Tuesday, May 17, 2011

McDonald Forest 50k

Lovely Rita. Shave and a Haircut. Who Do You Love. On the Sly. These are just a few of the challenging trails that comprise the McDonald Forest 50k held annually in the Peavy Arboretum and McDonald Forest (used by Oregon State University College of Forestry for instruction and research) six miles north of Corvallis, Oregon.

The race affectionately referred to by many as “MacForest” or just “The Mac” was my second-ever ultra-distance race last year, and my favorite of five. So I decided to go back this year not only because I had enjoyed it, but I wanted to gauge how my fitness level had improved. I love MacForest because it has a little bit of something for everyone: steep lung-busting climbs, quad-bashing descents, sweet single-track, long up- and down-hill forest road sections where you can really pick up the pace; narrow muddy horse trails, creek crossings, and the lush green foliage (including poison oak) of the Willamette Valley. The course, though quite convoluted, is one of the most well-marked I’ve ever run. With 6,700 feet of elevation gain, it is at times a hike-fest. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, learn to be patient, and get in some good climbing every now and then. Anyone who runs this race is a total bad-ass.

I was surprised by the number of people I spoke with who said this was their first ultra-distance race. More power to them. After this, they should feel like they can accomplish anything! In fact, one young fellow said he had never run more than 18 miles before this. Part of me wishes I had had that much confidence in myself and my abilities when just starting out. I am in awe of those who ran The Mac as their first ultra.

Race morning (May 7th) temperatures were perfect. Overnight lows were in the upper 40s and highs were expected to be around 60. That meant shorts weather! I was so excited to be out of running tights/capris and feeling free as a bird in shorts and a lightweight, short-sleeve top. I wore some light gloves the first half of the race because my fingers tend to get cold sticking out there doing nothing. At straight-up 8am, the race was on. After an initial 1.5 mile loop on a wide service road, the field of 200 had spread out a bit, and we were funneled on to single track for a warm-up climb: 600 feet of gain in the next 1.5 miles.

I had forgotten how many steep, and at times quite muddy, climbs there are in this race. Starting at 9.4 miles in, Lovely Rita is one of the best: over 400 feet gain in about half a mile. I was slowly plodding along, mouth agape, gasping for air, sweat pouring off me in buckets. Though she might be lovely, Rita sure got a good trampling. Not to be outdone, Shave and a Haircut at mile 14 is a steep, muddy slope that loses more than 500 feet in about 3/4 of a mile. After a couple more comparatively short ups and downs, racers were dumped out onto a forest road at mile 16.4 for the 1.5 mile climb up to the Dimple Hill aid station.

I had made it my goal this year to run as much of the forest road uphill sections as possible, and especially the stretch to Dimple Hill. Last year I had walked the entire thing, and it seemed so long. But I had done a lot of hill training in the past year, most notably on what I call the “7 mile hill” on the Haulin’ Aspen course. I learned to switch gears, slow down, be patient, and “rest” while running (albeit slowly), up hill. I was stoked to meet this goal head on. Half a mile up the 1.5 mile climb, I was telling myself “I can do this. I’ve so got this.” A mile in, I was laughing and getting teary-eyed because I knew I could do this for another 1/2 mile. I had this in the bag! Cresting the top at Dimple Hill aid station, I wanted to spike my gel flask in celebration, jump into someone’s arms, and tell everyone what I just did! Instead I smiled and laughed celebrating alone in my head. It didn’t matter what the rest of my race looked like. I was happy because I showed myself how much stronger I was than the previous year.

Ultrarunners April and Craig got married during the race at the Dimple Hill aid station at mile 18.6 (yes, they ran the entire race). I got to Dimple Hill too late for the ceremony, but as I approached, friends and family of the couple were walking down the hill to their cars and cheering on runners. That was pretty cool. I was fortunate to “run into” the bride later when she was heading down the hill from Chip Ross Park, and I was heading up. It was nice to be able to give her a big congratulatory hug, since she was already gone by the time I crossed the finish line.

