Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chuckanut 50km Race Report

Running downhill is just not my thing. To clarify, I like running downhill on trails; no, I love running downhill on trails. However, when you give me over 5km of old logging road to fly down, after I've already been running for 35km, I know that by the bottom I'm going to be shot. I had studied the race course prior to the event, but was unaware that this long downhill was all going to be on an old road with no built-up, squishy orgainic matter to soften the blows and no twists and turns and variety to make it a little easier on the body. I knew that braking on the downhill was only going to put more strain on the quads so I only had one option... open it up and get down as quickly as possible knowing that the last 10km of the course was going to be painful. It was.

This was the 16th annual Chuckanut 50km ultra trail run held in Bellingham, Washington. It was my first ultra and I had several goals leading into the race:
1. finish
2. finish well
3. race smart (don't blow up)

Now, all of these kind of go together. Of course I wanted to finish but I wanted to put in my best performance for my first race. In order to do this, I needed to race conservatively, listen to my body, and race my own race. This last point 'racing your own race' is probably one of the most important aspects of ultrarunning and I have been told this many times by different people. It sounds so easy but it is also so easy to let others dictate your speed and stray you away from your race strategy; this inevitibly leads to point number three (blow up). I studied the course map previous to the event and planned out my nutrition for the event, along with how hard to go in certain sections of the course. This helped out a lot as I knew where the climbs and decents were located and was prepared for each of them. Below is the official course map (click to make larger).

While the course is a 'trail run', it does contain several sections of fire road and includes approximately 10km of old rail bed which is the out-and-back for the course (10km out, lots of trails, 10km back). I decided that the first 10km was going to be the most conservative part of the course for me so that I could get the legs nice and warm, relax into it, and then start to push as we hit the first climb.
I travelled down to the event with my race partner Gary Robbins who is coming off of a calf injury and wasn't sure on what kind of performance he'd be able to put in as he hadn't been running much. Basically, if anything started to hurt, he was going to drop out. I must say that I was concerned with him racing and re-injuring himself but completely understood why he had to do it (his motivation was waining, not running was killing him, and he needed a boost to mentally give him a lift). So, as the race started, I caught up with him and we held together for the run out to the climb. While he was breathing pretty hard and fell back on me a bit, he seemed to be doing alright and I knew that by the time we hit the climb, he would be all over it.
I can really see how easily it can be to lose your game plan. Here Gary and I were running back around 35th place but just absolutely knew that we were stronger than the people passing us were. We just let them go and stuck to our pace knowing that this would pay off in the long term. It did.
Let me tell you. Picking people off all race long is not only uplifting but extremely satisfying!
We hit the climb and like I knew, Gary was off running and power hiking up the climb with authority. I was doing quite well myself picking off many runners that so easily passed us on the way out. The trails here were amazing! Really sweet single track, lots of squishy ground with mud (but not too much), and lots of roots and rocks. This terrain definitely separates the roadies from the trail runners! The top of the climb ended at a lake. A short perimeter run and we were soon heading down again on a super fast muddy and twisty single track. It was awesome! I ran so fast down this section that I was passing people like they were standing still. Seems like Gary had the same experience as well with one racer whom he passed, caught up to him again and noted that he had never seen anyone run downhill as fast as he did! That's what you get when Squamish is your training ground!

