“Uuuuuhhhhhhh, what did we sign ourselves up for?”
The drive up Sawmill Run quickly replaced the sense of awe and beauty with one much more connected to panic and survival. We had some sense of the distance. We’d both run 30, and we could at least relate the numbers. 30, and another 20 would get us 50. We knew going in, that that was far. But there wasn’t a similar way to relate to the course. Not until that drive up. We’d both been on trails. Even what we thought were technical trails. This looked worse. And the drive up to the race headquarters, at 4,000 ft., from 2,400 ft. took forever in a car. The race itself would range from 2,400 ft. to 4,800 ft. But we were here, and the race would start in a little over 12 hours, and we would be going with it.
We spent Friday night just taking everything in. The race was a three-day trilogy. Day 1 (Friday) was a 50k, followed by a 50 miler and half marathon, on Saturday and Sunday. There was also the option to sign up for any combination of those days, including just one individual race, which we were doing. We gained a tiny sense of comfort, and a huge sense of respect knowing that a lot of the runners we would be running with tomorrow were also out on the trails for 31 miles on Friday.
We arrived at the race headquarters with enough time to check in, chat with a few finishers of the 50k, set up our tents and get in a very short run before heading to the pre-race dinner. Dinner was a very tasty spread of Thai noodles and beef with some salads and cookies. Very very good flavor, but possibly a little questionable for some of the ingredients with a 50 mile race the next day! Dinner was followed by some recognition of the top performers from the 50k. It was awesome to see the faces of the people who could just fly on those mountain trails. The top runners had averaged a pace of 9:00 per mile, which sounded fast on its own, but would seem super-human the next day once we really saw what the trails looked like. After some announcements for the race the next morning, we all left the meeting, got things ready for the morning, and went to bed.
The race start was scheduled for 6am, and it would be dark for the first hour or so. That was okay until I couldn’t find my headlamp, and took 10 or 15 minutes of searching before the race. By the time I found it, there was only 5 minutes until race time. We rushed down to the start. I dropped off the drop bags and found Michelle again with less than a minute to spare. Dan, one of the RDs, wasted no time with the start and we were off at 6am sharp. We went straight up a hillside and out to the main road we came in on the day before. With the headlamps, we could clearly see how fast the front runners took off, and it was like they were on a flat, smooth road.
The road we were actually running on was anything but flat and smooth. Rocks, ruts, dips and washouts here and there. Definitely runnable, but we could tell we were in for a day of watching every step along the way. It was chilly, but within a half mile, we both knew we were overdressed. A few other runners said the same thing. Somewhere around a mile, we turned off the road for a sharp right turn. We got a good laugh at the runners who had missed the turn, and were making their way back toward us. “Don’t follow us! We’re getting our wrong turns out of the way early!”
After the road, we ran through a thick dewy and grassy field for a short time. Then started heading up toward Spruce Knob. It was at about 7 miles into the race. It was also the first aid station, and the highest elevation point on the course…at 4,800 ft. As the course pitched upward, a racer in front of us went into a steady walk. We fell right in behind him and followed. He called out some muddy sections, and despite his efforts, I still had a shoe sucked off my foot. Looking down at a mostly submerged shoe through the middle of a headlamp beam was a funny sight. I yanked it free, shoved my foot back in, and we were off again. Somewhere probably around halfway up to the knob, the racer we were following stepped aside so we could come through. We laughed and said we were doing fine following behind him, but I took the lead and also the responsibility of finding the reflective ribbons that were our guide. I found quickly that when we passed a marker ribbon, it was rare to see the next one right away. Usually 20 or 30 seconds would go by, often more time, until we would see the next ribbon. It was mildly unsettling, but after a while, it started to become more comfortable.
We did a fast walk up all the steepest parts of the first climb, and it was easy to just stay with that. I got a good laugh at one point when Michelle said, “We seem to be doing a lot of walking.” And I thought…oh…I need to pay attention! This part isn’t too steep to run! So we did. I remember being amazed at how fast time was going by. The first half hour went by in a blink. I was drinking and taking in calories. The plan for me was gel blasts every ten minutes or so, and gu’s every 30 to 40 minutes. I checked with Michelle to see if she was eating too, but her stomach seemed to be the last thing to want to wake up for her, and she couldn’t eat right away.
Near the top of the climb, we caught Kip, a first time 50 miler like us, who we would spend a lot of the day with. We chatted with him while we made our way up. The last part of the climb was on a paved road. We’re both very comfortable on the road, and as we went, we separated from Kip. We only thought a little about the pace, and were much more focused on the scenery around us. It was beautiful. It followed a high ridge and the mountains to our left rolled off as far as we could see. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it was close enough that we could see the colors of the trees, and thick mist pools in the valleys between the ridges. It was the kind of sight where you just wanted to take a snapshot with your mind, close your eyes, and hope it imprints into your memory forever.
