By Sarah Bard
I don’t know how or when I became aware of the Chuckanut 50k, but when we found out last April that we’d be moving to Seattle, it was the first thing that came into my mind for a spring (2016) race.
I didn’t know much about the course, other than the fact that it was close to Seattle and was relatively fast for a trail race (most winning times ranged in the 4:10 – 4:2x range). Just based on those times, I made assumptions about the course that it would be fairly accessible (I’d prefer to say ‘easy’, but we all know that races, regardless of runability or elevation gain/loss, are rarely ‘easy’). In fact, it wasn’t until about a month or so before the race that I started doing my due diligence and reading some race reports (thanks particularly to Ellie, Sage, and Devon). Suddenly, I realized that despite being fast, the course included some decent climbing and descending, and at least a short portion of semi-technical footing. So, I quickly panicked, kicked myself for not doing my research sooner, and then headed an hour north to explore the trails firsthand.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the trails on Chuckanut Mountain were very runable. Sure, there was some seemingly relentless climbs, but the footing was good and I didn’t have to worry about constantly focusing on where my next step should fall. There is one section of the course that, for me, was a bit trickier, but it was only about 3-4 miles long and at a point in the race where one’s legs and mind are still relatively fresh and sharp.
As the race date grew closer, I found myself surprisingly nervous. (Like, high school track meet 4×400-type nervous). I don’t exactly know why, but maybe because it was just the first real race of the year and would provide a the year’s first real test of fitness. Also, as a road runner, I typically have an idea where I’ll fall competitively when I enter a race. But despite a generally flat first and last 10k, Chuckanut offered some challenges that I didn’t have a measuring stick against. There were a good number of strong and formidable women (with great records on trails) in the race, so I felt a bit blind going in as to where I might be in my own context, but also in the context of such a great field.[…the race…]
In any long race, I find it useful to mentally section the course out, allowing for mini-accomplishments as I progress over the distance. At Chuckanut, the course has some distinct changes that occur every handful of miles, which made this fairly clear and easy. In fact, the online course map does this quite nicely – using a color code to demarcate the course into six sections. I added in a few additional ones of my own, but basically followed the course map’s sectioning:
- The interurban trail – the first ~6.7 miles of the course.
- A wide and generally flat dirt path. Predictable and easy to zone out and settle into a pace.
- The climb to Fragrance Lake and the descent to Cleator Road
- A nicely groomed, switchbacking trail that climbs steadily for a couple of miles to Fragrance Lake followed by another mile or so of somewhat gentle descent to Cleator Road
- Cleator Road
- A ~ 2.5 mile climb up a dirt road with a nice flat-ish patch in the middle which allows for one’s heart to settle down a bit before continuing the climb to the Ridge Trail
- The Ridge Trail and the Lost Lake Trail
- In my personal mental sectioning, this was actually two sections:
- The Ridge Trail and then the Lost Lake Trail. The few times I ran on the Ridge trail, I was basically walking. I would go from running 10 minute miles uphill on Cleator Road to running 14 minute miles on the flat, somewhat descending Ridge Trail (about 3 miles). I knew this would be my weak spot in the race and where I could potentially lose a lot of time to people who are more confident in their root/rock : foot/eye coordination abilities.
- The Lost Lake part of the trail was much easier footing-wise. Though a bit more muddy, I could better navigate mud and climbing and was relieved to hit this part and attempt to make up time lost in the previous 3 miles
- In my personal mental sectioning, this was actually two sections:
- A somewhat short, but steep climb. Somehow this is a mountain bike trail?! I cannot imagine descending this on a bike!
- The Fragrance Lake descent
- Nearly the same as our entrance, except this time, downhill. Also not super strong on this part – as there’s some speedy descending, but some periodized switchbacks, which cut into my momentum.
- The interurban trail return – the last 6.7 miles of the course
- Time to settle into the legs, and focus on turnover and avoiding complacency
My race played out like this:
About 5 minutes before the start, John spotted a friend from our time living in Montana, who we haven’t seen for about 10 years. We start chatting. I suddenly realize I have 2 minutes to maneuver my way close to the line. I spot Keely, say hi, and then, WE’RE OFF.
In the first mile I did a scan for women around me. As I hadn’t raced many of these women before, I wanted to make sure I was aware of who was angling their way toward the front. I spotted Ellie and decided that I’d move up a little bit to run alongside. I knew that I’d have to be particularly careful on this part of the course – with it being the beginning, and some of the more easy and steady running that we’d encounter. There were several miles of climbing and descending ahead of us and I didn’t want to wreck my legs. However, I was certain that Ellie would dominate on at least the ridge trail, so I couldn’t afford to give up any time on the parts of the course that played to my strengths.
Within a mile, I was in the lead. It wasn’t where I wanted to be necessarily, but the pace seemed reasonable and a quick look back around 3 miles in and I could see both Ellie and Keely not far behind, so I felt confident I wasn’t playing the silly rabbit. Around 4 miles, I found myself running nearby two men and we chatted for a bit. When I noted that I recently moved from Boston, we got to chatting about the marathon and within a few minutes I realized we had distractedly dropped the pace to 6:20. I explained that I should be a bit more wary of pace, apologized for choosing to be anti-social, and dropped back.
