Painful and demoralizing, the 2010 Scorched Sole 50-miler was my first crack at the distance and I can’t wait to go back.
This year’s Scorched Sole ultras took place on June 26, three weeks later than in 2009 and with the exception of the first 5 or 6 kilometres on Lost Lake Trail, followed a completely different route through the trails of Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park south of Kelowna. The 50k was an out-and-back to the summit of Little White Mountain (2171 metres or 7122 feet) while the 50-miler continued over the top, crossing a snowy ridge on the far side before dropping down sharply to Canyon Lake and onto a lollipop loop on forest service roads before heading back up and over Little White for the 25k plunge to the finish. Both courses originally included an extra out-and-back on a 2k spur along Okanagan Highland Trail, midway up the climb, but, in a telling move, race organizers determined it was covered in too much snow to be runnable and removed it out of concern for racer safety.
Fresh off her outright win at the Elk Beaver 100k and a women’s course record performance at the Calgary Marathon, former Vancouver resident, Ellie Greenwood flew in from Banff for the 50-miler because, she “didn’t want it to be a cake walk” for me. She probably told Sammy the same thing before Elk Beaver!
My game plan going in was to stick with Ellie as long as possible. Sure, we have different running strengths, but a) the girl has been on fire this year, b) she’s run 50 miles before, and c) I learned at Chuckanut this year that out-climbing her early in a race can come back to haunt me later.
Sticking with Ellie was the plan until Steve Russell took off at the start and started to pull away. I held back with Ellie but soon realized she was holding back even more, so I found my own rhythm and climbed. Tempted to catch Steve, I found myself mumbling a new mantra: conserve and preserve. I’d never said it before, but it seemed prudent. Fifty miles is 30 kilometres longer than I’d ever raced before so I told myself to take it easy, conserve energy and preserve myself for later.
After steadily climbing ten kilometres to the flat Kettle Valley Railroad path, we headed south for about three kilometres before re-entering the forest for the long uphill trek on Crawford Lake Trail to the base of Little White Mountain. On the KVR, I closed the gap behind Steve and we had just enough time to introduce ourselves before Steve went tearing up the climb to the Crawford Lake Trail and was soon out of sight. Ellie was just after me to the aid station, but soon I wouldn’t see her behind me, even after I went briefly off course at what I’m still convinced was an unmarked intersection.
Crawford Lake Trail was slightly steeper, rockier and wetter than I’d expected. By the time we would return hours later, the feet of the 50-milers behind us and the 50k runners who would follow them and head back the same way, would leave much of this trail a muddy mess. For now, I could barely tell Steve had even run the trail ahead of me.
During a brief lapse in concentration descending a short drop into a creek bed, I slammed into the cleanly-cut butt-end of a fallen tree, catching the right side of my rib cage and upper arm. It stopped me dead in my tracks, but thankfully didn’t do any real damage. It did remind me to turn my hat around; I tend to run into things in the forest when the brim is blocking my view.
We passed volunteers lugging a cooler and gear to Aid Station 4 on the way. It’s about 6k mostly uphill from the KVR to the aid station location at Little White Trail and they were still a long way from that. Luckily there was a jug with a pump already there so I took the opportunity to refill my bottle. The next aid would be a lonely, pumpless jug at the summit and then no full aid until Aid Station 5 about 15k beyond that on the forest service road loop on the far side of Little White, a fact that convinced me to wear a Camelbak with water in addition to carrying a handheld of Vega Sport. I was also regularly taking my Thermolytes to stay on top of my electrolytes.
Ellie rolled through Aid Station 4 just after I left and after beginning the climb up Little White, I eased up so we could make the ascent together. Misery loves company after all, and since the game plan had been to stick with Ellie, it seemed like a good time to revisit the plan.
There was no sign of Steve ahead as we made our way up the rough, rocky road flowing with a steady stream of meltwater. Higher up, we had to traverse long sections of hard snow using the sharp, right edge of our shoes as makeshift crampons. Race volunteers used pink spray paint on the snow to mark the line we had to travel, which was helpful since the slightly sun-cupped outer crust of snow was so hard that we often couldn’t tell where Steve had been.
