I’m happy to report, not a whole lot! (OK, there was a near DNF moment and a good wipeout late in the race, but more on that later… ).
My buddy Mathew ran the course in 2011 as his first 50k and really enjoyed the experience. We chatted in March of this year, and with a bit of coaxing (and likely some wine courage), I was signed-up and we were ready to roll.
My anxiety was high in the weeks leading up to my first ultra. I’ve been running marathons less than 2 years, and while I’d previously completed three marathons in reasonable times, I’ve never finished particularly strong, usually blowing-up somewhere around 30k and struggling to the finish line. So why not add another 8km. On trails. With some decent elevation?
I started to study the course in earnest a few weeks out. The elevation profile was a bit daunting compared to my road race experience so I started to poll my experienced ultra-sport cohorts and received a lot of amazing advice. I printed off the course map and started to figure out my strategy for aid stations, hydration, nutrition, etc. (The course has about seven well-stocked stations and really great volunteers running them).
I purchased a hydration pack and tested it a week out from the race but after trying it out I felt it was too close to the race to try anything different and decided to stick to my handheld water bottle. I could still fill my pockets with gels and have a drop bag at Siskiyou Gap to re-fill my pockets along the way.
My goal was only to finish but I knew by looking at stats and comparing to whatMathew did last year that I was likely looking at a 6+ hour run.
The drive to Ashland, OR, (almost at the California border) is about 10 hours from Vancouver so Mathew made the trek from Medicine Hat, AB, on Thursday and we left from Vancouver early Friday morning (he was doing ultra driving prior to ultra running!) The initial plan was to camp out on course the night before the race but after a long day’s drive we decided to opt for getting a Motel and try to get a decent night’s sleep instead.
Saturday morning arrived early. We were up by 4am and on the road by 5am for the 45 minute drive to Mt. Ashland Ski Area. Race package pick up was at 6am and the race started at 7. In all the pre-race nerves we both forgot to eat breakfast so relied on a couple Clif bars and some coffee shortly before race start (so much for the usual oatmeal and banana kickstart!).
It was a little chilly, but a beautiful morning as we watched the sun start to creep down the mountain towards the starting line. The 50 milers shot out of the gate at 6am.
We got started at 7am sharp. I went out pretty easy but I wasn’t feeling particularly light on my feet. The first 10k were actually the most difficult of the whole race. It was taking a while to warm up and I was starting think this was going to be a very long day. Fortunately I had received some great advice to double the calories I’d been used to taking in for long runs. I planned to take in about 200 calories (or 2 gels) an hour... one every twenty minutes to half an hour, as well as hydrating more consistently. By the first water station I was starting to warm up and by the first full station at Siskiyou Gap (15k) I was feeling energized. Mathew and I were keeping a pretty close pace, leap-frogging a minute or so apart at times.
One particular long climb up a logging road section had us making deals with each other... “OK, run to that tree...” “Now run to the next shady section.” It was a good, long haul and we noticed the air was slightly thinner than we’re used to at sea level, though not drastically so.
The first half of the run the trails sloped down slightly to my left and forced my right foot to be constantly rolling in a bit, putting pressure on right hip and knee. Was feeling great energy-wise by Jackson Gap aid station at the halfway point, but on the descent leading out my ITB started to tighten up, and by the next water station around 17 miles it had all but seized. I thought for sure this was it. I couldn’t finish a race like this and with an aid station close I could DNF and catch a lift back. I was loathing the thought, thoroughly annoyed that I was feeling fantastic otherwise and having a great race for it to come down to this.
Fortunately me and Mathew had re-grouped at Jackson Gap so we were running together when the knee seized. He checked with the water station volunteer who fortunately had a small first aid kit where he found some gauze and tape... enough to try wrapping my knee. It felt OK, so decided to try and make it to the next full aid station 4 miles down the trail and hope they had some first aid and a tensor bandage of some sort.
The first couple of miles were pretty good... not too much descent, and the tension from the gauze held but by the last mile or so the makeshift knee-wrap started to loosen at the same time the path was getting more technical and descending down to the the aid station. It was a bit of a limp-fest, and, of course, this was the section photographers happened to show up (we’ll see if they caught all the grimaces on film!).
Mathew had run ahead and I didn’t expect to hold him back, he was having a great race as well, but I’ll admit I was happy to see him when I got there, a couple minutes behind. He’d rounded up another makeshift knee brace for me... duct tape! Another quick wrap, duct tape over gauze, and we were off again.
After the knee wrap, I felt like brand new, refreshed and ready to roll with another 8 miles to go!
Throughout the run I deliberately ran very conservatively, mostly by choice, and partly out of necessity due to climbing, power hiking, etc. Going into the run I was expecting to be hurting pretty good by the time I hit 35km’s and up (if my previous marathons were any indication) but I found myself still feeling strong and powering through and, frankly, looking forward to the return trails. (Even when I knew I had crossed the point where I’d never run that far before I was surprised how good I was still feeling).
The day was starting to warm up by this time into the early afternoon but fortunately there was still a decent mountain breeze. The pace remained steady, and at one point about 5kms from the finish I caught my right foot on a rock and face-planted into the dusty trail. It happened so fast that it felt like my toe hit the rock the same time my body hit the ground. I got up in a cloud of dust, realizing I had landed pretty hard on my water bottle. (Mathew was a curve-in-the-trail back at this point so unfortunately I had no witness to the fun). Nothing was broken, just dusty, and with adrenaline still pumping I didn’t notice any discomfort until post-race.
From this point on it was just keeping my eyes on the trail. There were lots of small creek crossings and uneven trail to navigate yet but we were getting close and had some hikers letting us know we were getting close to the final climb.
Off the trails and on to the road, we met up again for the final push to the end. There was a few minutes of walking as we caught our breath and braced for the finale. I would have DNF’d without Mathew’s quick thinking so it was cool to cross the finish line together with Mathew getting a new course PB and me completing my first ultra.
No denying I was wiped out from the experience, but I didn’t feel anything like the usual kind of exhaustion I’ve felt at other marathons. I think the deciding factors were the increased calories and hydration, as well as the easy pacing that included the power hiking. On retrospect, if it wasn’t for my knee acting up I probably could have broken six hours easily enough, but I guess we’ll only know that when I run the course again!
Overall, a top-notch experience. Ashland is a fun little town and the race was well organized, had amazing volunteers, great aid stations, beautiful alpine course, and super tasty post-race nosh. I would highly recommend anyone looking for a fun, competitive ultra (50k or 50 mile) to make the trek!
Finish time: 6hrs 7min