Another Chuckanut 50k is in the books and it’s pretty obvious that the race is no longer the best-kept secret on the ultramarathon schedule. Winner of everything, Geoff Roes, set a new course record leading eight other guys below the four-hour barrier and the amazing Ellie Greenwood continued her dominance on the women’s side with a course record of her own.
The sun shone on Fairhaven for the 19th annual Chuckanut 50k, but reminders of this winter’s snow and recent heavy rain lay underfoot on much of the middle section of the course, making the speed of this year’s elite runners all the more impressive.
Personally, I had three main goals going into my third Chuckanut: to be faster than last year’s 4:22; to finish stronger than last year; and, inspired by a sequence of photos of Yassine Diboune from last year’s race, I wanted to have enough left by the time I hit Chinscraper to really ham it up for photographer Glenn Tachiyama.
My legs were still a little achy from the past couple of weeks and it took most of the Interurban stretch to aid station #1 to loosen them up. I passed the time chatting with my buddy Mike Palichuk while watching the lead women trying to outrun Ryne Melcher just ahead of us. (It only took them about 6k to break him.) The plan was to take it easier on the way out than previous years and make up the time later with a stronger finish. Even so, as we rolled into the aid station I was a little disappointed to see we were a minute behind last year’s pace.
Mike jumped into the nearest outhouse to take care of some business leaving me on my own for the beginning of the climb to Fragrance Lake. I passed some runners and saw a few more on the switchbacks below, including Adam Hewey and Brian Morrison in their matching green Fleet Feet Seattle tops that glowed only slightly less than Adam’s Brooks ID singlet did last year. Soon I closed in on 2010 Knee Knacker runner-up and Sun Mountain 50 Mile champ Jacek Doniec with whom I’d run most of the rest of the race.
I’ve been into chews on my long runs lately and regretted not grabbing a sleeve of Shot Bloks off the table when I passed through the first aid station. I quickly scanned the table when I pulled into aid station #2 looking for packages of Shot Bloks to take with me on the climb up Cleator Road. Finally a volunteer pointed to a plate with a pile of loose ones. Really? Like a pig, I grabbed a handful, shoved half in my mouth, and took off with cheeks bulging like a hungry hamster.
Cleator Road is a long steady climb on a gravel road to the ridge of Chuckanut Mountain. There is one big bend but generally you can see other runners a long way in either diection. Ahead of me I could see Jacek and further beyond him, Jenn Shelton closing the gap on Darcy Africa, who were running second and third in the women’s race with no sign of Ellie further up. Part way up Cleator, Adam Hewey passed me. We reminisced briefly about old times before Adam roared on past and soon overtook everyone in front of me as well. Mike had told me Adam was in great shape this year and it showed.
I slowly gained on them myself and got into the Ridge aid station with Jacek and just behind Jenn and Darcy. I figured it would be a good learning experience to follow two elite women over the technical stretch to see how they handle it, but soon realized the pace was a little slower than I’d liked. But I told myself that a) I was trying to preserve myself for later and b) there are worse places to be in the world than stuck behind Jenn Shelton.
Jacek and I eventually did get clear of Jenn and Darcy as the Ridge trail began to drop toward Dan’s Traverse. We made our way onto Lost Lake Road and soon Jacek pulled to about 50-100 metres in front of me where he would remain for most of the mud-filled fun that stood between us and Chinscraper.
The mud made things sloppy but thanks to a few dry days during the week it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. I had a low point after Lost Lake where I felt I was slowing and losing contact with Jacek but I felt him coming back once I began the long descent toward aid station #4 at the bottom of Chinscraper. At one point he literally was coming back as he thought he’d missed a junction and had turned around and was running back toward me until I waved him back down.
After a quick refueling at the aid station at the foot of Chinscraper a volunteer told me I was sitting in 30th and that there were several runners “only” a couple of minutes ahead of me. Great. As I made my way up the climb and gradually gained on Jacek, I scanned the trees above in search of Glenn Tachiyama. Glenn is a fixture at ultra trail events in the Pacific Northwest and I knew he’d be perched in his usual spot where he had taken the inspiring series of shots of Yassine Diboune at last year’s race sprinting up Chinscraper. I readied myself for my own Dibounesque photo op as I approached Glenn’s spot… only he wasn’t there.
