Scanning the start list of the last few races that I have done has been an exercise in awe. I have tremendous respect for the accomplishments and talent of everyone that toes the line at an ultra, but the race resumes of the front-runners are a true who’s who of the North American ultra scene and the fact that I get to test myself against them excites me. I love the accountability that having a quality field at a race imposes on me. It narrows the room for error, it makes me work harder in training and ultimately, it makes me have to raise my game as an athlete on the day. No matter how well I think I’m running, race results don’t lie. They may lack the nuance and detail of exactly what happened over the course of a run, but the brutal honesty of a finishing place and time is a great reality check.
I find preparing for and racing trail and mountain ultras to be an interesting balance. It satisfies my love of traveling through natural and wild places, while allowing me to express my competitive spirit. I use my training to explore my surroundings, but racing really allows me to explore myself. Both are equally important to me in my running at this point in my life. After a winter of slogging out many wet and cold miles, mostly alone, by headlamp before and after work, getting to know Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, I was really looking forward to celebrating my training and seeing where I was at.
The Chuckanut 50k was my first ultra in 2010 and I returned last year. It’s an easy race for me to get to and I’ve also learned something every time I’ve raced there, but I also like the fact that it can now act as a benchmark of my early season miles. Knowing that it was the 20th anniversary of the race and that race director Krissy Moehl was attracting a quality field to the event only increased the appeal. I was really looking forward to it.
Race morning was like much of my winter running, cold, dark and rainy. I sat in a near empty coffee shop in Fairhaven, with Bryon Powell of iRunFar, my wife, and few other racers trying to find shelter. I fumbled around nervously, trying to decide what I should wear, whittling the time away. Although I’m Canadian, I’m far from hardy and have suffered through countless cold runs. I know that wet, cold weather can creep its way deep into your muscles, leaving your legs wooden and forcing your stride into a slog. I wanted to avoid that, but I also know that wet clothes are essentially dead weight, which I didn’t really want to drag around. I ultimately settled on being a bit chilly and committed to just running a bit harder to stay warm. That seemed like a good policy for a race.
I jogged gently to the start from the coffee shop, trying to conserve as much energy as I could for the upcoming miles, while trying to get the warming blood to flow through me. After the usual pre-race nervous anticipation, and quick hellos with friends whose special kinship draws us all together at the start line, the gun went off and we settled into our stride. With a mix of mountain ultra veterans and the fast road stars, I knew that the race would go out hard and that a lot would change over the last few miles.
Jason Louttit, a fellow Canadian who I have raced numerous times over the past 4 or 5 years, took off as per his warrior style. His pace seemed a bit quick, so I settled in beside Mike Wolfe, an athlete and person that I have tremendous respect for, just behind Max King and Sage Canaday, two athletes who I knew would thrive on Chuckanut’s unique course profile, which on paper looks like a snake that has eaten an elephant. A straight line, followed by two big bumps, followed by another straight line, which curls around on itself.
As Jason rolled away, Max and Sage were clearly watching each other and running at a (for them) relaxed tempo effort. I secretly hoped that they would go out harder, taking more out of their legs for the later miles. Instead, they were being disciplined, which I knew would make them hard to beat.
I was focusing on running as hard as I could, while staying comfortable and relaxed, it’s a delicate line to balance along on the opening flat miles. I chatted briefly with Mike, but when a small gap opened up to Max and Sage on the first little uphill, his competitive instinct took over and he chased up to them. I tucked on to him and we rolled up to them together, with a quality group of athletes right behind us.
Races have several cruxes, moments that define how the day will play out and I felt like this small move, despite coming so early in the race was one of them. It kept us both in the game, running alongside Max and Sage and it was worth the energy to make the move.
I continued to stay as relaxed as I could through the opening miles and I began fueling in anticipation of the next few hours of hard running. The rain, with a few wet snowflakes mixed in with the precipitation, was soaking us the entire time and my hands were aching from the cold, but my core and legs felt good.
As we approached the first turn off into the single-track, I skipped the aide station and moved to the front of our pace line of 6 or 7 athletes. I liked the fact that I could set the rhythm up front and run at my own pace. I really enjoyed snaking my way up and down the trail surrounded by the familiar sights and smells of a Pacific Northwest forest as we made our way further up the mountain and into the snow. We were making time up on Jason through the whole climb, so I never felt a real need to press, it was still early.