As if the snow wasn’t enough, I started cramping on the way up the mountain. My calves, hamstrings, quads all took turns slowing me down as I struggled over the snow trying to keep pace with Ellie who seemed at times to float effortlessly over the crusty snow. I must outweigh Ellie by 60-70 pounds so it didn’t take much for me to post-hole through the top layer of snow, scraping my ankles and shins with grainy ice crystals and almost always triggering something in my legs to seize up. As we gradually descended the ridge, there were a few short downhill sections of snow that allowed Ellie to ‘ski’ down, and then on the shaded north side of the mountain in the area of heaviest snow, we hit The Rope. The grade of this section was steep enough and the snow deep enough that organizers rigged up a rope between trees to help runners get down and back up again on the way back. Ellie made it down fairly easily, but with my legs in full-on rebellion, I decided that the best plan of attack would be to just sit and slide down and hope I could still grab the rope without burning my bare hands once I got to the bottom end. It worked.
As we continued along the ridge, my cramping became more severe, triggered mostly by the frequent and sudden drops through the snow and it wasn’t long after that I began to lose touch with Ellie. It’s tough running downhill knowing every footstep could trigger a cramp strong enough to completely lock up your leg and potentially send you tumbling face-first into the dirt, snow, or rock. But that’s the condition in which I found myself with over half the race left to run.
There were way too many sections of the Highland “trail” that just seemed like a tangled nest of tree and rock, prompting me to conclude that this is about as close the Barkley Marathons as I ever want to get.
By the time I got below the snow-line, there was no sign of Ellie. Bombing downhill is her forte, so I wasn’t all that surprised to find myself completely alone.
Looking out at the largest of the Canyon Lakes from the top of the final descent off the ridge was frustrating and served as a reminder that the scale of a 50-miler is so much greater than a 50k. After reaching the bottom and turning onto the Canyon Lake forest service road, I glanced back and was a little startled to see a runner behind me. Did Steve go off course and was only now catching up? We did cover a lot of snow without seeing any trace of footprints. No, this guy’s hat was mostly red and Steve’s was white.
It was still about 6k to the beginning of the final loop and then another 5k before Aid Station 5 which at about 42k (or 38k on the revised course) essentially marks the beginning of the run back to the mountain. The first part of the loop rose slightly, so feeling a bit drained and frustrated from the ordeal on Little White, and with an empty bottle in hand, I took the opportunity to power-hike, take in a couple of gels, and fill my water bottle with one of the baggies of Vega Sport powder I was carrying, in advance of the aid station that I knew was coming up… eventually. As I hiked, my pursuer, Colin Miller, caught up and seemed set to blow by me until I asked what he thought of his new Cascadias. He eased off, I screwed the cap back on my bottle and got running again to catch back up. We chatted as the road wound around the loop and dropped further and further downhill. I knew the other side of the loop had a few switchbacks, so I knew we had a lot of climbing to go just to get back up to the road back to the mountain. On dead legs. Oh crap.
Colin and I got into Aid Station 5 about eight minutes behind Steve and Ellie. Ellie was a couple hundred metres back of Steve at that point and Steve later said she caught him shortly after that. I refilled my bottle, popped a few more Thermolytes, downed most of the bottle from my drop bag, and pounded a few dates and watermelon. I wasn’t really in a hurry to leave and Colin took off while I chatted with the volunteers. The sun was getting pretty hot at that point and I really should have grabbed the sunscreen from my drop bag.
We’ve had a very mild spring and early summer in Vancouver so I struggled in the heat. The climb wasn’t very tough, but it was tough enough for me this day and I hiked a lot of the road back to the end of the loop. I also started to get increasingly negative. What the hell are you doing? You’re not as tough as you think you are. (My inner voice is apparently the anti-Ken Chlouber.) I kept moving forward, drinking and regularly popping Thermolytes. Like Rush Limbaugh on Oxycontin, I kept telling myself.
Once I’d reached Canyon Lake Road again, I found it tough not to run as the road was fairly level and the sight of oncoming runners really got me going again. I made a deal with myself that as long as I ran the rest of the way to the Highland trailhead on the far side of Canyon Lake, I would allow myself to walk since the trail up was steep enough that there would be no shame in walking it.
My legs lived up to their end of the bargain and then I found myself running more of the first part of the climb than I’d planned, but my legs were shot and soon I was back to hiking it. As the forest opened up, I scanned the ridge above the scree slope and saw no sign of Colin. I felt isolated as I made my way up the climb and alone again with my angry inner voice.
I used the upward angle of the climb to push my heels down and stretch out my calves, but stretching my calves would often trigger a cramp in my lower quads. It seemed I couldn’t win and kilometres earlier I had used up my lifetime quota of expletives… presuming I had any room left under the cap going into this race.
One thing that did keep me going during some of the rough patches, was knowing that at that moment down in California several people I know were running twice as far over tougher terrain in more oppressive heat. Sure, it didn’t make the cramps go away, but it put my challenge into perspective.
