Saturday, April 12, 2014

Squawk Mountain 50k 2014

I’ve done somewhere between fifteen and twenty ultra marathons of varying length over the past few years.  Some of them have been quite challenging, but I guess that was before I started running in Washington state.  Promise Land has nothing on this stinking race.  I now have a contender for not only the most challenging 50k I’ve run but also the most beautiful.  Kind of a bittersweet affair.
Never had run on Squawk Mountain before, I wasn’t really sure what was in store for me.  However, I’ve run on Cougar Mountain plenty of times since coming out to the Seattle area so I figured it couldn’t be that different.  And it wasn’t, just a whole lot more climbing than I had become accustomed to. 
Here’s the basic breakdown of the course: from the start run up a road a bit, then do a lollipop loop on some gently climbing single-track before returning to the road again.  Climb for another mile or two, do another trail, and finally back to the road.  This totals about four miles or so by my estimate and a heck of a lot of walking in the upward direction.  Following this is The Loop (a name that still haunts me from my DNF at masochist last year), a four mile or so section of narrow single track, natural obstacles, and breathtaking views.  Oh, and there are a couple of huge climbs in there.  Finish that loop, then do around four miles straight downhill to the start.  That’s the half marathon course.  The 12k kiddos (who looked incredibly fresh compared to me) skip the loop, basically going up then coming down.  Honestly I feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.  The rest of us go back up the mountain again, then do one iteration of The Loop for the marathon and two for the 50k.  Then back down to the finish.  EASY RIGHT?  Sure.
My morning started around 6:00am, getting up and doing my normal pre-race ritual: shower, bathroom (not as effective as my normal pre race poop but oh well), body glide everywhere, and assemble my race bag of junk.  I knew it took about twenty five minutes to get to the start so I took my time, forgetting that one of my tire’s pressure was running low and I needed gas.  So, as is my normal style, I got there just in time for the race to start (the fact that parking was full and I had to park in a close neighborhood didn’t help).  Grabbed some water in my hand carrier, went to the start with the other marathon/50k folks and started right around eight.
Now, there were probably a good fifty people at the start, but I have no idea how many were doing the marathon versus the 50k.  This is further confused by the fact that if you drop down no one is the wiser, just listing you as running the race you dropped down to.  So as far as I know from the final standings about 19 of us were doing the 50k.  After a few words and the buzzing of a quadricopter drone taking pictures overhead, we were off to a start!
Seeing as this is a 50k, and I’m a middle-of-the-packer, I walk on uphills.  Guess how the race started?  That’s right, on an uphill.  So I enjoyed the scenery.  And it really was beautiful, probably the one aspect of living out here that constantly amazes me is the beauty of the greenery.  And that’s just at the start.  So we went uphill while I gazed at my surroundings.  Eventually we got to the aforementioned lollipop and I fell in behind a couple of super nice guys who were discussing various races they had run in the past.  I felt in on the conversation cause I could relate to thoughts on ultra running but my style is stealth.  Talking while running isn’t how I roll.  So I stalked these gentlemen for the lollipop (gorgeous) and back out.  We met some military gentlemen on their first marathon (well done guys) who I eventually saw on the way to the finish (not looking as strong at that point but none of us were).  Otherwise it was just easy rolling single track and back to the uphill climb on the road.  Give it another couple miles of easy walking up the road and eventually you come to a short stint of single-track, within about a mile of the aid station or so.  But really although this massive climb is tedious and slowly saps your energy, looking up and around provides amazing views of the area.  The elevation at this point is such that we’re looking down at valleys with houses and such but in the immediate surrounding are lush forests of trees and moss covering everything.  Par course for the day, I just kept on stalking my two new friends through another section of single-track, eventually returning to the road for a small stint before coming to the aid station.
And thank you to all those aid station workers!  Whether there early in the day or late in the day, thank you for filling up my water and providing me with peanut butter sandwiches (whole wheat bread with pumpkin seeds, I mean, what else do you expect from Seattle?). 
Ok so this starts The Loop.  To be fair, this is the most fun part of this course, the most beautiful, and the most difficult.  We start off by going straight downhill, to the point where you’re even losing your footing.  Downhill is cool and all, especially after all that climbing, but it’s The Loop for a reason, eventually we’ll have to come back up.  But in the meantime, down down down down down, jump over a log, under a log, over a log, to the side of a log.  Seriously, nature created its own tough mudder course here.  Once the loop part starts things get crazy; you follow a trail till the markers tell you to go on what couldn’t be a trail.  Sure enough, there’s about a foot wide of single-track here, with ferns, trees, rocks, dinosaurs, whatever all around you.  Its slow and fun.  This is where it is so beautiful; a trail where at least two hundred people will traverse during the race, but looks like you’re discovering it for the first time.  Again, moss everywhere.  Us from the east don’t quite get the convention of every single tree being covered in a layer of moss, so its SO COOL to see.  Eventually The Loop widens and takes on a normal single track mentality, but eventually had to toss in an uphill climb, straight vertical.  Now, the first time I thought this was the climb back up to the aid station, but I was wrong.  That climb is after this one.  So the formula for The Loop is: downhill downhill downhill, pretty trees, pretty moss, single-track, uphill uphill, single-track, up up up up aid station.  Simple.
The nice part about after all that climbing is that the return to the finish (or turn around for us 50kers) is more or less straight down.  Oh sure there is a bit of a climb in there, but that’s quickly forgotten in lieu of the downhill action.  Nothing too exciting here, sure it’s the normal pretty but about what would be expected from any Pacific Northwest trail.
I won’t bore you with the details of my second ascent and second and third iterations of The Loop, but I’ll provide the highlights.  My new friends had become separated from me after the aid station before the downhill, one was behind me, one was ahead of me.  The uphill by myself wasn’t bad, but I knew that my Virginia legs were not prepared for the amount of anaerobic climbing involved.  By the time I got to the top of the climb I was pretty wiped but stoked that I was done with that for good.  The first iteration of the loop kicked my ass but I was confident because all that was left was another loop and downhill  It was during the second iteration that I knew this was the hardest 50k I’d ever done.  My general energy level was fine, but my legs were just so trashed from the climbing that my movement went to a snails pace.  The most important thing I learned from Hellgate was to keep moving and just trot, so I did that.  Again, it was beautiful and if it weren’t for this I would have just dropped down with the rational that I had already run all this before.  Finally the downhill section came in a series of stops and starts but I got to the finish!
Chatting with the race director for a moment I told him how this was the hardest 50k I’ve done but I get the feeling that for the natives this was a fine training run.  Regardless, everyone was gone, I was third from the last, and I slowly meandered my way down the street to my off location parking.
All in all it was a good day. I did my best, I challenged myself, and I got to see some gorgeous trails.  I wish I had brought my camera with me but I didn’t want to be creepy running by myself and taking pictures of everyone else.  Only regrets: working a twelve hour shift in the ER a couple hours after finishing the race.  Next up: Promise Land 50k+++++++++++++!

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