As we ran through the first small declines on the singletrack, I could tell that the trail was very slick. I tried to be a bit cautious, but I overshot a few corners and had to pinball my way down the narrow corridor of trees, pushing off of them to stay on trail. When the trail finally spit our group out of the trees onto the long gravel road ascent up to Chuckanut Ridge I had my first low point of the race.
Jason was up the road, in sight, and the road warriors took off after him up the moderate grade. Although I desperately wanted to follow them, Max, Sage, Jason Schlarb, Chris Kollar and Justin Ricks were all moving too quickly for me and, step by step, they pulled away. I focused in on my own rhythm and tried to limit the damage. By this point, the road was covered in snow and I kept zigzagging in and out of jeep tracks desperately trying to find some good footing.
At the top of the climb, I’d lost about a minute and half to the leaders and was in 7th. I figured at that point that a top 5 was still possible, and against this field, that was a very respectable result and one I would be thrilled with, so I kept pressing. I was also excited to be heading back into some more technical terrain.
Almost as soon as I got on the famous ridge section, I slipped on a rock and fell really hard, bruising my left quad on a root and hurting my elbow. The fall stunned and scared me and when I got up, I was favouring my leg and was moving gingerly. I proceeded cautiously along the trail, not willing to risk a more serious fall on the slick terrain this early in the season. As I limped along, I took solace in how scenic this section of the race is, the bright green trees contrasting starkly with the beautiful blanket of snow covering them. Despite the scenery, the trail continued to dish out punishment. Wet branches and clumps of snow blinded me a few times and I was far from graceful along the roots and rocks.
About half way along the ridge, Dane Mitchell nimbly danced his way up to and past me. He was quickly out of sight. Mike Foote soon followed suit, but by that point my leg was feeling better and Mike and I rolled and slipped our way along together, both of us commenting on the conditions. As the trail opened up, I regained confidence in my footing and was able to open up my stride and I found myself moving away from Mike.
I really enjoyed the muddy back stretch, which reminded my of my winter runs along Thetis Lake park in Victoria. I was running alone at this point and I found the going to be quite demanding. The mud slowing my stride and was making it quite muscular, but I also knew that it would be affecting everyone similarly. I kept fueling and pressing hard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a singlet up the trail and reminding myself that anything can happen over those closing miles.
As I made my way down to the start of final climb, the Chinscraper, it was good to see familiar faces. I had desperately tried to pee while I ran along the flat stretch, but still can’t go on the fly, so I used my time at the aide station to have Joe Grant fill a water bottle with Coke for me, as I relieved my bladder quite openly. I knew that I was in 7th or 8th, about 9 minutes down at that point, but as I grabbed some gels and ventured into the trail, I saw Justin Ricks, who had been ahead of me, walking back down the trail, looking depleted.
As I made my way up the steep climb, I realized that I felt amazing and was able to press quite hard. Despite the slick conditions, I ran up the incline, feeling good the whole way, amazed with how much better I felt at that point than I had in my two previous races on the trail. I committed to keep chasing hard.
At the top of the climb, as I began to make my way down Crater Lake Road, I kept fueling, in anticipation of a hard finishing stretch. As I made my way down the quad destroying section of the race, my tender left quad getting further abuse, I saw Joe Grant again, who mentioned that I was now 2.5 minutes back of Jason Louttit. I figured he was giving me a realistic target to chase for, with the leaders now comfortably out of reach. Top-Canadian does have some bragging rights associated with it, especially with a race this close to the border. I could also see a few runners ahead of me for the first time in about an hour, which gave me some pep in my stride.
I still felt quite good on the descent and assumed that I would be picking some people up along the inter-urban trail if I could stay strong. As I ran through the final aide station, I saw my wife and mom, who yelled something about me being 2 minutes back. I was a bit confused, but didn’t dwell on it.
When we hit the urban trail for our final charge home, Dane was just ahead of me, as was Chris, in his bright yellow jacket, so I focused on finding a tempo rhythm right at my limit. I picked the pace up to it and stayed there. I could tell that I was gaining ground on them slowly. I kept picturing runners that I admire, trying to mimic their form, but doing a comical impression of it I’m sure. I ran past them, trying not to look back to see if they were following me. I committed to running as hard as I could and if they beat me, well good for them.
