It was just about the only encouraging thing I'd heard in the 48 hours or so since I'd made the decision to run the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K.
My friend Tom loved running the 25K race last year. He sang its praises and did his darnedest months ago to get me to register this year. But...exposed ridgelines? Sunny, hot weather? More elevation than any other race of the same distance in the entire Northwest? No thanks; when it comes to running, I adore my overcast Seattle skies, lush deep forests, and gently rolling hills for good reason.
To my relief, the race sold out early on, giving me a great excuse to not think about it anymore. But lo and behold, the seed got planted again a week or two ago as several people who'd registered got injured and were looking to pass off their race bibs to a willing runner. Anyone who knows me knows it doesn't take much arm-twisting to talk me into just about anything; before I knew it, it was Friday afternoon, I was at work and busily texting on my break to nail down a carpool out to Yakima for later that evening.
(This wasn't the first time I've jumped in to a race last minute. Last time I did this, I called it a "moment of optimistic impulse." Could there be a more apt term?)
The litany of potential menaces extolled to me in the 15 hours or so leading up to the race would have been funny, if they hadn't been so fantastically upsetting instead...first, I learned that the trails were rife with rattlesnakes and ticks. What?! Give me bears and cougars over ticks any day. Then I learned that the temperatures would be hovering around 80 Fahrenheit, which is so far above my comfort zone it's ridiculous. Then I actually looked at the elevation profile for the first time since last year when I'd decided I'd never do this race in my life; I'd be climbing and descending not one, not two, not three, but FOUR monstrous mountains.
To give you some perspective on the course (and the variety of trail races in general)...
American Women's 50K Record (Janis Klecker): 3:13:51
2012 Orcas Island 50K Women's Winner (Pam Smith) : 5:16:53
2011 Yakima Skyline 50K Women's Winner (Shawna Tompkins) : 6:49:29
Here I'd been thinking that I could probably expect a comparable time on the Yakima course to my time at the Orcas Island 50K, which I'd run two months ago in 6:31 - but as I lay in bed on Friday night at my friend Cassie's parents' house in Yakima, listening to the coyotes and poring over last year's results/stats on my fancy phone, I realized I was far more likely destined for somewhere around an 8-hour finish.
And, given that I'd missed dinner - having had a kale salad on my break at work on Friday, and then chowed down on nothing but handfuls of potato chips and a brick-sized chocolate chip cookie bar on the drive to Yakima - I felt I should take my expectations down yet another notch. Oh, and Cassie's mom mentioned how humid it had been in Yakima lately. Oh, and the winds atop the ridges might be enough to knock me off my feet. Forget about having tapered or carbo-loaded or remembered to pack a cap to keep the sun off my neck and face, or anything fancy like that either. This race was going to be a hot mess.
So you can imagine the tiny pang of hope I allowed myself to feel when I received Tom's text message twenty minutes before the race start on Saturday morning. Tom may not always come in ahead of me time-wise in races, but I'm pretty sure he always beats me in enjoyment of them. When asked what I'm training for, I tick off my upcoming schedule of races; when asked what he's training for, Tom's reply is "life". Tom FTW.
I promised myself, right there on the starting line at Yakima, to channel Tom's joyful and grateful spirit during my run...the least I could do, after he came down with flu-like symptoms on Friday and had to bail on his plans to come run it, too.
And so the race began. The first mountain climbs 2,000+ feet in 2 miles, topping out at 3,500 feet of elevation. I took this one slowly, falling behind others' lead, and trying to heed Tom's advice and not get intimidated by the chin-scraping climbing toward the skies.
Once the first climb was over, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains - the Stuart range was out in its full glory, as well as Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. Running atop the ridge felt, indeed, magical, with 360-degree views, cool fresh air, sunshine on my face, and above all, quiet. Nothing but the sound of the breeze whistling through the sage brush and the patter of my own footfalls in the dirt.
I spent the next couple of hours on cruise control, in the zone, enjoying the scenery and beautiful day and an unexpected flow of creative energy. I thought about my life, my future, my writing, specific projects I'm working on, people, ideas, everything...I just felt really, really good. The heat was manageable, the descents were a blast, and all systems were a go.
In keeping with my 2012 New Year's resolution "gratitude project", I devoted the entire second climb to reflecting on things and people I'm grateful for. I'm pretty sure I was talking out loud to myself at this point on the course, joyfully prattling away about Washington state, about the hatchling wildflowers along the trail, about the health of my body, about my wonderful parents, about all the friends and familiar faces I'd seen at the starting line. I thought about my recent run with George, where we'd talked about how running long distances makes you appreciate the smallest things so much more - a cool breeze, a cold splash of water from a stream, a Dixie cup of ginger ale. There's no need for excess, for Supersize-anything; that Dixie cup has the power to grant all the pleasure you can possibly imagine in that moment, after running through desert-like mountains for hours on end, parched and exhausted.
