I wanted to write up a quick race report for my recent Red Devil 50K experience. The local Run Wenatchee club in the Cascade mountains of Washington threw a great race, and I recommend it if you want a true challenge. In fact, I find that I learn a number of lessons with every race, and the biggest one is to never overlook a 50K. This was a truly challenging race that even elite trail runners struggle with. There were some top finishers from Western States here, and if you don’t know trail running, that would be considered like a major is in golf or tennis. One of the biggest and toughest races in the community. I’m just a regular guy from the flatlands of New Jersey and I put this race on my calendar because it seemed manageable from my conference I attend for work in Seattle each year. I knew there was a lot of elevation, but it didn’t really dawn on me how much and how challenging until race day. For a guy that feels like he does pretty well on hills, this will still take a lot out of you. This was definitely not one of my faster days. I had a lot of luck winning my age group a couple years back on a high elevation race in Idaho, but this day would not be like that day for me.
Lots of Extremes in the Cascades
There were a number of things in this race that I have never experienced before on a long race. 90-degree heat, 7000 feet of elevation gain, llamas. Yes, llamas at our most remote aid station. They helped carry all of the goodies out to the remote spot and were a comforting distraction as that aid station marked the end of 8 miles straight up of climb in the 90-degree temps, both of which I hadn’t experienced before. Don’t get me wrong, all of the runners had to deal with this, so no excuse from me. It was a challenge though and I hadn’t put in enough hills, and probably heat to be significantly trained. But I was craving a positive experience and my mind was set on ending a bit of a slump I had going.
Breaking the Curse
As I mentioned above, I came into this with the goal of ending a bit of a big race slump. I had been injured for my half marathon at Glacier National Park last summer and finished, but slowly. This was coming off of a bit of burnout from long races. But then I decided to take on MDI at Acadia National Park in Maine in the fall. This is truly one of the most beautiful courses out there. If you are a trail runner, it is worth doing this road race. The day was perfect and I felt great, but then randomly got sick and threw up on myself at about mile 16. I DNF’d that one. So it was important to me to get back on the marathon+ distance and just finish it successfully. With all that being said, I am training for a potential dream race in the fall in the Barkley Fall Classic, and most of my year was set up to train for that, so I totally overlooked how challenging this one would be.
Climbing the Mountain
The first nine miles were fairly tame. You start out running up a smaller mountain and end up coming back down and around. At the start we were in the 50’s for temps, only to end at 90, which is a bit of an experience in itself. I felt pretty good on the single tracks going up the hill. I started relatively close to the back and with these trails you kind of lose any concept of your place in the pack as you can only tend to see a short distance ahead of and behind. I fell pretty good coming down the hill on mile 7. I am known for falling. In this case I just let myself get going too fast. I cracked a rib in the spring on a fall and that was just healing up, so I told myself to dial it back a notch. Nobody was actually around to see this, so I don’t know if that means it never really happened. I got a bit dirty from the fall but no new pains to deal with.
I came into the race worried about a recent hamstring injury. It wasn’t severe, but the pain was there enough that I scaled back and skipped my last long training run prior to the race to allow it to heal. I felt its gentle presence but it wasn’t bothering me too much. I had sort of gotten used to it. With my recent slump. the worry was in the back of my mind that it could ruin my day though, so I wanted to be very conservative with the big climb to come.
After the mile 9 aid station, you are basically heading up a mountain for the next 8 miles in what was now 80-90 degree temps. Much of it open to the sun on the mountainside. These trails are dirt bike trails and mostly single track with a groove just thinner than your foot to keep you from ever having a nice flat landing. What’s more, there was actually a dirt bike race going on at the same time as our race for certain parts of the trail. On our way up the mountain they were coming from behind, and later, on miles 25-32, we had to deal with them coming head on. This was annoying for us, and I’m sure them. We had to stop and get off the trail to let them through which definitely can mess with your momentum. Sometimes you had to descend a sharp decline to get off the trail and then climb back up. It definitely made it interesting. Again, it was something that we all had to deal with. The motorcycles often had to stop at steep spots to let runners finish so they could build up speed to get up the hill. Not sure if I will ever experience this again. That roaring of the engine you would hear approaching and then have to strategize where you were going to step off the trail. Kept you mentally sharp though.