The road got sneaky on us, and pitched a little more upward as we went, and it was getting quite steep by time we reached the peak of Spruce Knob. We were just over an hour in. The map said it was 6.9 to the first station, but that seemed a little short for how quickly we covered it. We were at a little over 4,800, and it had actually gone by pretty quickly. Spruce Knob was the first aid station. It was also a drop off point for our headlamps and any clothes we wanted to ditch. We left our lamps, running pants and I left my hat (which I’d been carrying in my hand after the first 10 minutes).
We left the aid station and missed our first turn. No big deal that time…we only went about 50 yards off course. We got back on the course, and immediately returned to the trail for the descent. This was the rockiest part of the course. There was nowhere to run, but on rocks. It was beautiful too. It was hard to take everything in, and find your footing at the same time, but we did our best. We went through sections that were lined with pines, to other sections that were more meadowy…all beautiful, and all very rocky.
It was 9 miles to the next aid station. The details of it all kind of blend together. Once we were off the knob, we went into deeper sections of forest. The stuff that would repeat itself over and over for the rest of the day. Tough footing…long, steep climbs, and we started to get into some areas that were really affected by the recent storm that came through. Lots of downed trees. We followed one ridge for a while that was utterly defeating. It was probably 11 or so miles into the race, and stretched for 2 or 3 miles. The ridge was a steady uphill that was overwhelmed by storm runoff and fallen trees. On a good day, the grade was shallow enough, that it was very runnable. Today, 15 steps of running in a row was a good stretch. Mud, trees and rocks combined to make it physically miserable and mentally defeating. We were probably losing 5 minutes per mile compared to a good day on this section. And working hard to even do that. And it was still early. We just kept asking, “It has to get better, right?”
It took close to an hour before we turned off the ridge, and headed back into the thicker forest. There were lots of technical downhills that more experienced trail runners could have run pretty easily. We did run most of it, but tentatively. It was nice to be mostly running. The woods opened into a meadow, and the trail snaked through it. Again we had beautiful views of the rolling mountains in the distance. After a long time of descending, we reached the second aid station.
There were two awesome workers there who took care of topping off our fluids and giving us some food. They had cheese quesadillas, soup, pringles, cookies, gu’s, s-caps, water and Heed (yuck)…and a bunch of other stuff. I asked about cutoff, and they said, “You have nothing to worry about with that! You guys are way ahead of cutoff. You’re probably right in the middle of the field.” As we were there, Kip caught back up to us. The workers gave us some quick directions on what was ahead. “You’ll follow the creek for a couple of miles, then turn and head uphill.” Simple enough, we thought. Michelle and I left together, and followed the creek.
The forest was offering more pretty views of small waterfalls, huge rocks and high ridges. We just took it in, and followed the trail. Until it seemed like there wasn’t really a trail anymore. The path got thinner (was this even a path?) and the small trees on each side had branches that hung very low. We started having to climb through them on what seemed like the trail. When I hit a spider web, it became pretty obvious that we’d missed something somewhere. The directions had seemed simple enough. Follow the creek for a couple of miles, then turn up the mountainside. We definitely hadn’t gone much more than one mile, and we’d been looking for the turn. The path we followed gradually went upward and away from the creek, so we picked our way through the brush and down to the creek. Definitely no trail. How did we miss the turn? We decided to make our way back to where we knew we were on the trail. Along the way, we found Kip. He was lost too, and doing the same thing we were. We kept asking each other the same questions. We finally got back to the trail, and just stood there for a second…looking around.
I don’t remember which one of us noticed it, but we saw the blue marker ribbon. On the other side of the creek! We quickly realized running though it was the way across, so we did. We remarked on how we wish we had known to look for the crossing! There was no obvious marker that we had to cross, other than a gradually fading trail, and a ribbon on the other side. We were quickly learning one of the lessons of the day…”This is trail running!”
We chatted as we followed the creek, getting to know Kip a little better. I asked him what he thought of that section on the ridge, where 15 steps of running was real progress. He said it was brutal, and to entertain himself, he counted how many trees were down. I said, “How many??” He said “112!” it was astounding, but totally believable at the same time. This was definitely trail running!