Around mile 20, after the descent off Dimple Hill, the outside of my left lower leg started feeling a little tight. I’ve had some issues with muscles and tendons in my lower legs off and on for the last year (in fact it was this race last year where it started). I have learned to not freak out at the onset of this tightness, and most of the time it doesn’t bother me much. I have developed some techniques that I use, literally on the run, to deal with it. Today was no different. On the long gentle downhill stretches that generally bother it, I thought about running tall, engaging my core, planting my footfalls underneath my hips, and my opening up my stride behind me. When thinking about this, the tightness in my lower leg subsided. Now if I could just think about that all the time! Starting up the next long set of switchbacks after Chip Ross, I met Elizabeth. It was her first ultra race. We put arms around each others shoulders and together yelled, “Yahoo— another hill! Hill, you’ve got nothing on us!” As I hiked ahead of her, I sang her the chorus to the song Move Along: “When all you’ve got to keep is strong, move along, move along like I know you do. And even when your hope is gone, move along, move along just to make it through. Move along.” And then I was gone.

I had met a gal named Jennifer early in the race. She struck me not only because she was wearing long tights (I would have been burning up!) but because she ran at a nearly constant slow pace. And yes, this was her first ultra as well. I was astounded how she slowly ran up inclines that I felt necessary to hike up (she was far ahead of me on the steepest parts of trail and I wondered if she could possibly be running them too). Her slow running pace was just a bit faster than my hiking pace. I told Jennifer a couple times that she was my hero. I couldn’t believe how she could keep slowly running while I was sucking wind and dripping buckets of sweat while hiking. Jennifer’s downhill running pace however, was not much faster than her uphill pace, so while she passed me on steeper climbs, I passed her on long downhills. We leap-frogged positions several times throughout the race.

By the third time Jennifer passed me (on Lovely Rita), I had begun to beat myself up mentally because I felt I wasn’t measuring up. But then I stopped and thought, “I don’t know her story, and she doesn’t know mine.” IMPORTANT ASIDE: Please listen to me when I tell you: don’t compare yourself to other people. Every person has a different story/past/experiences. You don’t know other people’s stories, and they don’t know yours. So don’t judge others, and most importantly, don’t judge yourself. Doing so only leads to emotional pain, which I know quite well from personal experience and still struggle with. Don’t compare yourself to friends 10 years younger than you, or friends 20 years older than you who kick your butt every time (I love all of you!). You’re all different people with different life experiences, so just be filled with gratitude that your own heart, lungs, eyes, and legs all work and are able to take you to such wonderful places. Just be in the world and be grateful.

Coming into the last aid station at mile 26.8, I saw Jennifer plugging along just ahead. Part of me really wanted to beat her across the finish line, and part of me felt that since she had been so consistent, she deserved to beat me. I stopped to use the porta-potty and thought about it. My second big goal for the day was to run up this final long gradual hill, just under 2 miles long and over 400 feet elevation gain (it sure seemed like more than that at the time!). I settled into my slow, patient uphill pace again. Soon I noticed someone familiar ahead! It was Sean Meissner, running with his sister April at her first 50k! Of course I had to stop and tell April what a badass she is! We chatted for a couple minutes before I went on my way. Sean told me to catch a guy ahead and I said I could do that with no problem. The problem was, once the downhill kicked in again, that fellow flew past me! After the race, he said his body just did not want to run any more hills, but was ready to go on the downhills.

With 2.5 miles to go, I passed Jennifer for what I hoped would be the last time. I said, “Only 2.5 miles to go, we’ve so got this!” At 1.64 miles remaining, there was more uphill singletrack. I looked behind me to see where Jennifer was. I told myself that if I walked up all of this hill, she would pass me again. So I ran as much of it as I possibly could. Knowing she was behind me (but not knowing how far) pushed me to finish stronger. The last mile, the song “More” by Usher played on my iPod. The timing couldn’t have been better: “I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror, The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner. Best when under pressure with seconds left I show up.... Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.” I ran happy and proud, like I was flying!

I crossed the finish line feeling great. Though my time was four minutes slower than last year, the course was considerably muddier, and a new section of trail had been added. I wondered how much less my time would have been with the same course conditions as last year. But it didn’t really matter, because I met my other goals of running up hills that I walked entirely last year. Watch out Rita, I’m coming back for you next year!

1 comment:

  1. Laura, What an awesome post! I absolutely adore this forest too. It was my first ultra, I'm not sure how much I would be running today if it weren't for this amazing course. I fell in love with trail running here. Thanks also for your comments about measuring up. It is definitely something I struggle with! -April