Further up and feeling the Chinscraper burn in my legs, I caught a glimpse of something just over Jacek’s shoulder. Glenn? GLENN! I surged upward in an attempted sprint, quite pleased with myself for having something left at that point. Sadly it appears that unlike Alan, my sequence wasn’t quite fit for prime time, but at least I knew I had it in me.
As I approached the top of Chinscraper, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was nearly five minutes behind last year. WTF?
I got into the Ridge aid station for the second time just behind Jacek, but immediately headed downhill while he stopped to grab something for the road. I felt pretty good bombing the downhill, certainly better than the past two years, but for the first part of it I was completely alone so I had no idea whether I was actually doing all that well. Every so often I could hear something behind me and presumed that if it wasn’t my own echo, it must have been Jacek. There was one stretch where the trail briefly flattened out and my legs felt surprisingly dead. Uh-oh. That was a bad sign considering that once we hit bottom and the final aid station, there was a little over 10 flat kilometres to the finish. Too late to worry about it now I figured.
Shortly after, I was rejoined by Jacek as we made the last big sweeping curve right then left to the bottom. I commented that I hoped I had something left in my legs to get myself to finish line to which he replied that I’d better since he was relying on me to pull him to the line. Ha! From my vantage point, HE was the one doing the pulling, but if we could help each other get back to Fairhaven Park in one piece, I was okay with any way he wanted to frame it.
At the aid station, I got a refill, some more Shot Bloks and a slice of orange and was soon chasing to catch up with Jacek again.
Two years ago, I walked much of this early stretch with major gastrointestinal issues and last year, my calves were starting to give way to severe cramping. Although my legs felt heavy this year, Jacek and I were managing a pretty decent pace. Jacek led for much of it but we yo-yo’ed our way down the Interurban all the while I wondered how long we could sustain the pace. I glanced down at the Garmin occasionally to see we were running 4:10-4:20 per kilometre pace. I did the math – poorly, as it turned out — and thought we still had a shot at a 4:20 finish.
Along the Interurban, we passed a couple of runners who were toast, but mostly we saw the cheerful faces of locals wishing us luck. There was no letting up until we approached Arroyo Park and reached the first of a couple of puzzling forks in the trail. In spite of the fact I’d run this race the past two years, and thought I knew the course like the back of my hand, I wasn’t 100% sure at the first undermarked fork and later at one that appeared to have flagging tape down both options. Jacek and I stopped briefly at both, and it seemed like he wasn’t entirely convinced by my decision at the second, but we found our way and were soon dropping into the muddy little valley trail alongside Chuckanut Creek where I slipped on the little bridge with Justin Angle just behind me last year.
My legs were squealing as I ran along the rolling trail to the crossing at Old Samish Highway. As I made my way up the little switchback path I glanced back and was surprised to see Jacek just reaching the road a good 15-20 seconds behind.
Back on the main path, I floored it as much as I could. It hurt like hell, but my legs still responded. I didn’t want to look back. I looked for the mile posts to give me some sense of how far I had to go since it was apparent the Garmin was calling the race longer than 50k. I hit the residential area with a kilometre to go and soon after saw Tim and Maureen standing at one of the final corners with Ryne who I’d later learn had dropped at aid station 2.
My 4:24:28 was about two and a half minutes off last year’s time, but it was the final leg that was the big victory for me. I finished 25th overall but had the 14th fastest final leg and ran my last two kilometres under 4:00/km pace. Yeah, if the race was only another 10k longer, I would have caught you and your top secret shoes, Scott Jurek!
Alan ran a 5:20:41, captured the attention of Glenn Tachiyama with his crazy ninja moves on the banana slug rock on Chuckanut Ridge, and won a pair of socks and a headlamp. Not bad for a first ultra.
The post-race vibe was Chuckanut at its best. The weather was great, there was plenty of food and sponsor samples, and it seemed that everyone went home with a draw prize. Krissy Moehl and her team put on another fantastic event.
Bonus goal for Chuckanut 2011: after being unable to move the next morning after last year’s race while Mike, Ellie, and the rest of the crew ran around Lake Samish, I vowed to run this year. Alan and I headed back Saturday night and I did manage to run 12k Sunday morning to see my marathon clinic members finish up the Denman Pancake Run 32k downtown and home again after brunch.