We crossed the creek 4 or 5 more times before the trail turned and climbed the mountain. It seemed to climb forever. From the race profile, it’s about 1,000 feet over 3 miles. The trail was narrow and there were more fallen trees. We had to be careful climbing through them, as the mountainside fell steeply away from the trail. Between the trees, the slope and the footing, that 3 mile section took around an hour.
We reached the top, and got out onto a ridge that was lightly forested and very grassy. The trail rolled up and down, but was a steady net elevation loss. We were descending down toward the third aid station, and the half way point of the race. Kip stopped for a break off the trail, and said he’d catch up to us later.
It was an out and back section, and we got to see the leaders making their way back up the ridge. These guys were studs! We were around mile 20 and they were around mile 27! How they were covering this terrain with the speed they were, was beyond us. The first two guys were way ahead of anyone else.
The ridge turned more steeply downward, and we reached the most badly damaged section of the trail. It had literally disappeared under fallen trees and brush in some sections. We walked through, looking for any signs of markers…seeing none. While we searched, a guy who was ahead of us had wandered back, and in his French accent, asked us when we had last seen the trail. It was probably a 1/4 mile since we’d seen a marker, but since then, there were signs on the ground of what was probably the trail…but we couldn’t be positive. He joined us, and we picked our way through fallen tree after fallen tree, and finally saw a marker! It was in this section that we realized the best way to find the trail was to aim for the worst of the storm damage. The reason we couldn’t see the trail was because it was completely covered.
We got through the worst of it, and wondered how safe our buffer against the cutoff still was. We lost gobs of time on sections like that. The trail down to the aid station gradually descended for another mile or two, then reached a thickly forested section, with a series of 5 or 6 switchbacks that dropped down to the road below…and a short distance later, the aid station. The race directors amused themselves by placing the station immediately on the other side of a creek, dashing any hopes of a shoe and sock change. Although, when we were there, the workers did offer to carry dry stuff to the other side in case we wanted to change our shoes/socks.
It was both relieving and a little horrifying to hit the halfway point of the race. My legs wanted to call it a day already. I’m not sure how long we spent at the aid station. I asked where the porta john was, and a worker pointed off the trail, and said…just go back there. Without trying to be too obvious, I said a porta john would be better. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “This is trail running.” In that moment, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard in my in my life. So, I opened my pack, took out the sandwich bag with my packed toilet paper, and off the trail I went. I came back, and Michelle was getting her feet taken care of for some blisters that were popping up. I took that time to eat anything that looked good on the food table, including a half of a PB&J sandwich, some pringles chips, a few cookies and a couple cups of soda. Then a worker helped me refill my pack…something I didn’t want to do with the climb ahead, but the next aid station was another 9 miles away, and I needed my water full. I also changed into a dry shirt (from the drop bag), reluctantly picked up and stashed a handful of gu’s, and by the time I was ready to go again, Michelle was too. We crossed the creek, headed up the road, into the woods and onto the switchback climb.
The climb wasn’t too bad. We took our time up it. Saw a ton of other races heading in the opposite direction. Kip was at the aid station, and we tried to remember if he left ahead of us or behind us. As we reached the top of the switchback climb, we caught up to him, and he had picked up some trekking poles from his drop bag. We were somehow on a quicker pace up the climb, and only stuck with him for a few minutes before we went by. After the switchbacks, we were back on the rolling section that was mostly up, but had a lot of sections that were runnable. We ran every chance we could, and walked the steeper uphills when they came.
Then came one of the lowest points in the race. There was a field we crossed on the out section, on the way down. I recognized it when we climbed back up to it. We had to cross it on kind of a diagonal line to reach the trail on the other side. One feature of the field was a cable that ran along a series of telephone poles, but draped down onto the ground and disappeared. On the way back up, I led us on too sharp of a diagonal across the field. We reached the other side, and even though we hadn’t seen a ribbon, there was the same kind of cable along the ground for a bit, that then went upward along the poles. I kept leading us along the edge of the field, and Michelle asked a couple of times if I was sure this was the trail. I wasn’t sure, but it looked the same as the way we’d come, and I could see what I thought was the rolling grass section up ahead. But as we went, with no signs of the marker ribbons and with the brush getting thicker, it was obvious that something wasn’t right. We looked through the woods on the edge of the trail to see if there was a parallel clearing on the other side, but it was too thick to see through. Michelle said she thought we should go back the way we came, which was unfortunately uphill, and also a long way. I don’t know exactly how far it was. Probably somewhere between 1/4 and a 1/2 mile. We climbed back up, saw the ribbon and realized the mistake…that I’d taken the diagonal across the field too sharply.
