Sunday, July 27, 2008

Race Report: Mount Hood Pacific Crest Trail Ultramarathon


Around mile 14 in yesterday's ultra I thought about taking the 50K option.

Just two more miles to the turnaround (instead of 11) … and then a mere 15 or so miles to the finish (instead of 25 more).… Hey, 50K is pretty far, nothing to be embarrassed about. And coming just five weeks after Ironman, being slightly less ambitious is understandable…. Plus, these new shoes—the right one is digging a hole high up in my heel. That could get real ugly if I'm not careful.

Individually, these sounded to me like lame rationalizations. But add them all up and the result, well ... that sounded lame, too.

As much as I tried to push it away, the real reasons I might choose 50 kilometers over 50 miles kept coming back into my consciousness: It wouldn't take as long or hurt as much, during the race or a day or two later. It was the easy way out.

Well. I'm certainly not a guy who has not been seduced by the easy way out. In fact, sometimes I think I've built my life with the very concept as the foundation. Yet on race day, the stakes are so grave, the ramifications so stark! Because, after all, for whom do I run? A few scattered, blessed souls take an interest in my tales of middle-aged, age-group floundering, but really, this is all for me. The beauty of that is I get to feel stupidly good about myself with each challenge taken on; the flip side is that failure—and nothing would have defined failure better than the choice I was considering making around mile 14 yesterday—looms as worse than death itself.

So I ran the 50 miles. Heroic! Well, not really. It turned out there was no 50K option offered at the race this year. I didn't realize this until afterward—on the course, I just figured I somehow spaced the turnaround. Still; they ought to use this little anecdote in dictionaries to illustrate the term "moot point."

* * *

These long races hurt. OK, maybe they don't hurt some of the runners. After yesterday's race, I talked to one guy who's planning to do 13 marathon-or-longer races in 12 weeks. I overheard another guy saying he'd fill up a little bit of his remaining free time on the weekend by doing a 50K today. Me, I'm mostly cutting a path between the couch and fridge today.


I found this 50-miler way more challenging than last month's Ironman. It was an out-and-back from the Clackamas Lake Ranger Station south of Mount Hood, elevation 3,200 feet or so, up to the Timberline Lodge around 6,000 feet. The track was often dusty and a minefield of rocks and tree roots just waiting to send you flying forward onto your nose. Around mile 38 I announced to a fellow runner, "Eight near-falls, but no falls!" Within a mile or two, as I looked back to adjust a bottle on my belt, I kicked some evil rock or root and down I went. No big deal—it happened on some pretty soft ground, I landed and rolled it very deftly (if I do say so myself) and had only a few scratches to show for it.

Hazards aside, the most outstanding feature of the trail was the climb through the sand on Mount Hood. This is worth talking about not only because it's different and tough, but because it's on Mount Hood. OK, I've only lived here for a little over a year, so I have no idea what I'm talking about. Yet I'm prepared to declare that Hood makes Portland. It's not that without its majestic presence—classic volcano shape, bald cone capped by snow year round—Portland would be, you know, Eugene. But Hood takes Portland over the top. Sure, you can see other mountains from town, most notably Mount St. Helens. And that's an extraordinary mountain, no doubt. But it's not as visible as Hood—the sight lines aren't as good and the peak is often shrouded in its own weather—and, besides, it's in Washington, so whatever.

We had gone up quite a bit, and down some, too, through the forest to reach the last aid station preceding the climb up the mountain. Along the way, every mile or so brought something new and dazzling to ogle. We passed a meadow dotted with ground fog, then came views of Timothy Lake, which is big, and then Little Crater Lake, which is, yep, little. We reached Little Crater Lake by running for a quarter mile along wood planks and boardwalks over marsh and streams. (On the return portion of the run, some college-age kids were on the platforms alongside the lake, getting in and out of the water. I asked how it was and one said, "Great!" and another said, "Cold!" Then I let out a big Accelerade-induced belch and everyone laughed.)



My first unobstructed view of Mount Hood came around Mile 15, when we found ourselves on a ridge that opened up to the north. There was the mountain. I felt a rush of excitement and a tremble of fear. Four miles later we were climbing the thing. First we went through a forested stretch that featured patches of snow to step across and fallen trees to skip over. Then we got above tree line and finally onto the sandy portion of the day's program.