Once off the interurban, we climbed steadily toward Fragrance Lake. I knew that I was not far ahead of the other women, but was surprised that I still was in the lead – though I was sure it wasn’t by much. As we exited the trail onto Cleator Road, the cheers of the aid station crowd confirmed that a couple of women were only about 10 seconds behind, which was comforting as I knew that I was still running relatively smart and had managed to keep generally even with people as we approached the part of the race that I knew would be my most challenging. It was still early in my training, so I knew I wasn’t fit enough to be wasting people on the climbs.
At the top of Cleator, I quickly stopped at an aid station to refill my handheld. Only moments after entering the ridge trail, I could hear someone behind me and called out for them to let me know when they were ready to pass so I could move to the side. It was Ellie and we chatted quickly before she seemingly effortlessly glided into the distance over the roots and rocks like she was on a flat-paved road (#goals). I momentarily questioned whether Salomon was now making “hover-shoes”, she made moving over the trail so effortless. Shortly after, another woman (who turned about to be Anne Madden) and Keely passed me, looking strong and also cruising over the roots and rocks (#goals). I forced myself to be as aggressive as my skills would allow, so as to manage the amount of time they’d all put on me over the next few miles. Just before we hit the Lost Lake trail section, I was passed by a friend of a friend, Corrine Malcom, who slid down (over?) some slab rock with attitude and positivity (#goals). I tried to absorb her effusive happiness, but I was READY to be on the Lost Lake trail.
Over 3 miles, I had lost 4 spots. This was not unexpected, but coming out of this section I knew I’d have to put my big girl pants on and try to gain back as many of those lost minutes as possible.
After about a mile or so, I was able to catch Corrine and pushed to try to put distance between us. Here I hit a bit of a rough point. I didn’t feel terrible, but I didn’t feel great. So I tried to relax and keep things turning over until my legs (and mind) figured things out. I just reminded myself I didn’t have much further to Chinscraper, and then a nice solid downhill before the 6+ miles on the interurban trail to the finish.
Right before Chinscraper, I saw John and he informed me that the number 3 woman was only about 2 minutes ahead. I figured we’d all basically be going the same pace on Chinscraper (give or take), so I ran when I could and focused on power hiking hard when I couldn’t. I had recovered from my rough patch, but was DEFINITELY ready for the next aid station and refilling my bottle. I was THIRSTY.
I came barreling off the trail and down Cleator Road, unscrewing the top of my bottle and alerting the aid station as I approached that I’d like to grab some water, coke, then water. I chugged a bit of water on the spot, and then darted back and forth from coke to water to get a mixture of half and half. I was worried about the time I was losing with all my fluid consumption/refilling, but though my general nutrition/consumption had been good – I felt like I really needed to stock up on fluids now going into the last couple sections of the course. I thanked the aid station and headed out for the next mile of hard downhill toward Fragrance Lake.
I was lucky to see John here again and he said I was still about 2 mins behind third. By the time I reached the interurban I was about 1.5 minutes, with Ellie nearly finished (a joke…kinda), and two women still ahead – Keely in third and Anne in second. John actually noted at this point that he thought I’d be more likely to catch Anne, as she appeared to be going through a bit of a rough patch. I can’t say I was feeling particularly strong and my right upper hamstring was feeling a bit restricted, but I tried to remind my legs that they were on even ground again and needed to increase the turnover and keep things steady.
I managed to pass a few men in the following 3 or so miles, but the women ahead of me remained elusive. With about 1.5 miles to go I thought I spotted Keely in the far distance, though I wasn’t sure, as there were non-racers out for their weekend runs and from that far a distance it wasn’t entirely clear. I continued to push and was starting to slowly close the gap. When I was about 50 meters behind, with a little over half a mile to go, I came upon a sign that said something to the effect of considering how you want to feel about the effort you put in the last mile toward the finish. [The entire course was punctuated by small signs, which provided light commentary about the section of the course – sometimes joking about the tough spots of the course, or encouraging you on the faster portions. These were a nice highlight and definitely an enjoyable distraction!]
I would have definitely been happy with a fourth place finish behind such strong women. And I knew I had run within my goal time. But I also knew that deep down I could push harder. I thought about how painful the trials had been just due to the heat. Here I was in nearly perfect conditions and with some additional weeks of fitness. I forced myself to pick up the pace and run hard toward the finish.
I think I passed Keely with about 600 meters to go (a total guess, but at the time I just told myself it was less than 800 meters). Though, I was actually surprised when I saw a road crossing and thought, “oh! the end!”. I turned right, hoping that I hadn’t turned off the trail erroneously/too early and kicked toward the finish.
At the finish, I was greeted by John, Krissy (the race director), Ellie and Anne, and Matt Flaherty (who had also placed third, but looked so recovered and put together that I asked him if he even ran in the race :)). Still so so thirsty, I chugged some water and we posed for some finish line pictures before heading to the food tent for some delicious lentil soup and bread.
Chuckanut was a challenging race, but so enjoyable from the start to finish to post-race drive home. The organization of the race was impeccable, the course was beautiful, the field of runners was top-notch, and it was a great way to start 2016. What a fun way to spend a day! I can’t wait to go back next year!
This was originally posted on Sarah’s blog Recess: The Best Part of the Day. Check it out to keep up with her left coast exploits.