It was a great day in Fairhaven for the 2010 Chuckanut 50k and the event lived up to the hype — or at least the hype I’d built up in my head since ultras don’t usually come with what most would describe as ‘hype.’ You see, I had a pretty bad meltdown at last year’s race after practically chugging a bottle of CarboPro 1200 straight in the first quarter of the race. After the first aid station last year, I found myself in the dream scenario of chasing Scott Jurek all the way up to the third aid station toward the top of Chuckanut Mountain. Then it all went to hell, as my gut bloated and contorted from CarboPro overload and I struggled through stomach issues the rest of the day. It was a disastrous day of racing, but that didn’t dissuade me from circling the date on the 2010 calendar as soon as I got home. Chuckanut had left an impression on me and I couldn’t wait to go back.
The talent at the 2009 race was deep, the weather was great, and the course was fast enough for Aaron Heidt to win it in 3:53, the fastest time ever run on this version of the Chuckanut course (Uli Steidl‘s official Chuckanut record time of 3:42:59 was run on a shorter route in 2005). This year the talent was deeper, the weather even better, and the course… an astonishing SIX guys blazed through the course under four hours, with the top three — including Aaron’s 2009 TransRockies teammate, Adam Campbell, running his first ever ultra — eclipsing Aaron’s 2009 time. In fact, UltraSignup.com shows that the 2010 edition of the race boasted six of the fastest ten men’s and five of the fastest ten women’s times all-time on ANY Chuckanut course!
As the runners settled in for the relative easy 10k stretch along the Interurban Trail to the first aid station, I could see my bunkmate for the weekend, Mike Palichuk, about 50 metres ahead, and the tattooed shoulders of 2009 Stormy 100 champ Chris Downie a little further ahead of him. I spent a bit of time chatting with Darin Bentley, before he pulled away, leaving me to complete the bulk of the Interurban stretch in the company of last year’s women’s champ, Ellie Greenwood, and one of Hal Koerner‘s Rogue Valley manservants and 2009 Trail Runner magazine Race Issue cover model, Chris Rennaker.
I could tell in the first few miles that I didn’t have a whole lot of jump in my legs but hit the first aid station right about where I was last year. Chris and I pulled away from Ellie on the first climb before Chris found another gear and slowly disappeared on the Fragrance Lake climb I chased Jurek up last year. It was a much different scene on the way up this year. Last year it was just Jerker and me, frolicking through the forest together without another person in sight, but this year it was like a tour bus had just unloaded and flung bodies everywhere. There had to be a dozen people in view at any point on the switchbacks ahead.
A year ago, I felt like I was holding back a little on this section, but this year it was more like I was holding on. My legs were a little dead before I’d even reached the quarter mark of the race! My climbing legs generally let me down this year, and I devoted a bit too much time to wondering if that abbreviated hill training workout with the marathon clinic on Thursday wasn’t such a great idea.
I spent a lot of the race chasing skirts — figuratively, in that totally sexist meaning of the phrase, and literally, in that eventual women’s winner, Susannah Beck was actually wearing a skirt! (For the record, it was a kilt that looked remarkably like wool, though she assured me it wasn’t.) First there was Ellie on the Interurban; then a girl who would ultimately DNF, on the top part of the climb to Fragrance Lake; later the eventual third place woman, Lia Slemons, on the Ridge Trail and the first part of North Lost Lake Trail; and then Susannah Beck just before the junction of North and South Lost Lake Trails — where she proclaimed she was dying — and then again on Chinscraper, where I can only assume she’d been born again. Susannah, a two-time US Olympic marathon trials competitor, breezed by me at aid station 4, grabbing a homemade hydration pack with duct tape straps from a crew member on the way, while I stood and waited for a bottle refill. I caught back up to her on Chinscraper just after seeing Glenn Tachiyama in his usual perch on the steepest bleeping part of the bleeping climb, and spent so much time just behind her that I started calling the hill, Kiltscraper. The only thing that broke up the monotony of the swaying tartan test pattern in front of me, was the brief neon flash of Adam Hewey in his brand new Brooks ID singlet, flying past me en route to taking the masters title.