We were back on the trail, but had lost a lot of time. And were really tired. Our buffer against the cutoff had to be pretty thin by now. And we knew from the trip out, that the going would be slow through the damaged sections of the trail. The climb up the rolling ridge seemed endless. I was quietly having my first thoughts of wanted to grab a ride back at the next aid station. I kept quiet with those, and hoped Michelle wasn’t having the same thoughts. We were both very quiet, and I know feeling very defeated, as we made our way up the ridge. We got through the worst of the damaged section slowly, but a lot quicker than the first time. Eventually we reached the top, and the big blue frisbee marker that told us to turn off the out and back section, and downhill.
The downhill was another very technical one that we couldn’t take with a lot of speed. We descended 1,000+ feet, then followed a creek bed. As we approached the 4th aid station, I remembered that station was the first of two that actually had its own cutoff. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I thought we had until 3:30 pm (9.5 hours of running) to reach that station (33 miles). I told Michelle what I thought I remembered about the station, and she said, “I wondered why you were booking it!” We made our way along the creek bed as quickly as we could, and about 1/4 out, a volunteer was there, telling us the station was just ahead. I still seemed like forever until we finally got there. I found out we did, in fact, need to be there by 3:30, and it was 3:15 when we got there. Our buffer was down to 15 minutes. We didn’t take a lot of time at the station, and didn’t say much. We were just so tired, and knew we needed to move on. We ate and drank a little, grabbed a few things, and moved on. The workers told us, the last 17 needed to be a pace a little faster than what we’d averaged so far. That didn’t sound good, but what could we do? We just had to move forward as quickly as we could.
We left with another runner, Rhonda, who’d gotten to the station before us. For just under a mile, we were on a road in the sun. It sloped gradually upward at first, and we ran it. Rhonda didn’t keep pace with us on the road, but we felt like we had to take the time where we could. But even after just 7 or 8 minutes, when the road sloped up more, and we were feeling the sun, we needed to walk. Then we turned off the road. And UP. And up. And up. Talk about defeat. There seemed to be no end to this thing. Every time we turned and could see farther up the trail, it was just more of the same. And none of it shallow enough to runnable with how tired we were. We walked as quickly as we could, seeing mile splits in the 19-20 minute range. Feeling a little more defeat each time one clicked off and knowing we’d just lost 3 more minutes. This was easily the lowest part of the race. The climb would not end. Michelle read off the elevation readings from her Garmin, and we saw we went from 2,700 ft. to 4,300 ft. in that stretch…a little over 4 miles. The fallen trees returned near the higher parts of the climb.
In the early part of the climb, we passed a guy. As we neared the top, Rhonda had joined with him, and they were finding sections they could run. We joined them for a stretch, but eventually had to let go of them. We reached the top and again, the downhill was very technical. We ran as much as we could, as quickly as we could, on legs that felt like they could give out at any second. We reached the 5th aid station, which was the same as the 2nd (40.5 miles). There was no cutoff for this one. We were beat, and we looked it. We took as little time as we could. Michelle’s stomach wasn’t taking much of anything, and Paula (one of the workers), suggested ginger ale. She had some, and it helped a lot.
The section out of that station was very flat and runnable. We ran almost all of it…stopping to walk sparingly. We knew more hills were ahead and we had to go while we could. The trail was lines with tall pines, and very pretty, but our thoughts were elsewhere. We would have taken a cot in a dark room, and a long nap without thinking about it. We had probably 30 minutes on the flat section, before we turned back into the hills again. Thankfully, the steepest stuff was (mostly) behind us. We were back on a wide grassy trail, that went mostly up, but offered some downhill breaks along the way. We forced ourselves into running every chance we had. We weren’t sure where we were against the cutoff anymore, but were determined to move forward until someone pulled us off the course. And hopefully, we’d be stopping when we wanted to…at the finish. It was a strange feeling…as tired as we were, knowing the distance wasn’t the issue at all. It was whether we’d get there soon enough. We knew beyond a doubt we’d get to 50 if we had the time.
There was still a bunch of mud, and fallen trees to pick our way through, but that felt almost natural by that time. It was getting dark quickly, and our headlamps were waiting at the next (last) aid station. As we neared it, Adam, one of the race directors, was running back along the course tracking down the runners who were still out as the dark was approaching. He saw us and said, “I knew you two would be together and I knew you’d be doing great!!” It sure didn’t feel great, but it felt good to hear. He also told us we were about ten minutes under the cutoff. That was good to hear too. Of our 15 minute buffer at 33 miles, we still had 10 minutes left as we approached the last aid station at 46.2.