I was getting tired by this point and my legs were screaming, but I was still alert and focused, so I knew that I hadn’t gassed myself out yet. I kept sucking back gels and focused on my rhythm. With about 4.5 miles to go, I heard that I was now 40 seconds away from 2nd place and a minute and a half out of first. I was confused, knowing how far back I’d been at the bottom of Chinscraper, but I didn’t over think it and the chase was on at that point.
I could now see two singlets up the road and realized that it was the two Jason’s. Jason Louttit was still leading, but he was obviously fading fast. Jason Schlarb was looking good, but I was gaining ground on him, which gave me confidence.
After about a mile of solid chasing, I finally rolled up to Jason Schlarb. I was hurting quite badly, but I’d caught him quite quickly, so I risked a surge and ran as hard as I could for 30 seconds to drop him before settling back into my finishing tempo. It felt like a huge change in pace on my tired legs, but I’m sure it would have been barely noticeable to a spectator. I also passed Jason Louttit around at this point, but I could see from his stride that he was starting to struggle. I didn’t know for sure that I was in the lead, but I knew that something had happened up front, so I ran as if I was going for the win.
As I approached the final dip into a gully, with about a mile and a half to go, I snuck a quick glance behind me and saw Jason Schlarb and Sage a few seconds back and I knew that it would be a fight to the finish. Almost exactly at that moment, as I ran off a bridge, I slipped again and fell really hard on my left side. I quickly picked myself up, ignoring the pain in my hip and told myself to suck it up. I allowed the adrenaline to carry me up and out of the gully and back onto the trail.
I assumed that Sage would have more closing speed than me, so I chose not to look behind me and to pressed with whatever I had left towards the road. Fatigue and pain were taking over, but my legs kept moving well. It was a very hypnotic feeling. When I made it to the final street crossing, I asked some spectators if there was anyone behind me and they said no. I still refused to look behind me and never fully trusting spectators’ interpretations of events, I kept the pressure on for the next quarter mile.
As I finally made it to the finishing area, I saw my wife who told me excitedly that I was in fact in the lead and that the road was clear behind me. I finally allowed myself a quick glance over my shoulder, not because I don’t trust my wife, but more because I’d wanted to so badly for the last 6 or 7 minutes. When I saw that it was clear, I eased off the pressure and enjoyed the finish line stretch, trying to celebrate a run that I was proud of and thank the crowd. I was also feeling a bit overwhelmed at how hard the last few miles had been as blood streamed down my leg.
When I finally crossed the line, I heard that Max and Sage had missed a turn and had run several extra miles. I felt really gutted for them, because they were having phenomenal races and were definitely the strongest runners on the day. Despite being obviously disappointed and tired from their extra miles, they were both gracious and classy at the finish. I was really pleased and impressed to see Sage rally so hard to end up in second. It was his first ultra and I hope to see him, and more fast runners making the jump in distance. It’s great for the sport and makes for more entertaining competition. It was also amazing to stand back and watch a quality field roll through at such a tight interval given the conditions, a true testament to the quality and depth of the field.
Apart from winning, it was probably the most even that I have ever felt through an ultra. I felt like I was able to make good decisions throughout the race and I ran faster on the course than I had before, in much worse conditions, validating my feeling that I’d had a good block of training this winter and making me excited for the upcoming season.
It was great to be a part of Krissy’s celebration of the sport. As always, she put on a wonderful event, on an interesting and varied course. The volunteers and spectators were enthusiastic and helpful and the sponsors gave out some great swag. She attracted a top notch field of runners, as well as over 500 runners of varied abilities, each with their own goals on the day. The post-race party at the brewpub on St. Patrick’s day was a great opportunity to catch up with friends in a less competitive setting and tell tales from the trails over a beer or two, making for another memorable and enjoyable weekend of racing.
Gear I used:
- Salomon Soft Ground shoes
- Injinji no show/green socks
- Salomon Twin Skin Exo-Slab shorts
- Salomon Exo arm warmers
- Salomon Buff
- Arc’teryx Motus Crew Short Sleeved t-shirt
- Arc’teryx Neutro Visor
- Arc’teryx Gothic glove
- Ultimate Direction handheld water bottle
What I took
- 3 slices of quinoa bread with almond butter and honey at 6am (8am start)+ a Starbucks Americano
During the race:
- 2 water bottles of Coke
- 3 chocolate caffeinated Gu
- 2 vanilla caffeinated Gu
- 2 Roctane Gu
- 2 chocolate Clif Shots