'You're crazy!' 'What are you nuts?' '50 F-ing miles? That's insane!' those are just a few of the phrases I have heard since I decided back in January to run the Mt. Hood 50, a 50 mile trail run in Mt Hood State Park in Oregon.
And after finishing it, I am still hearing those phrases...hahaha
Saturday morning I rolled over to the sound of my phone alarm going off, which was followed seconds later by the beeping alarm of my watch. I exhaled a deep sigh of relief that they both worked and woke me up. We camped just a few minutes from the Clackamas Ranger Station which would serve as the start of the race.
Paul and I got here Thursday, found a great campsite and spent the night there claiming the spot as our own. Friday we drove an hour back to Portland packed up the rest of our gear and picked up my Mom and headed back out. The night before the race was spent around a beautiful fire built by Paul. I took down a meal of quinoa, beans and veggies while Paul and Mom cooked brats, beans and corn in the open fire.
I sat up in my sleeping bag feeling the cool air creeping in and began to eat my peanut butter bagel and banana trying to wrap my mind around the challenge ahead. I emerged from my tent to a brisk, foggy morning. A very typical Oregon morning, massive trees towered over our three tents (after burritos Thursday and a night sharing a tent with me Paul wanted no more of that and brought his own and my mom, maybe having the foresight Paul lacked, claimed 'I snore too loud and will need my own tent' so we were set up like a small village) the fog obscuring the tops of the pines.
We got up and over to the start of the race, water bottles were filled, people were milling around, unlike marathons and road races where the energy crackles through the air, at the start of an Ultra there is a different energy, its there but its tempered quite a bit because you have to be patient and ration out your energy over the course of a full day rather than a few hours.
Finally it was time to go, Paul and I two-belled, gave Mom a hug, adjusted my fuel belt, visor and sunglasses and we were off.
We wound our way down a path towards Timothy Lake, the trail was soft dirt and pine needles, rocks and roots jumped up from time to time but it was early, I was fresh and had no trouble bounding over them. I went slow trying to find a pace I could keep for possibly 12 hours and let a lot of people pass me in the first few miles.
At one point early in the first 6 miles we came up a pretty steep rocky hill and the view of Timothy Lake took my breath away. The water was a mountain green color, and it was so smooth it looked like glass. There was mist rising from the water while the trees surrounding the lake were shrouded in fog, it didn't even look real.
After a while I fell into step with a group of 4 people, Rick (a mexican guy from Houston, built like a fire hydrant, earlier this year he finished an ironman and a 50 miler on a beach in FL) I was behind him and behind me was Marylin (in her mid to late 50's from Washington, owner to 2 Harley's and had run many 50 milers including this one a few times) and bringing up the rear was Kim from Quad Cities.
The 4 of us swapped stories for 8 miles, when I took the lead for a bit and we came up to a ridge with the most beautiful view of Mt Hood I have ever seen. Our ridge dropped off into a valley of trees that lead straight up to the mountain, in the morning sun with a cloudless, bright blue sky behind it the mountain looked equal parts inviting and with its snowcapped peak menacing.
Rick had a small video camera attached to his belt and pulled it out to capture the view and all of us were silent for a bit just walking and taking it in.
That group was moving a little slow for my tastes after that so I picked up the pace to find something that felt good, and for a bit was on my own just enjoying the solitude of trail running. It may sound corny but I truly believe that trail running is as close to a Zen type of experience as I can get. You have to stay totally focused in the moment yet at the same time be looking one step ahead and your mind doesn't wander the way it does at a road race. You need to be taking stock constantly of your surroundings, your footing, where are you going to step next, your body, do you need more water, food etc. It's like your mind goes blank and all the little nonsense thoughts you get during a regular day just leave and you are focused only on one thing.
I fell into that world for quite a while before another runner came behind me and we began to chat, he was from Denver and a big Nuggets fan, our conversation carried us to the mile 14 turnaround when I got to see my Mom and Paul for the first time. It was so nice to see them, I pulled into the aid station and chatted with Paul while Mom took pics and I got to tell them about the views and figure out when I would see them again.
After a few minutes it was time to hit the road, I once again fell into a good pace and eventually ended up behind an older guy on the ridge. We didn't speak for a bit, all I could see of him was his back and then a guy coming the other way saw him and got a big grin and said 'Hey man awesome beard!' the guy in front chuckled and said 'Thanks!' then he shouted over his shoulder to me 'I get a lot of compliments on my beard...mostly from men, never from women!' and he turned around so I could get a look...it was like Brain Wilson, the closer for the Giants, beard! Fierce, long, aggressive...I too was impressed.
