Our first race together! Sun Mountain 50k Ultramarathon race report

Stopping mid-course for a photo!

Life has been really busy for Dave and me… which is why not a lot has been happening on the blog this year, and why this race report is being posted two weeks after the fact. Between setting up house together, and both of us having pretty killer work schedules (I was finishing my MFA at UBC, and Dave was working lots of overtime on his TWO jobs), and then both of us getting sick for much of March-April, we have not had a lot of time for blogging… or even for training!

So we did not end up at the start line of our first race together as well trained and finely tuned and ready to go as we had hoped. Oh well – our goal was just to do it together, to learn from the experience (first one-day ultra for me, and first ultra for Dave) and, especially, to HAVE FUN!

The race was on Sunday May 20th, in Winthrop, in the middle of Washington State. We drove most of the way, as far as Sedro Wooley, WA, on the Friday, so we had only a 3.5 hour drive to do on the Saturday. That was a GREAT part of the plan – we found some wonderful Mexican restaurants to eat in, and we arrived in Winthrop by early afternoon on Saturday, relaxed and not feeling rushed at all.

Carb-loading the night before!

We met Fiona (one of my oldest friends here on the Island – we kayak-guided together in Tofino for years in the ’90s) and her guy, Doug, for a Mexican dinner (we figured out that margaritas are the perfect pre-race meal: lots of fluid, plus carbs and salt!! OK, only kidding, we only had one each). Dave and I had already sorted all of our race food and made a plan – then we got an early night and a good sleep, ready for the very civilized 10am race start.

I can’t say enough GOOD about the race organization – the info about the course and aid stations and driving directions was all there for us, and that makes the whole thing so much easier: when you just know what is going on. They had three aid stations, roughly equally spaced throughout the course. They also offered transport of anything (water bottles, food, etc.) to the aid stations! Dave and I decided to take advantage of this only for the second aid station, carrying whatever else we wanted with us.

So I did a careful calorie-count the night before, sorting out the different foods that he and I each like to eat, calculating for a sustained 200 calories an hour (this number does not cover the actual amount you are burning, but it is enough to keep sugar in your bloodstream so you do not lose it and “bonk”).

Eating on the run… gotta keep fueled!

Dave is always stronger and faster than me anyway. But on top, I was still not completely over my sinusitis (I had been sick on and off for two months by then!) and I was also nursing Achilles tendinitis, so I was much more untrained than usual (I had actually barely run at all the five months leading up to the race, just done a few good rides on my bike!) so the difference in our strength levels was much greater than usual. Oh, and also, I had sprained my ankle three days before, and it was bruised and swollen. But we wanted to run together – so we decided to run this the adventure-racer style, as a team: Dave would carry a small pack with our water and food, and I would go pack-free. (The aim of an adventure-racing team is to equalize everyone’s heartrate by the stronger people assisting the weaker people). We also decided that, as a strategy, I would pretty much continue through the aid stations – grab a handful of chips or a potato or whatever and keep going – while Dave would stop to refill our water bladder and then catch up with me.

Dave keeping me warm before the start.

So we got to the start line around 9:15 – in plenty of time to watch the Kids’ 1k race, which was spectacular! Great timing to run it then, when all of the athletes are at the start line to cheer for the little guys. They were little – most of the runners looked to be seven or so! And then, long after everyone else, the littlest guy of all came in. He looked like he had only just learned to walk last month he was so tiny – barely beyond being a toddler, maybe 3 or so – with a HUGE grin on his face, his family members running alongside him and holding his hand. That was so heartwarming to see – running one kilometre is just amazing for these little guys!

And then we were off! You can see from our previous blog post what the course looked like – absolutely beautiful, with stunning views around every curve, and wildflowers everywhere. That really helps with the motivation, having a beautiful and intriguing course. I love running long distances – but I sure am not into running 50k on those loop courses that so many ultramarathons are. I love running long… but I want the adventure of feeling like I am travelling somewhere, or exploring… not just running laps for most of a day.

Like I said, Dave and I knew we were not very well trained for this one. And we were fine with that – it just changes the approach. You lose your cardio fitness quickly when you are not training (as in for the high intensity stuff, going fast or going uphill), but when you have a good endurance base, it actually sticks around longer. It takes longer to build that kind of endurance, but fortunately it also takes a long time to lose. So I think all those very long runs we did last summer and fall counted for a lot to carry us through this one…

One of the early uphills.

So our goal was just to go easy, have fun, and not get injured (or, in my case, more injured). We would jog when we could, walk most of the uphills, and walk any other sections where I needed to walk. My Achilles thing was a bit of an unknown – it had been injured for two months by then, and only starting to improve the last 10 days or so. I did not want to have a long-term injury, so Dave and I both knew that, if I felt it getting substantially worse, I would drop out and he would continue on his own.