It was sandy and pretty steep. Slogging through the stuff—imagine going up a beach dune for a mile—would have been really hellish were it not for the views, including a startling waterfall at one point off to the right, and the distractions of running with company. I hooked up on the climb with three other runners, including one gabby—in a good way—woman. At one point a guy coming down said, "All right, almost there." Gabby Gal shouted back, "Don't say that! Tell me I look great even if I look like crap, but don't tell me I'm almost there!" Indeed, on this particular stretch "almost there" was an especially poor sort of encouragement. The Timberline Lodge was visible directly off to our left and not much higher up the mountain if at all—but it wasn't that close. We needed to go farther up, swing in the opposite direction of the lodge, then come back around and down to the destination.


I hit the Timberline aid station—halfway point, 25.0 miles—around 4:55 into the race, precisely on pace for a 9:45 run, according to the pace calculator I'd downloaded from the race website. This calculator was pretty cool: A guy who'd run the race several times did an Excel program based on his times at each of the race's ten legs from the start, to the five aid stations on the way out, back through the four aid stations on the return, and then to the finish. You could enter your goal finish time and the calculator would spit out your splits for each leg of the race. I didn't feel bound to the chart, but it did help motivate me.

I had fallen off the pace by two minutes to the first aid station (mile 6.1) and was still a couple of minutes behind until I caught up at Timberline. Then I gave back my gains by lingering too long atop the hill. Generally, I spent at least a couple of minutes at the nine aid stations. Maybe some of the time was wasted, but I never felt like I was lollygagging. I'd take two or three good bites of boiled potato and grab a handful of chips or some other salty thing. I'd refill my handheld bottle with water and top my concentrated Accelerade and/or Hammer Gel bottles with water or reload them from one of my drop bags, which were left at three stations, meaning they were accessible six times. (I also had three Mojo bars in the drop bags, and ate two of them.)

The Pace Chart
Station   Mile  Time
Start            0        0:00
LCrater     6.1      1:02
Road 58     9.3     1:41
Hwy 26    14.5     2:31
Hwy 35    19.1     3:29
TLodge    25.0     4:55
Hwy 35    30.9     5:53
Hwy 26    35.5     6:52
Road 58   40.7    7:55
LCrater    43.9     8:32
Finish      50.0     9:45


* * *

The run back to the finish from Timberline started out pretty slow, as I cautiously made my way down the hill, through the sand, snow patches and fallen trees. Then a guy passed me really trucking, so I picked it up a bit to stay with him. Oddly, he soon stopped and began walking on a flat. I passed him, and he took off running after me. Hearing his footsteps helped me stay strong for the next three miles through the forest into the aid station (19.1 miles before, now 30.9).

At this point, every joint south of my belly button was aching, but my muscle endurance felt pretty good. With almost 20 more miles to run, I didn't want to blow up, but I did begin to wonder if I might ratchet up the effort just a little to get back on that 9:45 pace, which I still trailed by three or four minutes.

First, though, we had a mile and a half of climbing, amounting to about 500 feet elevation gain. I power-walked the climb, as I had all the extended climbs throughout the day. That technique is nearly as fast as running and seems to require far less effort. The only thing I don't like about walking is that late in a race, when I've gotten to the top of a climb, getting back into running mode can be challenging. But with just a couple of exceptions, the next 12 miles would be downhill or flat and it didn't take me too long to get into a groove. I was probably running 10-minute miles or better for long stretches, a sturdy pace for me late in a 50-mile race. I was helped along by some attention-diverting conversation with The Guy in the Green Shirt. He was in our group on the sandy portion of Mount Hood, and here he led me awhile, then me him, and along the way I learned his name was Mo.


I arrived at the last aid station, 6.1 miles from the finish, with my race clock showing 8 hours and 30 minutes. I did my refueling thing and got my bottles back on my belt. Then, as I was about to turn and head out, it occurred to me that I really did not want to run anymore. I'd spent the past 12 miles putting out a little extra effort, knowing that once I got to the last aid station, well, then I'd be home free. Problem was, subconsciously, I think, I'd confused home free with done. They are not the same thing.