I was feeling pretty good out of the first aid station which led into a long fire road climb up to the peak of Chuckanut mountain. I could see Gary up the road not too far ahead and actually made up a bit of time on him and picked off several runners who couldn't keep up to him. At the peak of the climb was our drop bag and the aid station where I quickly filled up my bottles with some Carbo-Pro 1200 and was then running the Chuckanut ridge. This trail was great. Lots of technical sections and great views; everything you'd want in a good trail. I knew that the long climb up was going to hurt (and it did) so I stuck with my plan and started to approach the uphills on the trail conservatively with lots of power hiking. I also knew that there was still lots of racecourse left and I wanted to finish strong.
Of note on the race course were little signs that told you what was coming up. Some of these were typical (danger, steep) but others were little motivational signs for the runners. My favorites that I can remeber were 'Mud isn't that bad' and 'you are light and swift'. The latter sign was great as I was starting to hurt on the ridge climbs and when I saw this sign, I immediately laughed and I totally perked up. Thanks!
I ran the ridge mostly by myself but once we came down for a long undulating but mostly uphill section, I could see a string of runners that I slowly but surely picked off one-by-one. Many would try to hold-on longer than they should have (racing my race instead of their own) would crack, and suddenly be gone after being right on my heals. I caught up with Devin Crowsby-Helms (the top place female), exchanged a few words, but when she dropped me on Chin Scrapper (a long muddy downhill), I knew I was around where I should be. I hit the last climb to the peak, put on a push, and passed Devon and a couple other runners who seemed to have significantly slowed. I knew that this was the last climb of the race and didn't want to leave much left as I knew it was all downhill from the top.
This brings me to the downhill. I don't think I've ever ran a road downhill section that was that long before. About halfway down, I heard someone coming behind me. I think this sped me up even more and was able to hold on to my spot to the bottom and last aid station. I didn't actually see who was behind me until the bottom. It was Devon. We both left the aid station at the same time and agreed to run in the last 10km together. We were both hurting but I was definitely in worse shape.
For the next 5km, all I could think about was how much my legs hurt.
The downhill did a number on me and while my plan was to run the last section hard, there was just no way I could push it. I made it clear that I was hurting and that I would try to run with her but to take off if I couldn't keep up. I usually have very good mind control but after 40km, my body so wanted to stop that it wouldn't leave me alone. If I was by myself, I may have stopped running and put in some walking. I was so glad to have someone to keep me going and I know Devon did as well. She did a great job at trying to keep my mind off the pain.
During the run in, we managed to keep a good pace but caught no other racers and had no racers following. You could see far in the distance at times but even after shoulder checking, we both kept thinking that we would hear footsteps behind us. Devon in particular, was sure that the 2nd place female was right behind her and there was no way that she was going to lose this race.
As we approached the finish area I made it clear that I wasn't going to out sprint her to the line as I definitely needed the help more than she did. "No" she said, "we'll finish together". I thought it was pretty classy coming from the US 100km team member so we pushed together and crossed the line together.
I had no idea what my place was and was pretty shattered. After a post race flushing by a free massage service, I met up with Gary who had a strong race and finished 10th overall after a last battle in the last 500m of the race. Congrats! And me? I had pulled 16th place overall with a time of 4:40:28.5. Because of chip timing, I ended up ranking ahead of Devon since I crossed the start line after her (sorry!).
Chuckanut was a perfect event for my first ultra. I had a solid race, finished, finished well, and raced smart by sticking with my game plan. The event was put on without a hitch, had awesome volunteers, and was just a great race overall. Definitely signing up for this one next year.

I raced Chuckanut foodless with no breakfast. I would have liked to have something like a bowl of cereral in the morning but we woke up on the later side of things and I didn't want any solid food that close to race time. I had 1 gel and two thermolytes just before the race, used ~700 calories of Carbo-Pro powder and ~800 calories of Carbo-Pro 1200. I think I used 10 thermolytes on course for my electrolyte input and grabbed a few onces of Coke in the aid stations for a caffeine and sugar boost. This combo worked great as I had no cramping issues and had plenty of energy throughout the course with no bonking and no stomach issues. Carbo-Pro rocks!
What's next?
Diez Vista 50km Ultra Trail Run in three weeks! Now that I have one ultra under my belt, I'm sure the experience will be invaluable in allowing me to know my limits better and run an even stronger race. Wish me luck!


Anonymous said...

Great write-up. Congrats on your race

Anonymous said...

nice work. i got a question. do you have that CF software and if so how is it? is it useful? realistic?

duncan c

Todd Nowack said...

Catching Features is an awesome game and tool. Is is very realistic and does simulate real orienteering very well. Some of the best CF gamers are also top orienteers. I'd highly recommend checking it out. There are ongoing competitions that you can play against other players on new maps that are create all the time. It's cheap too!