In search of long miles and stifling heat to prepare us for Western States, Mike Palichuk and I headed to Winthrop in Washington’s Methow Valley on the weekend for James Varner‘s Sun Mountain 50-miler. We got one out of two.
After a wet drive down, the rain stopped overnight leaving race day cool and overcast for all but 15-20 minutes of sunshine: great racing weather but not ideal for two guys who have had their fill of cool cloudy weather and were expecting hot conditions.
Lingering winter snow closed Highway 20 through the North Cascades keeping at least one big name away, and a second foot fracture meant Gary Robbins was back on the shelf, but one big gun I knew would be racing was two-time Leadville 100 winner, Duncan Callahan from Gunnison, Colorado, where the kids eat mountains bigger than anything in the Methow Valley for breakfast.
Sun Mountain was essentially a training run for Western States, so I treated it as such, putting together something resembling a race plan and attempting to be more disciplined in my pacing than I have in past 50-milers. I also wanted to eat and drink as much as possible to see if it would keep me from cramping or getting ornery in the later stages of the race.
The pace was relaxed off the start as a large group of about a dozen of us rambled along the Chickadee trail and then southward along Patterson Lake. By the time we hit the gravel road south of the lake, we were down to about seven or eight, in near silence despite the easy pace. I knew from following him on Twitter that Duncan was in Winthrop for a friend’s wedding and asked him about it. Duncan described an amazing event at his friend’s family’s place on a ridge overlooking the valley, and, for the record, expressed guilt that he wasn’t there Sunday morning to clean up. No, really. Next thing I knew everyone in the group was chatting away.
There was a short, slightly muddy climb to wake us up and then we were into open cattle country and the first of many barbed wire gates we’d have to negotiate (and the one which a well-meaning early starter would hold open and then drop on my left leg on the return trip. Hey, what’s a 50-miler without a little blood… and tetanus?)
On the descent to the first aid station at nearly ten miles, Mike pulled away from the group, which I thought at the time was very clever of him since he wouldn’t have to wait in line with the other six of us to get his bottle refilled. Clever until everyone except me blew past the station without bothering to get a refill.
At some point between aid station one and two, our group missed a main turn which would have taken us on a gentle four-mile loop further out among the cows. Oops. The first real climb started right after the second aid station. I was fourth in line up the steep, initially overgrown singletrack and noted that while I was powerhiking, I wasn’t losing ground to the guys ahead of me, led by Duncan, who were all running. About halfway up, I felt I was breathing a little hard and reminded myself of the plan to exercise more discipline on climbs, so I took the foot off the gas and let another runner pass me. Duncan continued to lead the other two guys up the climb and I could help wondering if those guys knew who Duncan was and what it was they were getting themselves into.
Mike caught up to me again on the descent back to Patterson Lake and we ran together for the next few miles. With about 15 miles on my Garmin, and knowing that aid station three was around 21 miles, I realized my bottle was nearly empty and asked Mike how he was doing for water. Resigned to running the next six miles rationing a mouthful of Nuun, we were surprised to hit the aid station only a couple of miles later. Huh?!? Was it in the wrong spot on the map? It couldn’t be. James was so precise about its location that he put fractions on the map. Aid station three was supposed to be at 21.5 miles. Uh oh… did we miss a turn?
As this was the first of my two drop bags, I handed my empty bottle to the volunteer and grabbed a second bottle, which I’d filled with VegaSport, from my bag. I pounded back the refilled bottle of Nuun, chucked it into my drop bag and took off.
Mike and I started climbing toward Thompson Ridge a short while later and soon I was alone. On the way up, I caught up with Kevin Douglas who confessed he’d gone out too hard. I asked if he’d realized he was chasing the defending Leadville 100 champion up that first climb. He went pale. We chatted for a while about the two 100-milers Kevin has already run this year before I pushed ahead.
For the next few hours, I didn’t see another runner which allowed me to focus on my race plan. At the Homestead aid station, I grabbed another bottle from my drop bag, downed a bottle of Nuun, changed into a dry shirt, grabbed my Zune and took off with my pacers, Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D.
I had some aches and was feeling the fatigue, but I was solidly in third and the Beasties’ fat beats kept me going. I used to be against running with MP3 players, but I find that music helps pass long miles when I’m running alone.
One of the highlights of the race for me coincided with the brief appearance of the sun as the Methow Valley opened up below me as the Black Bear trail rounded toward the junction with Moose trail for the climb up to Sun Mountain Lodge. The view was stunning and marked the beginning of what I thought was a short loop back to repeat a short stretch of the Black Bear trail before the final push toward the final climb up Patterson Mountain. James Varner was on Moose trail taking photos so there was no time to dawdle up the steep climb.