My downhilling over the first half of the course was surprisingly one of the stronger parts of my race, but I was pretty fried by the big final descent to the last aid station and the beginning of the flat 10k to the finish. I was passed by a couple of people on the way down, including Vancouver boy, Hozumi Nakai, and Lia Slemons, whom I hadn’t seen since Lost Lake.
From Chinscraper on, my quads cramped quite a bit, especially my vastus medialis (those teardrop-shaped quad muscles toward the inside of the knee) and I finally stopped to stretch them out on the Interurban — at which point Ellie roared past me closing hard on Lia who was still in second place. Always a strong finisher, I’d been wondering when Ellie would be making her appearance. I tried to hang on, give her a little push, and let her know where the two women ahead of her were. I think it helped get me going as well and the cramping calmed down for a while.
I could see Bentley and Montrail Canada mega-stud, Ryne Melcher, ahead at times in the final six miles and was definitely gaining on them, but not quickly enough as it turned out. I just didn’t have enough left to really make a move.
With a couple of miles to go I glanced back to see a guy slowly closing the gap on me. I was feeling a little better and the cramping was under control so I thought I could hold him off… at least until we dropped into the final little canyon at Arroyo Park and I went down on a small but slimy wooden bridge. I hit the deck hard and instantly it seemed that every muscle in my legs seized up. I got up slowly and did a half-jog to get going again and assess the damage. I was barely moving but still the guy didn’t pass me. Just put me out of my misery already, I secretly begged. He finally did, with a little over a mile to go, on the little switchbacks on the other side of Old Samish Road. He turned out to be Justin Angle, a Team Patagonia member I knew a bit about and who I’d seen in Trail Runner. He actually apologized after the race for passing me, saying he doesn’t like passing guys late in races. I said not to worry. It wasn’t like he sprinted past me at the line, not that I would have been too upset had he done that either. Justin Angle, you truly are a gentleman and a scholar!
I was a mess in that last mile but sensing the end, I kept hammering. One spectator shouted something I found refreshing. It wasn’t the usual, “you look great!” or “you look strong!” or any of the other lies well-meaning fans often foist upon weary distance runners. No, the guy yelled, “good turnover!” Huh? Hmmm… yes, I’ll accept that. I knew I didn’t look great, or strong, and I sure as hell knew my form went to shit at least three hours earlier. Cramping and sore, my legs were still moving — relentless forward motion, as they say — and clearly I was turning them over quickly enough to warrant a remark from one trailside supporter who had the good sense not to sugarcoat my haggard state. No matter how bad I looked otherwise, I had my ‘good turnover’ going for me! I gained on Justin toward the end too, but as with Bentley and Melcher who finished ahead of him, the course ran out before he did.
My split times compared to last year weren’t as good as I’d hoped: as I said, I was about even to the first aid station, a minute ahead at the second and third. I started to falter last year after aid station 3 and spent a lot of time from North Lost Lake Trail onward, staring at my shoelaces at the side of the trail. In spite of that, I was still only ten minutes ahead of last year’s pace by the fourth aid station at the base of Chinscraper. I was about 25 minutes ahead through the final aid station and then about 36 minutes at the finish. Despite walking almost the entire first mile of that final flat stretch last year, I was only about 10 minutes faster this year.
Testament to the depth of this year’s field, I finished 22nd overall but my time would have been good enough for the top ten last year. I was second to Adam Hewey in the masters race, one place overall ahead of Miles Olerich who took third. Incidentally, the three of us were all wearing Brooks Cascadias and were discussing why Brooks doesn’t sponsor a trail running team when non-Brooks-wearing Gary Robbins appeared and took that photo of us. Anyone from Brooks listening?
Race director Krissy Moehl and her team put on a fabulous event again this year. Krissy was hilarious when she announced the masters winners. She looked at her notes and said, “The second masters male… oh, I know I’m going to screw up this name….David Papineau?” I’m sure her caution came naturally for someone who has undoubtedly endured a lifetime of people mispronouncing her name (Moehl is apparently pronounced, ‘mail’) but she nailed it! Thank you again Krissy for a great race and a memorable day!
After last year’s disappointment, I feel redeemed but by no means satisfied. I’m not used to feeling that bad late in a race and with one or two longer journeys on the dance card this year, I’ve got some work to do.