This isn't the race report I was expecting to write. It actually isn't a race report at all. Last week, in the days before the McKenzie River 50k that I've been training for all summer, something came up. And that something was a forest fire. After spending over a week in Central Oregon recently, we knew the fires were pretty bad out there and the air was very smoky and hazy. But it never occurred to me that this may affect the 50k until we got an email from the race directors 3 days before the race. There was a new fire burning very close to the race course and they would be at the very least changing the course, or at the most cancelling the race. They linked the fire info site and said they would update us the next day. That email confirmed that the course had been changed to eliminate the section closest to the fire, but also informed us that the air quality was predicted to be poor and that the race was still subject to last-minute cancellation. At that point, the fire was about 3-4 miles from the original course and moving in that direction, over 5,000 acres, and 0% contained.
Zach told me it was my decision to run the race or not. We had planned on driving down Friday afternoon, before the next update would be arriving. I was really worried that we'd get all the way down there and the race would be cancelled at the last minute. I was determined to run 31 miles that day and if that happened, it would be too late to do a different run on my own. But mostly, I was concerned about the smoke. I'm not asthmatic or anything, but I don't think it's good to breathe in that stuff for hours of strenuous exercise. Also, after spending several summers with severe forest fires and air quality warnings in Montana, I have a real aversion to all that. I get really anxious and claustrophobic when it is very smoky. I felt that way pretty often when we were on vacation there and it sucked. I was already so nervous about running 50 kilometers, I couldn't handle any more stress. And with family coming to town and travel plans, I just couldn't wait until the last minute to make a decision.
All this is to say, I decided to skip it. Zach supported my decision because this race was always meant to be a special birthday thing and that was more important to him than doing a race. He's the best, obviously. While the fire did get worse (and is still going!), the race was not cancelled. And while the revised course was arguably more challenging and not as scenic, it appeared to go off pretty smoothly.
Part of me is definitely disappointed in my decision and the whole situation. But, I had to make a call and I have to live with that. I do think the smoke, while minor, would have caused me a lot of stress and anxiety if I had gone. And really, I just had no way of knowing what was going to happen. At this point, there is nothing I can do to change it, so that's it!
Now that I've given the whole back story and drama, let's flip this to the positive. Because I have a pretty great run to tell you about.
On Saturday, September 10th, I ran 31 miles.
This was the farthest and longest I have ever run. I've completed 9 marathons and an Ironman, but I've never ran more than 26.2 miles. I've never run more than 22 miles on my own or on a trail. This was a big, bold adventure and I was going to do it completely on my own.
When I decided not to run the McKenzie River 50k, I knew immediately what I wanted to do. One of my big goals for the past couple of years has been to one day run the entire Wildwood Trail in Forest Park. This is the 30-mile long single track trail that I've done most of my training on, up to 22 miles at a time. I've run most of it at some point along with lots of the other trails that it connects with. I've heard several people - both friends (Amy!) and in random conversations around town- mention doing this. It's kind of a Portland "thing" but not that many people have done it! I knew this would be the perfect place to do my 31 mile birthday run.
Zach helped me plan the run (more on his plans later) including start time, aid stations, finish area, post-run plans, etc. He took the role as "race director" and did a great job. It was last minute, of course, so many of my friends already had other plans, but quite a few people came out to support me! Zach and my friends met me at 4 places along the trail, and Zach met me to run the last 3.5 miles or so with me. I carried my fuel belt with Gu and water, and refilled the water and ate other nutrition at the aid stations. Zach also provided "official race clock" along with my watch, since I would be running my time non-stop until I reached the finish. Even though it wasn't a race, I wanted to try to simulate it as best as I could.
My plan was to run the trail from the "30" mile marker at Newbury Road back to the "0" in Washington Park, and to double back at some point on the trail to add one mile. The far end of Forest Park is very quiet and feels really remote, while the other end is right in town (still surrounded by forest though) and is much busier. To me it seemed "right" to run it this direction. Part of this reasoning is because the last couple miles near mile 30 are rather technical and a little hilly. I hadn't run the other end very much and I thought it would be better to end there. I very wrongly assumed it couldn't be as hard. Anyway, the way I was running, the mile markers would be going backwards, counting down the miles I had left to run.
