Chuckanut 50K was going to be an epic race this year. In it’s 25th year running, this mountain trail race out of quaint Fairhaven, has a long history of attracting some of the best runners from around the country. So, naturally, this year I signed up to run the epic race by Bellingham. Qualifiers for the IAU Trail World Championships for both the US and Canada ensured that I wasn’t the only highflying trail runner in this year’s line up, heh.
Aside from colorful sponsored superstars blazing along the fabled muddy ridge the other wildcard that made this year’s race truly one to remember was the insane weather we’ve been having in the last few… well months really. Can anyone remember a truly blue bird day this whole winter?
Running an ultra distance early in the season and shortly after completing the Hillbilly Half helps set up the stage for a summer of epics runs, and thus my expectations were clear: Finish a strong race, that’s executed well. Don’t get injured, and remember to have fun, despite the mad muddy trails. Chuckanut was a race on trails I had never set foot on. I realized last year at Squamish50 how hard it is to prepare for a course based solely on an elevation profile and map. Although Chuckanut is an “easier” course (less elevation and lollipop style) this was my biggest concern as I approached the starting line on a cold and wet Saturday morning.
Over 450 runners gathered at the starting line, despite the weather and the forecast for rain and mud from all directions. With such a large group of runners, it always takes a while for everyone to find their groove and place in the pack. The wide trail offered plenty of trail for people to space out and I worked hard to keep myself in check and not get carried away rushing out the gate. That first section is easy, mostly flat, but not too boring as it winds itself away from town along the waters of the Puget Sound, toward Chuckanut mountain. I tried to pay attention to the route as much as I could, as this is the only part of the course we would be repeating when coming back into town toward the finish. Spectators scattered along the first few miles made this section go by fast and as we approached the first aid station, we got a glimpse of the first ascent.
I stopped at the first aid station, which I did not do at Squamish and regretted it immensely. Taking time at aid stations, to refuel and for brief mental breaks to connect with the volunteers is something I find really important, not just for the calories, but also for my mental game. Yes, it costs valuable seconds or even minutes, but I find it so worth it on longer runs. I grabbed some orange slices, filled up my water bottle with electrolytes and began the first ascent. Yes, my legs are prepared for this, I though to myself. While on the flat sections, I found myself not making much ground. On this first hill, I pressed ahead and overtook several of the runners around me. This is what I trained for – hills.
After a brief downhill section, the single track spit us out on a long steep ascent on a boring forest road. This is a mind game now. Lots of runners were still around me and I found enjoyable distractions by chatting with a mountain biker climbing the hill with us and later on with a fellow runner. Chris (if I remember right?) will run Squamish 50 with me later this Summer. We were chatting about our running experience and goals as we approached aid station 3, known as “the kissing booth”. This aid station is a blur. After this long climb, many runners are approaching the aid station at the same time and a lot was going on. The volunteers were all dressed up, music was playing. Here, we also saw some of the front runners bombing down the hill. A “friendly hippie” was offering free kisses before we embarked onto the challenging ridge section.
In better weather, this section of the race is supposedly gorgeous. Views of Mt. Baker and the lakes below were all shrouded in mist and clouds that day. Being in the back of the pack, the trail has seen now lots of other runners ahead of me, which makes for challenging conditions. There’s plenty of mud and the weather is now turning nasty. Wet rocks made the trail slippery. In some places, the run turns into a climb. I step carefully. This is just the halfway mark. There’s still lots of running to go.
Where am I? I’m not lost, the course is well marked. In fact, I love the dozens of signs with all the corny messages of encouragement all along the trail. Being out on a race for many hours and spending so much time in your head, these offer a little happy distraction. But, I’m expecting the Little Chinscraper section and it’s not coming. The rain continues to pound and the wind is blowing, somehow in my race prep this section of the trail I completely missed. I’m off the ridge, but this section just keeps dragging itself on forever. I get mad at myself. This is what I was hoping to prevent. I knew I couldn’t actually train on the course, but I thought I had studied the map well. I had completely misjudged that long, very long section of the course. This is the section I lose the most places, as I am trying not to completely bomb out. I know what still lies ahead, yet am wrestling with myself trying to stay focused.