His name was Steve, nice guy who was working in Bellingham, WA. We chatted for a bit, then came upon the view of Hood again. I turned to look, stubbed my toe on a rock and almost went down. Laughing I said 'Boy I am going to kill myself trying to catch a view!' and a voice behind me started laughing and said 'I keep doing the same thing!' It was Kim from Quad Cities, she was back.
The 3 of us made it to the 18 mile mark where I got to see Paul and Mom again, our visit was brief as we needed to hit the 28 mile mark by 1230 in order to continue onto the 2nd half of the course.
As the 3 of us set off from the aid station, I was leading when I heard Steve make a sound like he was in agony. I stopped to see if he was okay and he mumbled through his beard about his knee being 'Wonky' we walked for a bit to see if that would help him but he was still struggling and looked at the two of us and said goodbye. He walked back to the aid station and dropped out. It was crazy, I didn't know the guy at all but felt terrible for him.
So Kim and I continued, this part of the course was an easy downhill and we were booking, I felt great mentally and physically. Kim and I would talk for a bit then go silent and just enjoy the woods around us. At one point I looked at my watch around mile 25 and saw that we were doing 9 min miles which was pretty fast, and I just thought 'Man this is so great I feel so good I just love life!' and took my eye off the trail leading to me heading back to earth at top speed.
My toe slammed into a tree root and I was going down, it was at that moment all the years of playing army as a kid came back, I tucked my body in tight ball and turned so that when I hit the ground I was in mid-commando roll. I rolled once, my water bottle flew out of my back and I was back on my feet all in one motion! Not sure how I did it but Kim grabbed my water bottle and said 'That was impressive!' we laughed about it and checked, I wasn't bleeding, just really dirty and nothing hurt which seemed amazing.
We walked a bit and then picked up the running again and caught up and passed some folks before falling in behind Lynn and Habeebee who were setting a good pace and the 4 of us made it to the mid point where I got to see Paul and Mom again. I took down a turkey wrap and chatted for a few, I was still feeling good, I had been taking in water and Gu on a regular basis and at mile 28 was in good shape mentally and physically but this is where the true battle would begin. For the next 22 miles I would not get to see Mom or Paul (it's amazing how just seeing them and talking for a few minutes could boost spirits and just make me feel refreshed) not only that but (and I didn't know this at the time) there would only be 3 aid stations over those 22 miles not to mention some of the most aggressive hills I have ever seen.
Leaving the aid station I wanted to make sure I hung with Lynn and Habeebee they were running a smart race and I didn't want to do anything stupid like go out too fast. As I left Kim jumped in behind and we caught up to the others about a half mile into the woods.
The 4 of us talked a lot in those first few miles, I had heard the next aid station was 3-4 miles away (turns out it was more like 6.5) and we battled the gradual incline together. It was hard, hot and frustrating not knowing where the aid station was and that feeling of uncertainty killing me.
As some of you know, I hate to be lost or not know where I am going. It gets in my head and can make me angry and frustrated. I was battling it at this point (and would again later) I dropped to the back of our little group and tried to get my mind right. I stopped talking, and just tried to focus on the run and enjoy the moment but I couldn't get into a groove because of the hill and how slow they were running. Finally we decided to take a bathroom break and I told them I was just going ahead.
I reached the aid station in much better spirits using those few miles alone to refocus and get back to having fun. I was hoping to grab some food/drink and get moving alone again, but first I had to get the rocks out of my shoes. I sat down and took off my sock (only the right one, my left foot had taken a beating and I didn't want to look at my toe fearing that it would be a disaster and would force me to quit. As I put my sock back on and got ready to leave, Kim from Quad Cities was there and got right behind me again. A little frustrated I just took off in silence and she chirped from behind 'Is it okay that I keep following you? I like the pace you are setting but if you don't want me around I understand.' I said it was fine, knowing that at some point conversation would come in handy when we were battling tough times.
The two of us went down a massive hill, Kim's quads were screaming, my knees felt wobbly by the time we got to the bottom. Went through really hot, miserable rock field with no tree cover (sun was high in the sky by now, it was around 2pm and that patch was not much fun) then down again over a beautiful, cool mountain stream and then up, up, up.
We started walking up the switchbacks, tried running but it was pretty steep and we both decided to enjoy the walk and wait till it leveled out to start running again.
Once again the unknown was pissing me off, the mileage on the course all day had been off. My GPS watch was having trouble staying connected and was around 2 miles off the total mileage but the aid station mileage was what was really wrong. The distances didn't make sense and were totally inaccurate which was disheartening at times.