I figured if we could average 7 km/h, we would finish in about 7:09. Not fast, but not bad (for not training!). Our normal easy trail-jogging speed would be more like 9 km/h, so aiming for 7 km/h would allow for a lot of walking.

And that’s how we did it. The whole course had around 2000 m of cumulative elevation gain. That’s a fair bit, but it is not huge compared to the hilly terrain here in Port Alberni. We walked pretty much every uphill, even if it was very gradual – and most of them were gradual, other than one killer one – both steep and long – at around the 30k mark, and another big one just before the end. That first one was very hard on my Achilles, which had not really been hurting at all up to that point. I walked that whole thing with my foot sideways, to not have that pressure on my heel – more as a preventative than anything – and, as awkward as that was, it paid off: I did not seem to do much further damage to my heel in the race! We jogged most of the rest of the course – well, at least the first 70% or so.

Yup, more pretty views, more pretty views…

I know from my other long races (I have done a few MOMAR adventure races, which are run/bike/kayak, of around 6-7 hours, and also I have run a few multi-day ultras with 6 to 12 hr days in them) that, for my nutrition, I do best on complex carbs (pretzels, cookies, etc.) for most of the race – but then I need to switch to pure sugar plus a crucial hit of caffeine to get me through the last 2 or 2.5 hours. So, in the bag that we were to pick up at the middle aid station (around the 27k mark) I had carefully counted out the calories we would need to add, and changed the food types – packing fruit bars, Clif shots, and a caffeine gel for each of us.

And this is where our one major screw-up occurred.

As we approached that aid station, I realized we had eaten less fruit bars than we had packed over the first half. Conscious that Dave was carrying all of the weight for both of us, I told him to leave one of the fruit bars behind and he nodded. We did our usual thing, I shot through the station while Dave packed food and water and then caught up to me. Another 2 km or so along, by now feeling pretty crappy as my lack of training was really catching up to me, but confident in the knowledge that I had that caffeine gel stashed away to carry me through, I asked “Did you remember to leave that one fruit bar behind?”

He answered “I left everything behind!”

What???? Everything????? Dave had witnessed me carefully counting calories and selecting late-race-appropriate foods the night before… and then he thinks I just randomly decide “Oh, just leave everything behind.” I still had 20 km to go – and no caffeine!!!!!

Pre-race organizational piles.

Well, I think I did a stellar job of not losing it. Dave might have a different version of the story here. (And this is also where that big honking uphill with my foot sideways comes in… ) Meanwhile, unknown to me, Dave had been lugging around this GIANT dark chocolate bar (which I don’t even eat), so he offered me some of that. I took a piece, knowing that dark chocolate contains caffeine too, but also knowing that that density of sugar can make me feel like puking. Which is basically how I felt on that big uphill.

Anyway, we made it through, we made it through… the course was still beautiful… and when we came to the final aid station, miracle of miracles, they had caffeine gels there! I was still oversugared from the chocolate, but I ate one anyway, so I felt like puking up that last hill too. But the caffeine did its job. By now I was fine walking, but having trouble getting motivated to jog even the downhills or flats. Dave encouraged me to jog when I could, and I did my best to do that. Actually, the big thing that really motivated me for that last hour is that it was looking for a while like we might break 7 hours, and I would have been really thrilled if we could have done that.

The final few kilometres, coming down off that last big hill.

And then we finished! I think our final time was 7:04. We didn’t break the 7 hours, but it means we did average slightly better than the 7 km/h that I had calculated on.

And the best thing is, aside from the Dave-inexplicably-leaving-all-our-food-behind incident, we both really did have a lot of fun! The course was truly beautiful and interesting – challenging, but not insanely killer. The organization was mostly great (other than the pizza promised at the end never arrived – which is quite a drag when your body is hungering for protein after a 50k run, and they keep telling you the pizza is coming the pizza is coming and it never came… we finally gave up and drove into town and ordered pizza, but by then it was more than 2 hrs after we had finished, not so great).

And we had lots of fun doing this with Fiona (who finished – her first ultra! – in just over 6 hours, very impressive) and her partner Doug, who ran the 25k.

I highly recommend this race, and I look forward to checking out some of the other events organized by Rainshadow Running too.

  1. #1 by Rainshadow Running on June 5, 2012 - 6:51 pm

    sorry the pizza never arrived for you guys. we had scheduled a delivery of 14 pizzas every hour throughout the day but i miscalculated when the last delivery should have been– obviously there should’ve been one more delivery. won’t happen again!

    thanks for coming to the race for the nice blog posts

    • #2 by Jacqueline Windh on June 5, 2012 - 8:42 pm

      Thanks James. Well, other than that one glitch, it was a stellar event – really well organized, and world-class course design. I guess I’ll just have to train better next time so we get in sooner!

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