At this point I don’t know how I can climb that fabled ‘Little Chinscraper’ section and not completely flame out. Visions of my final ascent of ‘Mountain of Phlegm’ back at Squamish run through my head. Deep in dark thoughts, I turn a corner and suddenly see an aid station tucked deep into the forest. A fire’s burning in a fire pit, people are wearing masks and despite the horrible weather, they are cheering. There is food- soup, avocado slices, peanut butter wraps, and bacon! I eat it all. I needed food. I was so happy for this aid station, in this place, at this moment. It saved my life. Beyond it, lies the Chinscraper that lots of people have talked about it. I have no idea what expect, but I now felt ready.
It’s still dumping in buckets and I almost get stuck in the mud shoving one more handful of bacon pieces in my mouth. I tear myself away from the warm fire pit, the friendly faces and with a mouth full of food, I begin the final and steepest ascent of the day. Yes, this section is tough. In some sections, I hold on to roots and branches to pull myself up. But my legs are holding up. I had run conservatively enough to still have something left in my tank for this. Despite the earlier difficulties, I am smiling, this is what I came here for. Overtaking a couple of runners, I reach the top of that ‘crux pitch’ and the highest and coldest point of the race.
As the trail turns downwards, I am exhausted, but happy. I find a good stride and get blood flowing back into my hands which warms me up. This is now over 3 miles of downhill running toward the water and final stretch back to the finish line. I still am not cramping and this pushes the earlier thoughts of doom and gloom out of head. I’ve made it this far. I’m running again, finding a groove and feeling confident now.
Down from this seemingly endless downhill, I reach final aid station. I briefly refuel, but my stomach has had enough sugary food. I eat a small snickers and regret it. Refuel with coke and barely touch it on the final miles. Now it’s all mental. On this popular trail, I lose a couple of places to faster runners, but never completely slow to a crawl. I can run this in to the finish. I know I can. People are cheering- this will be a stronger finish than on my last 50K. This I can sense and it gives me the strength to push the final mile as the trail enters town and my sore feet meet concrete again. A huge crowd is at the finish line as I cross the line, just in time for the award ceremony. My family has been waiting patiently, which I’m super grateful for. After the many hours alone on the trail, the crowd feels disorientating. Trying to catch a breath, I wonder aimlessly looking for a place to rest. I need to get out of my wet clothes and I am looking for food.
This wasn’t so bad I think as the sun comes out and gives me moment to relax.
Thank you so much for all the race coordinatiors, especially Krissi Mohl for putting on such an incredible event. Another huge thanks to all the volunteers and sponsors. Want to see some pics, check out Glenn Tachiyama’s photo gallery, including me, just atop the Chinscraper section and here’s a link to the official results.
Shoes: La Sportiva Bushido – it took me forever to make a decision on what shoes to buy, those are worth every penny, I love them so much.
Socks: Balega Enduro V-Tech Quarter Socks – Because I would never run with bad socks anymore. Those work. No blisters, no hot spots.
Shorts: Lululemon – don’t laugh, I got them for a Strava gear reward earlier this year. They are cut a bit longer than I usually wear, but in weather like this they worked out perfectly. They have a side pocket for my phone and compression shorts build in, which kept me warm.
Baselayer: Arcteryx – I picked up a sleeveless shirt at the Premium outlet mall and it did what it needed to do. No bloody nipples and I felt good for the entire race.
Longsleeve: Salomon – The weather was cold and I needed something warm, yet breathable. I love that shirt and worn it all winter. Now that spring is in the air, I’ll let it hibernate during the warmer months. Short sleeve weather!
Rain jacket: Patagonia Houdini – 5 days before the race, I finally picked up a new rain jacket and I’m so glad I did. That race was wet, and the jacket did it’s job.
Hydration Pack: Patagonia Forerunner – Bought this somewhat roomier pack for longer adventure runs far away from aid stations, but I love this pack and it offers enough space for everything I need to carry while never feeling in the way.
Anything else: Nike compression shorts to prevent chaffing,
a trucker hat to keep the rain out of my face, and some Clif shot bloks for the darkest hours.