Getting to the Top
The mountain was hard and tough, but that is why we do these things. There were times near the top where I had to stop and gather myself as I got lightheaded or weak, but I would recoup and get going again. I knew eventually we would have to get to the top. There were tons of great views on the way up (and down), and I made sure to stop and take a few pictures and remind myself that I was here for the beauty and the experience. You can’t get caught up in your place in the race, especially if you aren’t on the level with the field. These people were fast and young. I’m pretty sure I was one of the oldest there. I met a few guys I think were older, but most seemed to be in their 20’s and 30’s. I wasn’t winning anything here, and they don’t have age group prizes, so just enjoy the experience and don’t injure yourself too much more.
Mile 17: The Top of the Mountain
Once we reached the top, it was a huge mental boost. We were told the aid station was actually about half a mile over the top and back down, so once there was a bit of a slope down, combined with my Suunto telling me the distance was about right, I knew that aid station I was craving had finally arrived. I pulled into a great and positive group of people offering to fill up my bottles, handing me water and food and a seat. I got to pet a wonderful dog and this was where the llamas were hanging out. I did take a minute to sit down and gather myself and hydrate a bit. I also attempted to eat some M&M’s but they didn’t go down too well. I had been carrying PB&J and that was what I was used to as fuel, so didn’t put much else into my system foodwise.
On a side note, this year I used a nutritionist, Julie Cohen of Mad Nutrition, to help me with fueling and eating and she has been a godsend. She has really helped me work through some issues there. Part of my “slump” had to do with my body rejecting foods and fuels on some of these races and it had led to bad finishes. She helped me train my body to accept food and fuel, which obviously helps tremendously on endurance races. She was amazing to work with and will work with you over the phone. It was definitely worth it for me as I had been struggling with those issues for several years, and it was not a problem at all on this day, other than my misguided attempt to eat M&M’s that I don’t typically eat.
Heading Back Down
Anway, mentally, as you leave that aid station you know that it is predominantly downhill from there. There is another little mountain you have to climb on the last five miles, but it pales in comparison to what is already behind you. I was feeling good and ready to make up some time racing down the mountain. Unfortunately, this was where my hamstring started to throb a bit. Who knew. I thought the hamstring’s major job was over. Maybe that was part of it. The mental aspect of not bracing for it anymore. Anyway, it started to throb and I went from run to limpy gait to walking for several miles. During this part of the race, we regularly came across stream crossings with the snow runoff. I had a cooling towel I would dip in the stream each time and put over my head. This was so helpful for the very hot temps at this point in the race.
The downhill also had a lot of hard rock and stone on the course. This also limited me a bit in my Vibrams. I have to decide whether I can use these for my race in the fall. They don’t have a lot of underfoot protection. I developed some pretty serious bruises that are still hurting me 10 days out. My feet swelled up pretty good the couple of days after the races and turned black and blue. With the pain of landing on all of these sharp rocks and the hamstring, I was pretty limited from about mile 21-26.
Then somehow, I guess I had beaten it into submission. The hamstring stopped hurting. In fact, it stopped hurting for several days. It didn’t come back until almost a week later. I’m not sure how or why this happened. I will leave that to the doctors, but it was nice that it went away. I was like a new man after the mile 26 aid station.
The damage had been done and I wasn’t going to have a great finish, but I knew I would finish. That last hill that I thought would seem easy when I was at mile 17, is a little more challenging after you have 26 miles on your bruised up feet, but I took it on and the reintroduction of the dirt bikes, and made my way to the finish. It was a tremendous experience, despite finishing in the second half.
After a couple of years of disaster, I finished another 50K, with two more on the calendar this year. Need to get healthy and trained up for a fun year of beautiful trails ahead of me.