We got there. Found our headlamps. I don’t remember if I ate or drank and I’m pretty sure I didn’t grab anything to go. Rhonda and the guy she was running with were still there and we all left together. It was a road section again, for about a mile. Michelle and I set a quicker pace again, and we all separated. But regrouped again pretty quickly as we were so exhausted that we needed another walk break. As they caught us, we joined their pace running, and chatted as we went. It was getting dark enough to need our lamps on before we turned off the road. We went through some gently rolling grassy sections, with some wooded areas interspersed. There were a few wooden fences about 3-1/2 to 4 ft. high that we had to climb over along the way. The ribbons had reflective tape on them again, making them easier to spot in the dark, but still tricky at times to find. But, this was trail running…and we knew it by now!
As we got closer to the finish, we made a push to finish as quickly as we could. Michelle told me to go ahead. In her mind, she wanted me to have the best chance I could at an official finish, so I could get my Marathon Maniac status. In my mind, getting up the trail about would help in case there was a section where the trail was hard to find again. In the last 1.5, we went up a climb as steep as anything we’d seen, and from the sign at the bottom, I saw it was named, “Cardiac Hill.” That was comforting. Made my way up as quickly as I could, and as I reached the top, I could hear yelling from the race headquarters. That was an amazing boost! I reached the top of Cardiac Hill, climbed over one more fence, and could see the lights of the headquarters down below. The rest of the course was an all grass section and mostly downhill. I looked at my watch, and there was 9 minutes to go until the cutoff at 8pm.
I waited for Michelle…as much as we worked together through the day, I didn’t want to finish without her. She wasn’t far behind…I saw her lamp, and jogged back to where she’d climb over the fence. I wasn’t sure how much we’d wind through the field from where we were to the finish, but I told her I thought we could make the cutoff…but we’d have to go fast! We did. There were a couple workers about a 1/3 of a mile before the finish and they said we’d make it. We kept going as fast as we could. We ran down the last hill to the finish with 4 minutes left, and the cheers for us for awesome! We crossed the finished with 3 minutes to spare. We had made it!!
It’s hard to describe the accomplishment, and I don’t know that either of us really understand all of it yet. It was the hardest race either of us have ever done. We were not ready at all for the kind of terrain we’d be running on. I’ve run trails all my life, but mostly flat, well-groomed dirt trails. I had at least raced a 50k a few weeks earlier on some hiller and more technical stuff. This race was Michelle’s first technical trail race and 4th run ever on off-road trails. She ran a trail half marathon a few years back, but it was nothing like this race. Then there was the storm damage, resulting in probably 300-400 fallen trees on the course and the 2 times we got lost on the course. Michelle battled an upset stomach for most of the day (pre-race Thai food was not a good idea for her), but only ever mentioned it when I asked how her stomach was feeling. She is one tough girl, and I’m so proud of how she ran.
This was a great first 50 miler, and I’ve love to come back to do this one again. What an atmosphere. It’s amazing to see what absolute studs there are out there…the overall winner of the Trilogy covered 94 miles over three days in an average pace of 8:53 per mile, including a 1:30 half marathon on those trails on day 3!! And we almost never saw that guy without a smile on his face! I love being part of this awesome little corner of running, and have such an appreciation for what all of you have accomplished. I don’t post much in this group, but lurk quite a bit and have picked up a lot from what you’ve all contributed. So…thanks…very much! And keep it going!
You'll ruin your knees!
Very nice write-up on a tough day. Congrats to both of you.
Once you de-lurk, you can't go back!
""...the truth that someday, you will go for your last run. But not today—today you got to run." - Matt Crownover (after Western States)
Great race report, Phil! Congrats again for you and Michelle -- it sounds like a truly challenging day. Glad you had each other for support.
And I am going to re-read this before my race in 1 1/2 weeks. If you can do it . . . I can too!
Congratulations to both of you. Nice work making the best of very tough conditions. That was trail running!
That was a fun read, Mishka, thanks for writing it. Congratulations to both of you.
Great report Mishka!! I can't believe how many details you remember... most of the time my races go by in blurs. Again, congats to you both... overcoming getting lost and pushing cut-offs is not easy. Well done!!
~Sara It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great. ~ Jimmy Dugan
Great report, Phil! Thanks for taking the time to write it and congrats again on the race.
When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
Wow, and I thought my first 50 miler was tough because I went a half mile out of the way and I was unprepared for the hills. That was nothing apparently. Your run was a damn impressive race given the conditions, awesome job to both of you!
The hills haven't left my mind. I'm in a lot of pain right now. My left calf has some sort of strain going on. I don't train on hills, so they really took their toll.