Whatcom County had been blitzed by storms for over a week, and the precipitation gods were still not done with us on the morning of the Chuckanut 50K. Ultra runners don’t mind rain and mud, I hear. If I were someone who could finish a 50K before lunchtime, I might not mind it, either. But as Bill drove me to the start of the race, I had to check my annoyance about the weather. If I got started complaining before I even began the run, I wouldn’t make it very far. One thing I’d promised myself about this race was that I would stay calm. The weeks leading up to it had been fraught with hand-wringing and sleepless nights as I worried about details I couldn’t control. I’d even emailed the race director, Krissy Moehl, to ask if she thought they would have enough food at the aid stations for back-of-the-packers. Her answer: If you were planning to finish within the 8-hour time limit, you would be fine. I thought I would be fine, but just in case I turned out to be slower than expected, Bill agreed to meet me at the last aid station with sustenance. With this precaution in place, I breathed a little easier… until I saw the dark clouds overhead on Saturday.
I get a pretty constant stream of questions from non-runner friends about why I would sign up for an ultra. “It was hard enough to turn yourself into a marathoner,” they remind me. “Maybe,” they say gently, “you’ve proved your point. What do you have to gain from a 50K?” As I observed the dark, gray, solid sky while I waited to use the toilet once more (the last toilet I would see for a long, long time), I can’t say I had much of an answer to this question. All I know is that running is about stretching myself and growing as a person, and standing in the rain watching the first wave of runners start their journey at 8:00, knowing they would be finished before I’d made it halfway, I already felt stretched.
At 8:20, the third wave–the back-of-the-packers–were given the go-ahead. The first part of the Chuckanut 50K along the Interurban Trail was very familiar to me. More Saturdays than I can say, I’ve traversed this section of the route; I even direct a race that follows this course (the Wind Horse Run for Education). It was only when I had to turn up onto the Fragrance Lake Trail that I was in less familiar (although not totally unknown) territory. On a sunny day, the trail up to Fragrance Lake would be a refreshing little hike with the reward of a gorgeous hidden lake to linger beside. Saturday it was just the first big, muddy hill of many more to come.
As I began to navigate the switchbacks, the rain turned to snow–thick, heavy flakes that melted instantly on the skin. I’d started the race with a fellow who told me he was going to turn around at the first sight of snow, no matter how far he’d gone. Here, only about six miles into the race, when the white stuff came down, my amigo was true to his promise. I watched from above as he stopped at the switchback just below me, turned around and headed back down the hill. I waved to him and pressed on just as a clump of snow shook loose from a high branch and fell inside my raincoat collar and down my neck. There was no time to indulge in the misery of the icy trickles making their way down my shoulder; I had to make time here at the beginning of the race because I knew once I got into the wooded 7-mile loop starting on the ridge a little later on, it could be slow-going. In training, Bill and I had completed every section of the route and calculated what my average pace would have to be for each if I wanted to finish in 8 hours.
A little more than an hour after the snow started, right on schedule, Bill was waiting at the next aid station at the base of the trail on Cleator Road. He walked several hundred yards with me, but not far enough to see that the higher up you went on this 3-mile winding hill, the more packed, icy snow was on the ground. Nearly 600 pairs of shoes had trampled the slush into a slippery mess. I trekked up with three other runners, Debbie (from Friday Harbor), Linda, and a man whose name I never caught. I was grateful for the company however short-lived it might be. Linda would drop out at the next aid station just before the rest of us turned onto the Chuckanut Ridge Trail. A marathoner bound for Boston in a couple of weeks, she dared not risk hurting herself in the river of mud that was before us.
Debbie and I would leapfrog each other on and off until Chinscraper, which lay about seven miles ahead. Most of that time, we wouldn’t be able to see one another, but it would be a comfort to know someone else was out there. Early on in the woods, before the mud was shin deep, Debbie came up behind me as I was pulling myself over a large boulder with the help of an exposed tree root, and asked if I knew how far we’d gone. I looked at my Garmin. We were halfway–15 miles behind us and 15 miles to go! This was a good omen, I thought. If I’d made it half way and still felt strong, I had a chance of making my 8-hour deadline.
But shortly after my brief conversation with Debbie, my legs began cramping. She ran ahead as I stopped to stretch. My left quad and right calf, unused to so much slipping and climbing, were angry. I was alone on the trail and, remembering Anne Lamott’s affectionate conversations with her thighs (which she calls “the aunties”), I spoke aloud to my legs, my only vehicles out of the forest. “Come on babies, you can do this. Just relax. We’ll get there.” And my dear, faithful limbs relaxed–for the time being.