I thought about the late Harvey Manning, a local nature writer and conservationist whose passion and devotion to the local trails helped ensure my ability to run on them today. I thought about Kathrine Switzer, who challenged the notion that women shouldn't/couldn't run, by being the the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (in 1967). I thought about the legacy of Caballo Blanco, about Scott Jurek's tribute to him at REI's Running Expo last weekend, and about loving running for the sake of running. I thought about my new friend Jonathan, who several weeks ago gave me some of the best training advice imaginable for races like these (sustained treadmill climbs!), which I'd put to use and definitely felt the positive effects from on Saturday as I powered up those mountains. Jonathan's unit deployed to Afghanistan this weekend, so I reflected on how grateful I am to him, and all those throughout history who've served and defended our country. What a gift, to be a woman in America, and free to have experiences like this.
I hit the halfway point in a surprising 3.5 hours. By the time I started the third climb, however, my good vibes were faltering. The heat at the bottom of the valley was starting to feel suffocating and my feet were getting irritated from the exceptionally rocky and scree-ridden trails. Miraculously, my legs still felt pretty fresh. It made me grateful for all those vertical training miles logged in the Issaquah Alps.
I ran large stretches of the middle of the course with a friendly woman from Banff named Leslie. Let me now devote a paragraph of gratitude to Leslie. This woman is built like a mountain goat; I've never seen someone so steady, so strong - mowing up the ascents as though they were flat, tearing up the downhills like she was on the trail of prey. Beyond that, she had crazy positive energy, whooping and cheering all day long, high-fiving other runners on the out-and-back, even breaking out into song and dance in her own rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" as we approached one of the aid stations, just to get some laughs from the volunteers. What a fun and spunky woman! We chatted away mile after mile, passing folks one by one, and having a blast all the way. When the terrain forced us from a jog into a walk, she'd say triumphantly, "But we'll walk with purpose!" and just keep marching on up.
At one point, she whipped out her camera and said, "Smile!" So, there we are :)
When I finally started to lose my steam on the third downhill and Leslie pulled ahead of me, I felt a little panicked. I'd so enjoyed her company, her positivity and her strength; now I'd have to dig deep into my own stores of energy to keep going forward. My quads still felt strong on the third descent, but my feet were really getting chewed up. I stopped along the trail to peel my right shoe and sock off to try to lance as many blisters as I could with a safety pin from my race bib - unfortunately, to little avail. Most of the monster blisters were developing underneath thick callouses, and their fluids were not easily drained.
The final climb boiled down to sheer willpower. Amazingly, everything still felt pretty good, except my right foot and its forest of big, irritated blisters. The sun was getting hotter and hotter overhead, meanwhile, but I was greatly comforted by the knowledge that I'd soon get to stop running - and an icy cold river awaited me at the bottom. I was moving faster, much faster, overall than I'd expected, and this gave me a good mental boost that carried me all the way to the end.
I crossed the finish line in 7:27:52, and in 5th place for women. (My butt kicked yet again by a handful of women in their forties! :P ) The rest of the day was a blur of cookie-munching, river-soaking and kombucha-guzzling - an amazing day, to be sure. Back to Seattle that night, in time for work the next morning, where I hobbled around on my severely blistered foot and took home our work library's loaner copy of Fixing Your Feet. It'll be a few days before I run (or even walk comfortably) again on these puppies...
Average weekly mileage in 8 weeks leading up to race day: 40 miles + sporadic cross-training (cycling, strength)
Peak weekly mileage: 58 miles
Longest single run in training: 31 miles
Race Day Breakfast: Green smoothie, boiled egg, cup of coffee, bottle of GT's Kombucha
During the run: 3 scoops of Perpetuem (carb/protein beverage mix), 7ish GUs, 10ish Endurolytes (electrolyte/salt tablets), ultra grub at the aid stations (ginger ale, boiled potatoes, bananas, orange slices), boatloads of water
Lessons learned: If it's sunny, bring a hat. Don't wear black. Don't forget to put sunscreen on the backs of your arms. If it's hot, put ice cubes in your water at the start. Lace your shoes tightly. If there's going to be a lot of scree, small trail gaiters are probably worth it. If you're going to bring a Ziploc baggy of Perpetuem, better double-baggy it - and for the love of God, don't put it in the same pocket of your hydration pack as your fancy phone.
So. The secret to running a solid race?
Potato chips for dinner.
And rockstar sunglasses.
In other words, low pressure and low expectations :)