeks and it wasn’t the typical taper mindset of doubting your training. I actually hadn’t trained enough for a number of reasons. I had probably trained more mileage-wise for the 50k’s that I had done, aside from the two 6+ hour runs. But, time was running out so I had to focus on everything else, like planning the trip!
- I watched the weather forecast like a hawk and it showed hot weather in and around race day, but postings on the Facebook group said that the heat shouldn’t be a problem since the trail was mostly covered.
- I created a spreadsheet of different paces from 11 min/mile (9:21 finish time) to 14 min/mile (11:54 finish time), at 30 sec/mile intervals so my crew could keep track of my progress, or lack thereof.
- I printed off all maps and information provided by the race. One really great thing about this race is that the aid stations are plentiful and spaced well.
Anthony and Tavis made the best support crew a gal could ask for. We set out on Thursday evening – 1 gal, 2 guys, and 2 dogs – and made our way to Olympia, roughly 4 hours away from Vancouver. The first night’s sleep was fairly disrupted with unsettled pooches but we managed to make our way to our cabin in Blue Water, Oregon the next day in time for a good dinner and a few last minute instructions and preparations for the big day. Given that I’d spectated and supported on ultras before, I knew the risks of spectator bonk so I had prepped a number of things to mitigate it as much as possible, with as much home baking and food as I could make.
2:45am – Alarm goes off.
4:30am – Head out the door the start line.
5:00am – Race starts. Headlamps and handlights are on!
The first hour was a conga line, due to the course being mainly single track. You run/walk in the dark with light only coming from your headlamp/handlight or from the person directly ahead of you or behind you. At only 2 miles in, I rolled my ankle – not awful but not great. It took me a while before my foot felt normal and I could plant my foot without pain. Also, because of the dry weather and the congestion of people, there were sections where the dust kicked up so much, we were almost blinded by it. We hit the first aid station at 6 miles and I didn’t need anything except a washroom – apparently, I hydrated a bit too well in the morning – but I was quickly told there was no washroom available so I proceeded to the next one. Somehow, because I didn’t need to stop at AS1, I ended up at the FRONT of the pack – bad move. One person was quick on my tail and I offered to let him pass but he declined saying that I was going at a great pace – another bad move. We chatted a bit and I found out that he wanted to finish in under 10 hours – uh oh. He took a bit of a tumble at one point but recovered and when we hit an open spot, I let him and 2 others pass me. Whew! Less pressure. Lesson here though is not to less yourself get too comfortable because at about 7 miles in, I stumbled and hit the ground. No face plant but a smashed knee nonetheless. Not too long after that I get to AS2 (9.3miles) where the guys were waiting for me. I dropped my headlamp, handlight, and arm warmers with them but kept the gloves as they saved me on my earlier fall. I then looked around for a washroom but to no avail. I decided to continue on and see if I could just wait until the next AS. A couple of miles in, I caved and ducked behind a bush. It wasn’t worth thinking about needing to pee for the next hour. MAN, was it a relief! I felt revived! So, off I went. I don’t know how many near falls I had but it wasn’t great. The trail, however, was beautiful and breathtaking, and very runnable, which proved to be both a good and bad thing – good that you can run forever, but bad because you end up running forever without hills to give you walk breaks. For you diehard road runners out there, walking is perfectly acceptable .. and welcomed, especially when you’ve got 50 miles of terrain to cover! 🙂
Along this stretch, there was a section about 2-3kms where lava rock (or some type of porous sharp rock) was interspersed amongst the trail. Running this section was extremely difficult with the risk of turning ankles so it was safer to walk when you could. Unfortunately, this was also tough on the feet to walk on.
AS3 and AS4 were a bit of blur – I started off running with a European gentleman for a few minutes and I couldn’t quite understand what he was asking me. He kept asking if I’ve been the end or if I was the end – was he asking me if I was last? Before I had a chance to check, he took off. Was I really last??? My breathing also got very laboured and what shouldn’t be that difficult became extremely taxing. I remember seeing the first 50km runners coming the other way at about 3:50 into the run (the course was shared with the 50km route). There were a number of things I found about the route:
- At times, I got lost in natural beauty of the trail, with the sun peeking through the trees and the weather turning a bit warmer.
- It was also those times I would stumble over a rock or root and have a near fall.
- At one point, I was thinking that it must be close to noon because of the warmth. Then I checked my watch and realized it was about 9:30am.
- The course, albeit gorgeous, was lacking in markings and more than once, I found myself stopped, unsure which way to go. Luckily, I picked the right way or someone came by to save me before I made the wrong decision.
I passed through AS4 and the guys filled up my pack with water and replenished my fuel. I ate a few potatoes that I made from home – home made and training tested! Gels and chews are great but my stomach needed something other than sugar, especially for that length of time.