How interminable and lonely that seven-mile loop felt! The mud was thick enough that I was never sure when I set my foot down whether I would hit solid ground, a rock, or a sink hole. On the descents, the mud trickled downhill in a stream. Keeping my eyes on the ground, I watched not only the placement of each footfall, but also the way the cold, wet mud seeped into the fabric on the top of my shoes. I wish I could say I was in a state of mind to reflect on how my laborious pace and tenuous stride might translate into a metaphor for my life outside of these woods, but there was no space in my brain for anything other than trying not to fall. When it began to hail, I laughed aloud and shouted, “Of course! Why not?”
When the next aid station finally came into view (more than two hours since Linda had dropped out), it was like an oasis in the desert: civilization, complete with electrolytes and potato chips. I was so grateful to see human beings–but these human beings had bad news for me.
“You’ve got an hour to get to the last aid station before it closes,” one of the volunteers announced.
“What do I need to do between now and then?” I asked.
“Four miles. One up and three down,” was the reply.
“Okay. What happens if I don’t make it?”
“They’ll give you a ride back. Better get a move on.”
This must have been around mile 21 when I received the news that I needed to pick up my pace. And directly in front of me was Chinscraper, a mile of steep switchbacks and one almost vertical smooth dirt hill, which would certainly be nothing but mud. By this point, my GPS had stopped working, but as soon as I left the volunteers, I knew I wasn’t going to get to the next aid station in an hour. Every few steps my left quad and right calf acted up. I simply had to stop and stretch, or at the very least let the pain pass.
As I grappled with Chinscraper, I asked myself what I was going to do when I finally reached the next station. I could quit if I needed/wanted to. I would have run the equivalent of a marathon distance. Maybe I’m just not cut out for more than 26 miles, I thought to myself. But my friend, Julie, was waiting for me there to help me run the last six miles. And Bill was there with food and dry clothes, ready to cheer me onward. My other friend, Stephanie, was stationed at the end of Arroyo Park to take my picture if I ever got that far. Would I let them all down if I quit?
On the other hand, maybe it would be easier for everyone if I just gave up and we could all go get a beer. The finish line would be disassembled by now anyhow. Even the awards ceremony would be starting before too long. I have to admit, the chorus in my head asked again what there was to prove here–and I couldn’t come up with an answer.
But I’d come so far I knew I had to finish, even if my few faithful friends and I were the only ones who knew I’d done it.
So up, up I inched, taking a few steps up the worst of the muddy rise and then sliding backwards in the mud just as far. I did it again. And again. Until I finally conquered the mud and the worst of the ascent.
Out of the woods at last! Now all that was left was to descend three miles to the aid station in the Clayton Beach parking lot and then somehow propel myself forward for six more miles after that to the finish line, located at Fairhaven Park. Although I ran the whole of the three miles down to Clayton Beach, I reached it well after it was supposed to have closed. As I arrived, I blessed the volunteers who’d stayed just a little longer than they were required to and then greeted my little “team.” Bill took my dirty gloves and gave me a fresh pair and delivered a bag of greasy French fries to stave off hunger as we were now coming into the dinner hour. Then Julie took me in hand for the final miles, speaking to me as a mother might speak to a child just learning to ride a bicycle. “Just from here to that tree. There you go. You can do it.”
At 5:39pm, I crossed the finish line. Dear Krissy Moehl, with so much to do as a race director closing up an event, was standing by to record my time and gift me with my prize: a black beanie (which Bill later tried to steal, claiming he earned it more than I did even though it’s the only tangible proof I have that I completed the race). I hugged everyone and cried and stretched and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Finishing time: 9:19:40! I’m proud to say that mine is the last recorded.
The next day I stayed in bed. Bill says I “seemed confused” all day, which I probably was. Every muscle ached; my nose was badly chafed from all the blowing and wiping with soiled gloves; and I’d developed a mysterious soreness on the roof of my mouth (potato chip burn?) and couldn’t eat solids for two days. As I recover, I’m still mining the psychic riches of this experience. What did I learn about myself? Or my life? There’s something about loneliness, support from friends, perseverance, patience, joy in the midst of the mess that is life…. I’ll tell you as the insights crystallize.
In the mean time, the one thing I know is that it took a small village to get me to the finish line. Thank you to all who were there for me that day! (And Bill, go ahead and keep the beanie. You deserve it, my friend.)
First two pictures by Bill Pech, remaining photographs taken by Stephanie Bender of A Mere Glance Photograph.