I ran out of water but was lucky when the path finally leveled enough to run that we were only a mile or so from the turnaround point. We pulled in and again I emptied my shoe of rocks and dirt, took in as much water as I could (I was done with the Gu Brew by now, it was too sweet and starting to mess with my stomach) stretched a little bit and then Kim and I took off again.
That was mile 39 and all things considered I felt good. We were running, like actually running not shuffling, I am sure it wasn't really fast but it was a normal stride and I was amazed at how my body was still working. We wound our way back over the stream (saw a runner in front stop and jump in) then through the hot rock field, stopping to take walk breaks every once in a while and then we got to the beast of a hill.
We had gone down it and it was painful, but now we had to go up. No switchbacks just up and up and up. A person in front of us said it was 2 miles yet it seemed like 20.
Kim and I made our way up the hill, every time I looked up I couldn't see the top just bodies moving slowing up in front of me...everyone seemed to be struggling just like I was.
This was the first time all day that I didn't feel good. My body was starting to get beat up, and mentally this hill was killing me. A little over halfway up my left hamstring cramped and I had to pull off to the side to stretch it. Kim stopped to wait but I waved her on, knowing my body this was not something that would go away anytime soon. Kim said she would wait but again I said 'Trust me just go I will catch up' (knowing that was not true)
She left and I was on my own. This was a dark spot, mentally I was struggling, physically I was struggling and my frustration of not knowing where I was started to boil over. Finally I reached the top of the hill and dropped a few F-bombs on it and then looked around for the aid station but it wasn't there. I had no idea how much further I had to go and without being able to run constantly because of the hamstring I was moving really slow.
My stomach started to hurt too, one minute I was really hungry and the next I felt like puking. My feet hurt, my leg hurt, my head hurt. I was done. Then I would pull out of it and feel good again and run a little bit only to get blindsided by it again. I stopped and sat on a log telling myself to puke but couldn't do it, washed out my mouth with water but the taste of Gu was still there. I didn't know what to do, could I go on? Would seeing that aid station boost my spirits enough to finish? Where the F was that aid station?
Through it all I kept moving, my stop on the log lasted less than a minute and I kept moving forward finally coming to the aid station, mile 45 roughly.
As I walked into that aid station I decided that I was going to quit. If anyone asked if I was done I would say yes and just call it a day. I sat down on a chair waiting for my stomach to settle and someone to come to me. But no one did. I looked around and all the volunteers were busy helping folks out. I gave it another minute, nothing. So I stood up and said to myself 'F-it let's go' filled up my bottle with water and started walking. The only thought in my mind was 'Relentless forward progress' just keep moving.
I walked, I ran a little till the hammy cramped, felt like I rolled down the hills. I stopped and got the rocks out of my shoe.
I was passed...a lot. Lynn and Habeebee caught up, asked if I was okay and then kept motoring, two women bounded along behind me shouting to each other 'You're awesome, no you're awesome!' I was stretching on the side of the trail as they passed and one tapped my back and said 'You're awesome too!' I kept moving, my watch battery died, I had no idea how many miles were left, the woods all looked the same.
I got pissed, I felt great, I repeated the phrase 'Who am I? I AM A CHAMPION!' I bitched, I whined, I ran, 5 fat women on horses overtook the path. I stopped to stretch and the horse started freaking out and the people did too.
Later I pulled off to get the rocks out my shoes and was passed by an old guy in a cowboy hat, I called him Waylon Jennings and the song 'Momma's don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys' was stuck in my head.
I kept moving, looking for landmarks but finding none.
Then a kid appeared on the trail, he looked like Notorious (it was a real kid there are campground around) his lone clap filled the woods and he said 'Keep going you're almost there!' I said I'm trying buddy and he replied 'Just finish that's all that matters!' brought a tear to my eye.
I thought about Paul, Mom, Dad, Alex, Sarah, all my friends and family who have been so supportive of this adventure, I wish I could tell them how much I appreciated it, how much it meant to me. How I am sure they were sick of hearing me talk about it, or miss things because I was spending 90% of my weekend training or recovering.
I kept moving forward.
Finally I saw the road and my spirits lifted. I had just enough energy to get on the road and run to the end, hamstring tightening with every step, stride so short you could barley stick a penny between my feet.
Mom and Paul snapping pictures, Kim from Quad Cities who finished a half hour in front of me and hung around to see me finish. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. A bunch of people on the road were walking to their cars and began to cheer. I was the only one out there, they clapped, shouted and helped me get to the end.
Finally I made it...it was over...50 f-ing miles...and I would do it again in a heartbeat!