Cruising downhill on Kraule trail on the descent from the lodge, I rolled my left ankle in a soft spot in the dirt. It felt bad at first but I kept running and within a mile, I felt no pain or stiffness.
Nearing the end of my second run through Black Bear, I spotted Nick Triolo powerhiking a short uphill ahead of me. At some point he spotted me and seemed to pick up the pace and began running all the hills. I was in no hurry to catch him so I continued to powerhike the hills and kept my distance.
Nick kept his lead through the short road stretch to the aid station near the beginning of the final climb to the summit of Patterson Mountain. I was instinctively drawn to the gravel shoulder on the road section, until I reminded myself I was wearing Brooks Racer ST road shoes. It seemed funny at the time. I gained on Nick up the first short steep climb and essentially drew even when we hit the double gate, the completely unmarked double gate. We stopped and looked around in every direction. Not a hint of red flagging tape in any direction. WTF?!?
I knew from the map that we were originally supposed to start the climb a half mile back at the bend in Paterson Lake Road, and run the lower section clockwise up to the final out-and-back to the summit but presumed that they changed the route because I also knew from the map that we were supposed to hit that roadside aid station twice, something we couldn’t have done if we’d entered the trail further up the road. I concluded that we were meant to go counter-clockwise, and knew the summit was to the right, so Nick and I continued on the only obvious trail up the mountain in that direction.
Another minute or two later, we met Duncan coming down and had a short conference about the route. Duncan had gone clockwise from the double gate and had seen no flagging on his way to or from the summit. We decided that the proper thing to do would be for us to continue to the summit and come down the way Duncan had gone up, so that at least we would run the same route.
Nick then conceded that the stop and the confusion took the life out of him and urged me to take off. I was in no hurry at first since I wasn’t completely confident where we were supposed to be going, but soon obliged.
I got to the top of the loop section and met a guy in a Cutthroat Classic shirt hanging out with his dog at the intersection to the final out-and-back climb to the the Patterson Mountain summit. He knew Duncan and confirmed that I was on the right way to the summit and showed me which trail Duncan has ascended so that I knew where I’d be going on the way back down.
I got a bit of a second wind on the final climb, but was a little discouraged when I looked up and realized the summit wasn’t atop the first rise, but the much higher one beyond it.
I powered up to the top, and ran toward a large concrete structure at what I presumed was the summit until I saw a large cairn of stones. I confirmed with two hikers that we were at the summit, touched the pile, and began my descent. Mike later reminded me that proper summit etiquette is to add a stone to the cairn. Hopefully this admission doesn’t get me DQ’ed.
For a guy who admitted he was toast, Nick didn’t seem that far behind and I described the stone cairn to him as we passed. Shortly after I saw Mike, who also didn’t seem too far back. I thought I had more of a cushion and knowing how well Mike descends, especially on steep terrain, I ran a little scared all the way back down to the road.
There were a few really muddy patches on the way down and then a fence with a trail parallel to it to the left and a step-ladder over it to a trail straight ahead. Crap! Which way? I started heading left, but then spotted someone coming uphill on the other side of the fence. This must be it. The hiker wasn’t involved with the race, but confidently confirmed I was going the right way. I didn’t ask how he knew but it was good enough for me.
I got back to the double gate and headed back down to the road. I confirmed at the aid station that Duncan had been through, and was satisfied we’d gone the same way.
The last couple of miles were tough but satisfying. I finished second in 6:43:58. With the missed turn in the first half, the course was well short of 50 miles, but it was a good test and a great confidence boost going into the final month of Western States training. It was also a good chance to test a few things in advance of the Big Dance:
- The Brooks Racer ST and Drymax Hyper Thin socks were a great combination.
- It felt good to put on a dry shirt about two-thirds of the way through the race.
- Udderly Smooth cream left me chafe-free again.
- A day later my legs don’t feel that bad but the six-hour-plus car ride home was brutal on my back. The drive from Auburn would be over twice that so I’ll definitely be flying.
- I ate less than planned, drank as much or more than planned, popped a Thermolyte once an hour, and didn’t cramp or even have a muscle twitch during the race.
- Music helped.
- A basic race plan helped, but perhaps because it was only basic and allowed me some flexibility.
Duncan Callahan won in a time of 6:16:34, Nick Triolo was third in 6:48:15 and Mike fourth in 6:55:30.
Click here for the results page for the Sun Mountain 50-miler.