As disillusioned as I was trudging back up to the ridge — to the point where I even looked forward to seeing that spirit-crushing snow again so I’d at least know I was nearing the top — I was devastated when I reached the ridge and saw Little White in the distance. No, no, no… That must be a different mountain. There’s no way it’s that far away! In near panic, I scanned the horizon and confirmed that yes, that peak nearly four kilometres away as the crow flies was indeed Little White. And I hadn’t even hit snow yet. I would have cried but I was trying to conserve water.
The snow was tough on the way out, but it was almost worse on the way back because it had been trampled and churned up by the 35 or so runners behind us. The footing was terrible but at least it made it easier to follow the route back. I recognized the undisturbed footprints of Colin’s Cascadias so I figured that meant he’d come through after the final runners I’d seen at the bottom of the Highland Trail. That gave me some hope that perhaps he wasn’t too far ahead. The fact that the gap could have been as much as 3k didn’t initially concern me. I was just happy that he hadn’t passed through here before they had. Or so I figured.
Fun Fact: Snow can be a handy tool for testing oneself for dehydration as I noticed a couple of times on the way back before I decided to test myself. Nope, still cramping a bit but I wasn’t dehydrated.
As I got closer to the mountain I looked for a way up the wall of snow and figured we must have come down the other side. Nope. We were going back up the snow. First I hit a section on which someone had added a second rope since we passed through and then I hit The Rope itself. I was in serious expletive debt at this point and I laughed about how comically disastrous this race was turning out for me. My muscles are doing a cha-cha, I’m using a rope to climb a mountain in snow up to my calves, and I’ve got what I could best describe as ultrarunner tourettes, blurting out f-bomb after f-ing f-bomb. Oh, and I was talking to myself.
I managed to get running again through the rock and lichen and stunted vegetation that passes as the Okanagan Highland Trail and soon hit a major milestone: the summit. Woohoo! It’s all downhill from here! I grabbed the big jug, and awkwardly balanced my bottle on a rock to refill it for the plunge down the other side and the plush 25k ride to the finish. Oooh baby!
Sadly, it wasn’t quite as easy as that. The snow was a sloppy mess of footprints and post-holes. The hot sun probably doubled the volume of meltwater rushing down the old road from the summit making it nearly impossible to descend without soaking my feet and increasing the risk of blisters. While I could feel only one blister forming on the outside of the fourth toe on my right foot, the sharp descent down Little White made it apparent my real problem was that my shoes were probably a half size too small. My cramping had calmed down to the occasional twinge, but now I had ten increasingly painful digits slamming against the ends of my shoes ninety times a minute.
I got into Aid Station 4 and the guys had quite a buffet going. I passed on the brat after thinking the head chef had said ‘broth’ and instead grabbed a gel — a banana GU cooked to perfection in the summer Okanagan sun… ack! — and some water. I think they told me I was about 25 minutes down on 3rd and that Ellie had been through in first about 1:12 before me. It was deflating to hear that, but at the same time, it didn’t surprise me.
Further down, I found the Crawford Lake Trail transformed into a muddy chute. Footing was tricky and my toes screamed, but I tried bomb it the best I could. I had a couple of close calls with slips and low branches that temporarily killed my momentum, but I gave it a good effort.
At one point I could tell the blister on my right foot had torn open and I wondered how the constant flushes of mud might affect it. Then again, there wasn’t anything I could do about it and especially on the steeper descents, it was much less of a concern than my toes. Shoes too small… ROOKIE!
After a brief stop at Aid Station 3, I set out to cover the KVR stretch quickly… but even more quckly discovered that what I thought was flat on the way out was actually downhill, meaning that I was running slightly uphill coming back.
I waved as I passed Aid Station 2 and carefully made my way over the cattleguard and onto Lost Lake Trail for the final 10k. Ouch! I desperately wanted to open it up, but my toes screamed at me. I considered pulling a Darin Bentley and running the last stretch barefoot, but a) there were plenty of rocks between me and the finish and b) I don’t think I could have bent over far enough to untie my shoes at that point. I kept glancing at my watch and doing the math, using Aid Station 2 (about 10k from the finish) and Aid Station 1 (about 5k) as reference points. Despite being mostly downhill, Aid Station 1 didn’t appear when I expected it to. I started to think that volunteers had packed it up since who is really going to stop at an aid station 5k from the start or finish? (Watch those words come back to haunt me some day!) Then I hit it and had to revise my already revised ETA.