My goal.... well I wasn't sure if I should throw it away since I wasn't in a race. I didn't know if I would go slower without the excitement and all the other runners. Or would I go faster because I know the trail? My goal for the 50k had previously been something around 6:10-6:30. I've been doing about 12:00 pace on my longest trail runs, give or take, which would be 6:12 finish time. Plus stops for food and bathroom, etc... I'd be happy with anything under 6:30. Also, that is just a ridiculous amount of time to run, so I wanted to draw the line somewhere!
Saturday morning I got up around 6:30 and had breakfast and prepared for the run. We left the house at arrived at the trailhead a few minutes before 8:00. Zach took a picture and we simultaneously started our watches. I was off!
As I mentioned, there are some really rocky and tough sections in the first few miles. I took it nice and slow and even walked up a couple hills. I was feeling really good and excited for what lay ahead. It was early, and I felt like I had the whole forest to myself. I soon realized this was not entirely true. I may have been the only person out there, but there were So. Many. Spiders. Blech!!! I hate spiders. A lot. I tried to not freak out but there were a couple times I felt like just stopping in the middle of the trail and crying or throwing up. It was awful! I guess I am probably exaggerating a little... I mean, I probably only ran through about 6 spider webs all day but 4 of them were in the first hour. And a couple of them were definitely occupied. Eww. I'm getting all twitchy and sick just thinking about it. I was freaking out! I was running spastically and making little whimpering noises and just trying not to lose my shit. Finally, after about an hour, I saw some runners coming toward me! I was SO happy! It was four guys and they said "Good morning!" and I said "I got all the spider webs going that direction," pointing behind me. They laughed and said "Thanks!" and then they all high fived me. It was hilarious. I was so completely relieved to not have to think about the spiders and I really picked up the pace. I had so much energy without having to worry about that! I ate a Gu and was feeling great. A little more than 5 miles in, Zach was waiting for me at the Germantown Road crossing. He took a few pics and filled my water. I was only stopped for about a minute.
The next section is much smoother and less rocky so I was just cruising along. I was really feeling good and was running a good pace. In my training runs I usually averaged around 12 ish minute miles, but I could see I was running around 11:00 pace. Nice! I only saw a few more runners and hikers in this section and it still felt pretty quiet and peaceful. I was glad for the solitude as I used the forest for a pee stop a couple of times throughout the morning. I cruised along and ate another Gu. I expected to see Zach at mile 11 at the Trillium Trail, but when I got there he was no where to be seen. I decided to use this opportunity to add my extra mile, but when I returned back to the trail crossing he was still not there. I yelled out his name in case he was just almost there, but nothing. It turned out the road he needed to take was closed due to a downed power line! I only had a little water and was a little worried, since the next meeting point was 5 miles away. But just a couple miles later, I saw Zach running down the trail toward me! He had found a different trail to access Wildwood and ran with a the backpack full of stuff at least 2 miles to meet me. What a relief! I let him refill my water and gave me a couple more Gu's. I was really glad to have his company for a couple of miles as he ran back toward his trail with me. Especially because I didn't really have to stop at all for this "aid station." Back at his turnoff, he got a picture of me and gave me a quick smooch and I continued on my way.
Since he changed his planned meeting point, it was now going to be about 7 miles until I saw him again. And I had the biggest hills of the course (I thought) just ahead of me. I kept cruising along and noticed the 15 1/2 mile marker- since I'd already added my mile, this was half way! I looked at my watch and I was at 3 hours exactly. Nice! This was an 11:37 pace even with my stops. I knew I couldn't possibly run an even split though but was still really happy with my projected time.
There were several big hills and I powered through them. I walked when I needed too but was still making good time. I couldn't believe I had been running over 4 hours already and still felt so good! After making it up the last big hill I ran a couple of flat miles to the next meeting point. There was Zach, just as planned! I knew I was going to take advantage of this aid station and spend some time, so I shouted ahead what I wanted, just to make the most of my time. I was HUNGRY! I'd been eating gel every 45 minutes but my stomach wanted real food. Gatorade also sounded delicious! Zach got that out, along with an orange and some pretzels. I was shoving my face and gulping Gatorade like a maniac. What a sight! Then all of a sudden, some good friends from out of town pulled up in their truck! I hadn't seen them in over a year so we had a quick mini-reunion and hug! So fun. They had talked to Zach and were there to surprise me and cheer me on. I told everyone goodbye and ran on down the trail.
