I knew without a doubt I would meet my time goal. I was well trained, well rested, well hydrated. I had done the physical and mental work. I was ready and eagerly anticipating running the Mt. Hood 50. During the 10-second countdown, I kissed my necklace charm, did the sign of the cross, and was off with the pack at 6:30am.
In the two months prior to the race, I had been on two training runs on the course, so was already familiar with 36 miles of it (14 miles of the first half, and all of the last 22 miles). While this was enough to give me confidence for race day, it also left just enough curiosity as to what might be around the next bend.
This course was tailor-made for me: soft, mostly shady trail, lots of trees, getting to see other racers on the two out-and-back sections (loop and point-to-point courses can get lonely), some good climbs, some good downhill, and a particularly stunning Mt. Hood view that stopped me in my tracks, dropped my jaw, and made me exclaim “wow!” out loud, even though no one but the trees was around to listen.
There were a couple “tricky” turns in the first couple miles. One fellow said he was glad he was following me, or he wouldn’t have noticed the turn and would have kept going straight. A couple miles later, I started getting passed by people. Come to find out about a dozen of them had gone off course. How, I wondered, when it was so well marked? You can’t blindly follow the people in front of you— use your own eyes! Rant over.
From the race start at the historic Clackamas Lake Ranger Compound and around the north side of Timothy Lake, the first several miles of the course are mostly flat with some small rolling hills. After the first aid station near Little Crater Lake, there were a couple of nice climbs up to the aid station on Hwy 26, which was right across the highway from the Frog Lake trailhead/SnoPark. Also in this stretch was that stunning full-on view of Mt. Hood from the side of a high ridge. It would have been a wonderful spot to sit and soak it all in for a few minutes, but I had a time goal that kept me moving. I had seen the Hwy 26 aid station while driving to the race start. It was very cool to be here now. I got myself clear up to Hwy 26 from Timothy Lake! While that was a pretty damned cool accomplishment in itself, I still had another 36 glorious miles to go!
I thought the return to the Start/Finish area would be faster, but I was wrong. (The course is two out-and-back sections with the start/finish in the middle.) I did, however, get to the mid-point right on schedule to meet my time goal according to my race plan. I had mentally rehearsed what I would do at this aid station several times before falling asleep the night before. I had it down pat. I accessed my drop bag and dumped the contents, got rid of garbage, restocked my gels, got out my iPod, changed my shirt, reapplied sunscreen, and used an icy-wet towel to wash my face and hands while a volunteer filled my hydration pack with water. A few minutes later, I was off onto the familiar second part of the course, and still feeling great. 28 miles in, and I felt like I had only run a half marathon.
Just a few minutes down the trail I was singing along with my iPod when I heard cheers. Friends Chris & Darla Askew, Gina Guss, and Sean Meissner were sitting on a log waiting for me to go by. Instant excitement! I stopped and gave a hug to each of them, then was off again.
Most of the 5 miles to the next aid station was a long, gentle climb. Very runnable when the legs are fresh, but after 28 miles and with the day heating up, it wasn’t so runnable now. I ran this section for a few minutes, then walked several minutes. I tried to time my walks when the trail was in the sun and run in the shade. There were times I would have preferred to hike, but my time goal told me to keep running easy. After the Red Wolf aid station comes a screaming down hill for maybe three miles. I really worked it, and felt great. I loved passing a few people here, and thought for sure I had made up some of the time I had lost on the previous climb. The next climb up the other side of the canyon from the Warm Springs River took its toll on me. I looked at my watch thinking I must be almost there. I asked someone how much farther to the aid station. He said maybe a mile and a half. Crap! I should be there by now. I was going to be way over time for this leg of the journey. I still had hope that I would be refreshed at the aid station and be able to rip the downhills back to the finish and still meet my goal.
I pulled into the Warm Springs aid station at 2 hours 50 minutes, 20 minutes later than planned. They were out of ice, and I was really hot. I had to do something to cool down. Thankfully I thought to take the icy wet towel from my drop bag, drape it around my neck, and take it with me. Back at the river crossing, I stopped and dipped my fingers in the water. Yes, it was ice cold! I rewetted my neck drape for the next climb. Now I did the math in my head. I was not going to make 8-minute miles to reach my time goal. Not even if the remaining miles were all downhill. And there was still another mostly not-runnable-for-me 3-mile climb to go.
I let myself grieve for a few minutes. I shed tears for something I was so sure I would attain. (Perhaps if the day had been ten degrees cooler I would have been able to do it?) Then I decided I could either let this ruin my race, or I could enjoy the last eight miles. I chose the latter. I sang to myself and to the people I passed hiking up the hill. I extended my hand and words of support to the exhausted gentleman sitting alongside the trail in the middle of the 3-mile climb (someone else was with him, and he later came back to finish strong). I thought about my run around Mt. Rainer, now just over a month away, and what a great training run this turned out to be for it.
At the last aid station, I took a few minutes to recharge for the final 5 miles of mostly downhill to the finish. Even though my original time goal was not attainable, I wanted to challenge myself, rip it up, and finish strong. I wasn’t thrilled with the gel flavors I had remaining, so grabbed a couple Cherry-Lime Roctanes to take me to the finish. Just as I was about to leave the aid station, I saw a group of three runners approaching. “Shit!” I exclaimed. “Better get moving,” one of the volunteers said. Indeed. I wanted to stay ahead of these people. I knew I had to run every step of these last five miles. If I walked, they might catch up with me. I kept wanting to look back to see if they were on my tail, but didn’t. I just kept going. I was tired and hot, but kept running. I’d run this part of the course two times before and knew what was ahead, and that I could keep pushing myself. It was just a matter of listening to my body, of balancing the down hill with effort (yes, you can exhaust yourself running downhill) and time/miles remaining.
I saw the finish line. I heard cheers. I let go and felt like I sprinted across the finish line. Tears filled my eyes. Friends gave me hugs. It had been hard, but not that hard, if you know what I mean. If I had to, I could have run another 10 miles, but I was glad I didn’t have to. I’ll save that for another day.