The next reference point, Teddy Bear Junction — an intersection of trails with stuffed teddy bears hanging in the trees — was two kilometres away. I made my way down toward Lost Lake and into the final few kilometres of rolling hills covered with burnt trees from the big fire. I had forgotten how many times the trail snakes back and forth down there and how all the little valleys start looking the same.
I hit Teddy Bear Junction, again behind schedule, and groaned at the prospect of having to run another three kilometres (although I’d find out later I either miscalculated or misread; it’s only a little over two kilometres from the finish). Finally I spotted the powerlines which lead right past the finish line. I made the turn and spotted the finish line tents through the trees. Thank frickin’ Christ! I waved to my mother who appeared to be sitting on a log at the final bend before the finish line, likely worried sick since I’d estimated I’d be done an hour, hour-and-a-half earlier. I rounded the corner to the sounds of Dan Crockett reciting my running CV and right into the firing squad of Dirk Handke‘s ever-present telephoto lens. The craziest race I’ve ever run was finally over.
The Bottom Line
Like every race, this was a learning experience. Sure I wanted to win and as the 50k champ from 2009, I felt the pressure to perform. I don’t want to say that the 2010 Scorched Sole wasn’t my kind of course, because that’s too easy an excuse and I heard too many people using it on my behalf after the race. I thought I was ready for anything they wanted to throw at me. Apparently I need to redefine everything.
My shoe choice was a big mistake. I opted for the Vasque Transistor in a 9.5. The shoe is designed without an insole making it run closer to the ground. Great concept and initially it felt great, but the main problem I found is that it feels like they manufacture the Transistor on the same last they would use for a shoe with an insole, meaning the size 10 felt just a little too sloppy around the heel for me, so I went with the 9.5 and knew it was a little on the small side. Even with the laces cranked as tight as I could in the 9.5 I couldn’t get my heel to sit any further back in the shoe than I did. Add a slightly thicker sock like I did today and my toes had even less room. And no, my feet don’t measurably swell during long runs. I also didn’t try them on any steep trails prior to the race (what was that thing I remind marathon clinic members about NOT DOING on race day?) The result was ten very tender toes (but no bruised or lost toenails… not that I normally lose or bruise toenails). Incidentally I had Cascadias and Montrail Mountain Masochists, both in size 10 and both proven to be problem-free for me over 50+ kilometres, sitting in the car.
The cramping was a major concern. In addition to gels and Vega Sport, I popped Thermolytes regularly and had 15 in total. Not enough? Too many? Was it lack of training on that type of terrain? Altitude? Lack of sleep (I didn’t get into Peachland until about 11:00 the night before and had about four hours sleep)? Did I not take enough gels or fuel? I probably could have had more to eat, but I wasn’t really jazzed by the selection on the trailside buffet tables this year.
Sunscreen. I had it in my drop bag but didn’t use it. I wore a singlet and burned to the point of slight blistering on my left shoulder. Dumb.
The visits from the mental demons were interesting and I now think it is something I can overcome. The fact that I’d completely exorcised the negative thoughts within a couple of hours of finishing is proof of that. My theory is my brain gets really negative when my body is running out of fuel. Makes sense to me.
Fifty miles is a long way to run. This year’s Scorched Sole course would have been tough under ideal conditions, but snow made it ridiculously challenging. I never considered quitting, though I completely understand why six of the 37 starters did, especially the four who quit at Aid Station 5. As I recalled everything I’d covered to get from the summit to Aid Station 5, the task of getting myself back over Little White was mind-boggling. Wait, I should rephrase: I never considered dropping out. I considered quitting a lot, and probably did shut down mentally more than once, including switching from racing mode to survival mode once the cramping got the upper hand… ummm, lower leg? I also considered quitting ultras or even quitting running altogether. Someone else can take over the marathon clinic. This is garbage. How can I inspire others to run when I no longer see the point of running myself? Luckily this was just a phase, one which I am starting to realize is just part of the deal of running ultras, like cramping or nausea. Within a couple of hours of the race I was back to normal and looking ahead to either Fat Dog or Stormy or both… if thinking about doing either of those is ‘normal.’
Tim ran a 5:07 to place 6th in the 50k, which was won by Darin Bentley, who reportedly ran the entire race wearing shoes and finished in 4:33.
Ellie won the 50-miler in 7:58. I finished over an hour later in 9:06, and ended up fourth overall, third guy, and top master. Sadly though, there would be no Post-It note for a free entry to next year’s race for me this time around, but it was not too bad for a first try in difficult conditions and it leaves plenty of room for improvement!