I would be lying if I said I was excited about running Chuckanut this year. I know, I know, I should have been absolutely jacked for the 20th Anniversary of what has rapidly become the premier 50k in North America, and with this year’s additional permitting allowing nearly 700 racers to start, one of the largest three ultras of any distance on the continent. Chuckanut’s charismatic race director, Krissy Moehl brought together a star-studded field so embarrassingly deep in talent it boasts more elite marathoners than most marathons. It’s a great event with top-notch organization, enthusiastic volunteer support and enough swag to require an extra bag to carry it all home, which is thankfully less than a couple of hours away, give or take a slow border line-up. Everything about Chuckanut should have had me bouncing off the ceiling of the sixty-dollar Bellingham motel room with anticipation, but this year, I just wasn’t feeling it going in.
Right off the start, I hitched a ride with Ryne Melcher, who at just 33 years old, was aiming to complete his 150th ultra. Full disclosure: Ryne is also the coordinator of the Kintec Race Team and was kind enough to invite me to join the team this year in spite of the fact I normally run out of another running store just down the street. Ryne DNFed at Chuckanut last year so with number 150 on the line, I wanted to do what I could to get him through this one even if it meant holding his hand all the way along the opening Interurban stretch of the race.
Joining us were Jacek Doniec — another Vancouver runner and 2012 Western States entrant – and Ian Torrence, another ultrarunning legend, who I suggested to Ryne was likely the only runner in the field with more ultras under his belt than him. (Ian confirmed that he had finished over 160.)
At the base of the first climb up Fragrance Lake Trail, Ryne dropped back, waving his fist in the air like an angry old neighbour who’d just caught us cutting through his yard and yelling something about “you skinny kids and your hill climbing.” Despite what he currently looks like in a bikini, I still outweigh Ryne by at least ten pounds so “skinny” is a relative term.
I followed Ian up the switchbacks and for a moment it reminded me of my first Chuckanut in 2009 when I followed Scott Jurek up the same climb. I started to feel a little more burn than I’d expected. A week of climbing imaginary hills on a Florida hotel treadmill wasn’t the best way to prepare for Chuckanut, but I was still alarmed at these first signs of fatigue. It was too damned early to feel that bad. Maybe it was just rust, but I didn’t have any decent hill training to lead to me to expect better things ahead.
We kept powering along, up and up, and were soon into snow. It was fresh and wet so that it weighed down branches along the trail making passage in places a challenge for anyone under 5’2”. Complicating things were the small flakes that were falling melted on my eyelashes rendering me temporarily blind at all the wrong moments. Note to self: as appropriate as the toque may have seemed with snow falling, something with a brim would have been a better call.
I got into a bit of a groove on the largely downhill trail on the other side of Fragrance Lake where I hallucinated at one point that a half-naked Jenn Shelton stood trailside hooting as us as we ran by on our way to Aid Station 2. Or did that really happen?
Climbing Cleator Road from Aid Station 2 was frustrating. I was still feeling a little crappy and the footing was difficult in the slick, slightly slushy tire tracks where it appeared most of the runners ahead of me had run. I ran the lower stretch with Ian and near Jacek but soon fell behind. I kept them in sight, but struggled to maintain the gap. Note to self: I eventually clued in toward the top that traction was better in the deeper, fresh stuff between the tracks.
I stopped at Aid Station 3 just before the Ridge section to get a refill and grab a handful of gels and a sleeve of Shot Bloks and must have stopped for longer than I realized. Jacek, Ian, everyone I’d been chasing up the last part of Cleator was long gone when I hit the trail again, except for a lone Stephen Brown who kindly let me take the Ridge trail ahead of him.
I felt good over the first part of the Ridge, bombing along the muddy trough through snow-covered rocks and roots, but soon I found myself alone and feeling tired, as much mentally as physically. I wasn’t even halfway through the race and couldn’t see anyone ahead or behind me – is this how my race is going to go? It was just me and my mind games. I felt like I was slowing and just wasn’t feeling right and as if I needed another reason to despair, the Garmin showed 25k a little ahead of schedule. All of a sudden I could appreciate why some people drop out of races for reasons other than serious injury. I wasn’t into racing and needed something, anything to pick me up.
The guys behind me at the little aid station at the beginning of the old road to Lost Lake announced the arrival of Brian Morrison, the owner of Fleet Feet Seattle who famously almost won Western States in 2006.
We chatted as he pulled alongside and I realized I would need to crank it up a notch if I wanted to keep up. It was a little tough at first but soon I found my legs again and we began passing people through the muddiest, sloppiest sections of the course. The miles flew by as we chatted about Western States, flyfishing, our kids, the 2008 Seattle Marathon where he finished six seconds ahead of me, the postponement of this year’s Diez Vista 50k, the speedy Professor Angle, and then as we scaled Chinscraper, we got into Pearl Jam. Yep, you know you’re not really racing when you’re swapping concert stories with Pearl Jam’s biggest fan while ascending Chuckanut’s most notorious climb, but it was the highlight of what had turned into a pretty memorable day.
The conversation continued down Cleator and onto Fragrance Lake Road back to the Interurban. The trail down was still sloppy and covered in snow and even the gravel road lower down was soft and spongy in spots.
At the final aid station, I refilled my bottle and stuffed a handful of Shot Bloks in my mouth. Once I’d finally choked them down and settled onto the Interurban, Brian waved me on and said he’d see me at the finish. My legs felt surprisingly good and I opened things up. At first it was like last year, hammering the last 10k with Jacek, only without Jacek who would finish a couple of minutes ahead of me. The big drop at Chuckanut Heights Road killed my momentum a little, but not as much as it did for my friend Bill Huggins who was almost crawling up the other side. “No gas left,” he sputtered as I patted him on the shoulder on my way by. Bill’s got wheels but he and the Interurban don’t get along very well.
I had a solid finish and reeled in a lot of runners on the Interurban to finish in 50th overall. I was 25th last year and had mused before the race that with all the rock stars committing to Chuckanut this year and all the pre-race hype, that it would be tough to crack the top fifty. It didn’t really think it would be but I guess it was. Considering the field and how the race turned out for me, I’ll take it. What could have been a downer of a race turned out to be a great experience and I’m already looking forward to next year.
As for my travelling companions, Alan improved on last year’s finish with a 5:13:15 and Barry finished his first 50k in 5:36:50.
Click here for full results from the 2012 Chuckanut 50k and check out race photos from Glenn Tachiyama and Michael Lebowitz.