I headed out of the aid station dreading what was ahead. OK, just walk for a little bit and get your head back on straight. At least keep moving forward. After 100 yards or so, Mo passed me on his way out of the aid station. He was running. "I'm out of gas," I told him. "Nah, you got a lot left, you're doing great, you'll catch me," he said. That was enough to get me running again. Sort of.

The final segment—6.1 miles, remember—was mostly flat, a few rollers here and there, a tiny elevation gain overall. The challenge as far as terrain went was that this was the dustiest, rockiest, most root-strewn portion of the course. Plus, on the way out early in the morning, with the sun barely up, it was entirely shaded. Now there were significant stretches in the sun. It was kind of miserable, but I never doubted I'd get through it OK. It was manageable misery and there was just the slightest bit of melancholy creeping into the emotional mix, as well—after all, soon, another experience anticipated would be an experience completed, filed away, one more memory left to suffer the ravages of time.

Mo gradually pulled away from me and after a few miles, was out of view. Farther along, because we were close to Timothy Lake and the campgrounds and trailheads, there were quite a few hikers on the trail. Off in the distance ahead I heard an old hiker dude say to a couple of runners, "There's a Dairy Queen just a little bit ahead." When I rounded the bend, the old dude used the same line on me. I thought about telling him to stick it up his rear end, but instead said, "They've got, what's it called, a frosty there?"

"Blizzard," he replied.

"Blizzard, yes, very good," I smiled. "I'll get me one of those."

By now I was starting to wonder when the hell I'd get to the road, which would mean I was less than a half-mile from the finish. Soon I found myself behind two runners who were mostly walking, even on flat ground, so I gave it the "on the left" call to pass. The guy in the back scooted aside and said, "Great job." The other guy just stayed right in the middle of the trail. Didn't give an inch. I was tempted to mutter, "Asshole," but instead said, "You know, there's a Dairy Queen up ahead." No reply.

It took me just over an hour and 13 minutes to run the last 6.1 miles. That's 12-minute miles, which is not a bad overall pace for an ultra, but is amazingly slow given I actually ran the entire segment. Weirdly impressive, if you ask me.

I forgot to stop my watch right when it was over, but I'm thinking I finished in 9:47. That's four minutes slower than Autumn Leaves, but in degree of difficulty I'd say PCT is at least a half-hour tougher. So the time was just fine and as always I was relieved to be done.

Crossing the line, I got the traditional hug from Olga, who offered me a choice of a white running cap or a black one. I took white. I found shade. I drank some lemon-limey soda thing, or half of it, until my stomach said enough. I got a burger and ate half of it, until my stomach said enough. I had half of a beer … well, you know the drill. I sat a bit. Beginning to feel a little better, I headed to my car to get out of my sweaty, dusty, Accelerade- and gel-splattered shirt, shorts, socks and shoes. I used a bottle of water to wet a towel and wipe off about 10 percent of the grime, which felt like a gigantic improvement, then put clean clothes on. Then I remembered the chocolate milk.

My buddy Dan had me drink a chocolate milk after Ironman. The stuff is said to be the perfect recovery drink, offering carbs and protein in a proportion ideally suited for uptake by your muscles. And here's the really great thing about yesterday's chocolate milk: I had frozen it overnight in the hope it would stay cold while in an insulated bag in the car all day. And it had stayed cold. In fact, it was, as I grasped it in my filthy hand, in an absolutely perfect state of slushy goodness. It was a like a light milk shake. It was cold and chocolaty and icy. It was perfect. Made the 50 miles of running entirely worth it, actually.

Thanks, as always, to all the great people who helped make this race possible. Your generosity of time and spirit is humbling.

Pictures with this post courtesy the PCT 50 website.

UPDATE: Results are in.
Time: 9 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds
Pace: 11:45/mile
46 out of 125 starters overall
42/106 men
9/29 men 40+

3 comments:

Dan Brekke said...

Wow. Great run. Great story. And I'm glad the chocolate milk worked out so perfectly!

olga said...

Pete, awesome write-up! Congrats on "choosing" a 50 miler:) Come again, hug is garanteed!

Sexy Crack Whore said...

Holy crap! That's MASSIVE!