I continued the trek to AS5, marking the halfway point and the highest point of the race. This section, albeit the toughest for me mentally, was visually stunning. We ran through a lava field that overlooked Clear Lake. The lava wasn’t so fun to run on but it was spectacular. When I finally hit AS5, I was so happy. They took my pack to refill more water. And then they told me to run down the trail for a short out-and-back to the halfway point while they filled my water. I thought they were joking. They were not. Cruel and unusual punishment! Thankfully, it was only 100 yards and the volunteers on the course and at the aid stations always breathed new life into me with their encouragement and enthusiasm so back I came and there was my pack waiting for me. Pack slapped back on and back along the trail I went. At least I knew it was all downhill from here, kind of. To be honest, my energy was rapidly waning. At the halfway point, I started to drink the pop they had and the water, plus ate some watermelon, and a few of my potatoes. I just needed something to help me continue and didn’t know how the rest of the day would go especially since I was only halfway. But I had to. I knew my pace was getting slower, although the guys never let on that it was. I just needed to get to the next AS, where I knew Tav was waiting for me – my pacer for the last 20 miles.
I was going back and forth with one runner – he was pulling ahead on the uphills and I was closing the gap on the downhills. Then I looked at his footwear. He was wearing leather sandals, like the ones they talked about in Born to Run. Crazy! Realizing that there was going to be more downhill than up, he let me pass. Within 5 minutes, someone was on my heels! So I picked it up. I was wondering why that last runner let me pass when he was just going to run up right behind me. We chatted a bit and he said not to rush because he wasn’t in the race and that he would pass when he found a good spot. So I eased up a bit but we were on MY terrain – my favourite type of trail .. single track, a bit rocky, a bit rooty, and ALLLLL downhill. I managed to forget all about the pain in my feet. When he finally passed me, it turned out he was a different person altogether. But using that energy, I flew into AS6 (31.1 miles). I grabbed more food, another pop, cup of water and reloaded my pockets with fuel. Oh, and my pacer.
So, the last 20 miles. It was killer. My feet felt like someone smashed them with a sledgehammer after standing all day at a tradeshow. Walking hurt so much, but running was tiring me out. Tav was literally a godsend – I could not have finished in the time I did without him. He pushed me to dig a bit deeper when I didn’t want to. He encouraged me when I had the energy. He was comic relief. He was company. What I realized was that no one really talked to me during the race, which was odd as ultrarunners tend to be chatty. So, rather than have the distraction of people on the course, I was stuck in my head and my aching body for the first 31 miles. To have someone there, especially someone familiar, made a world of difference. It became a game to not let certain people pass, to do a “silent pass” which is essentially creeping up on people and blowing pass them, chicking the guys which is basically when a girl passes a guy .. and then I had to make sure I didn’t get dick’d which was my term when a dude passed me! I kept asking him how much longer to the next aid station – there was only 3 left: 14.4 miles to go, 9.3 miles to go, and 6 miles to go. It seemed we had a routine: I would get a good rhythm of running and then lose steam and then we’d walk, and then I’d whine about my feet being broken. Every aid station was like a vision from heaven. The volunteers were cheery and nice – and they were so kind to tell me how fresh I looked and they couldn’t believe I was doing 50 miles because of how good I looked. Let me tell you .. it’s WAAAAAAY better than a sign in a marathon that says “You’re almost there” or “Looking good”. In person flattery gets you EVERYWHERE.
When we hit the last aid station at 6 miles to go, Tav said it’s just another 70 minutes to go. I said “Impossible!” Just over 11 min/mile was like telling me to run a 5 min/mile. So he said to just do what I could. Again, I kept asking him how much further and that’s when he stopped telling me. He would only tell me what the clock time was. Damnit. I started to wonder if I could do it in under 11 hours. It was 2:44 apparently when I got into the last aid station. That means, I really had to finish 6 miles in 76 minutes – a bit less because that doesn’t include the time I spent IN the aid station. So I started running .. and running .. and running – as much as I could and taking deep breaths. I took some walk breaks but I tried to keep them short. I didn’t want to say out loud that I was going to try for under 11 hours because I didn’t want to fail and it would be very close. Somewhere along the way, Tav fell a bit behind because he rolled his ankle but he kept telling me to go ahead. We finally hit a clearing where we had to cross a road and some volunteers were there to offer water. I saw two volunteers that were on the trail earlier and asked them how much further and they said a mile and a half.
Woooohoooo!! Tav was right there and I asked him what time it was. It took him a few minutes – technical difficulties – and then he said it was 3:34. That’s 26 minutes to finish 1.5 miles. I can do that. I CAN do that. I found myself bargaining with myself in my head, saying that I could slow down and still finish in 10:58 but then I felt it wasn’t enough. So I continued on. Over and over, I would hear Tav yelling at me saying that I was doing awesome and to keep going so I kept going. I looked through the trees and convinced myself that I could see a parking lot, a car, the finish line, and then quickly realize it was just the river. Again. Then I hit a hill and stopped to walk. I looked up and there were people. Flagging. And I yelled up, “Is this it? It better be it!” So I dug deep and ran up the hill and it was it. I was done. Anthony was waiting for me with two VERY excited puppies. And I was thrilled. My official time: 10:47:23, 36th overall, 6th woman. There were initially 94 registrants and roughly 29 women.
The race was great, the volunteers were amazing, the course was beautiful, and i am forever indebted to my support crew.