I was in the final 10 miles of my run, and I knew this is where it would get interesting. I was excited but a little nervous. The thing I didn't realize at the time was how challenging the next 10 miles were. First off were some gentle downhills. Felt nice! Then it got steeper and steeper. I was running down switchbacks around mile 24. Ouch. I kept going down until mile 25.5 where the trail hits the junction with Lower Maclay at the Stone House. The downhills had worn my legs out quite a bit, but I had no idea what was ahead. I mean, I've run this part of the trail but I think I was ignoring the knowledge I had. After the Stone House, I headed up. It's not only steep, but very rocky and technical. I had to walk much of the next half mile. I knew a break was ahead, because at the 26 mile mark I knew Sarah and Michael would be waiting! I ran/walked up and up and finally reached the parking lot. I was worried when I didn't see them at first, but then they appeared around a corner, cheering and holding a sign! They had a cooler full of goodies, too. I chugged more gatorade and ate part of a clif bar, stashing the remainder in my fuel belt. Another photo and I was off. I noted at this point that I had been running for 5 hours and 10 minutes. That is an 11:55 pace, and I later calculated that the last 10.5 miles were run at a 12:23 pace. That climb had cost me some time. I'll stop with all the foreshadowing I swear, but let me say one last time, that last climb was nothing.
After leaving the Sarah and Michael aid station, I was moving into uncharted territory. I was about to run further than I’d ever run before, passing the 26.2 mile mark. I was pretty excited, but the run was becoming exponentially more difficult. As I was entering the last 5 miles, the trail was getting seriously hilly. For more than a mile after that stop up to Pittock Mansion, it was a straight climb, gaining several hundred feet of elevation. It was switchbacky, steep, and just brutal. I walked a lot, probably most of it, and I think that mile took me 15 minutes. When I finally reached the top at Pittock Mansion, I was sooooo glad. I knew it was not flat after that, but that was the major climb. I also knew I would be seeing Zach soon. He was going to park at the end and run towards me. I crossed the parking lot at Pittock Mansion with just under 4 miles to go, and immediately hit more steep switchbacks. These were even more brutal, because these were going DOWN. My legs locked up. Actually, my right leg really locked up but the whole system was definitely hurting. I was forced to walk some of this descent and that was pretty frustrating.
Finally, with about 3 miles to go, I saw my sweet, shirtless husband running toward me. Yay! My spirits were boosted and I was all excited to tell him about my run. He started running with me, but I told him right away there wasn’t that much running happening. We ran and walked together and he made me stay on top of my nutrition and hydration. He encouraged me to start running again after each walk break and really just kept me moving. I was very grateful for his company. He also directed me along the trail, as this part of the Wildwood through Washington Park can be pretty confusing. We kept moving, with lots of walking and lots of encouragement from Zach, toward the finish. It wasn’t that hilly but I was really sore and tired. We picked a random time goal and worked toward beating it. Whatever it takes! Finally, I see my friends waiting for me and they started cheering. They pointed me to the right tree with the “0” marker on it and I ran to it and stopped my watch.
Official Birthday 50k Finish Time: 6:19:12 (12:14 average pace)
1st Place Overall! :P
I got hugs and congratulations from my good buddies, and flowers from Amy, and I told them about my adventure. Then Zach appeared with cupcakes and champagne and they all sang me happy birthday!! So fun. We chatted for a bit and then all met up down at Rogue for a celebratory beer. A bunch more of my friends, as well as Zach’s dad and stepmom were there!! It was great to celebrate with everyone.
It truly was an amazing experience. I had so much fun that I really can’t regret missing the McKenzie River 50k. I really pushed beyond what I thought was my limit, and it wasn’t even that hard. I admit, it leaves me wondering…. what is my limit? Maybe I could run 50 miles??
My legs have recovered super fast. I was really sore that night, but by Sunday I felt a lot better and even played softball that night (we won). I ran 5 miles Tuesday and then tonight (Wednesday) I ran a 5ish mile trail race and actually kicked some ass. It was great!! It was a small race (under 100 people) but I was the 10th female and 5th in the 30-39 AG. Not bad for having run 31 miles 4 days ago! I’m really, really proud of myself and everything I have accomplished.
Thank you as always for reading and for supporting and inspiring me!!
Stay tuned… I’ll be running the Portland Marathon on October 9th! Bring it!