It’s early March again in the Pacific Northwest. This time around, it’s still snowing even on the lower trails making for an entertaining Mountain Marathon and Hillbilly Half up Rock Candy mountain in the Capitol Forest near Olympia, WA. Why the race directors didn’t name the races “Rock Candy” is beyond me. It would be such a perfect name for a trail race. But no matter the name, this is still one of my favorite races all year and my goal is to bring someone to the race every year. This year it was another one of my awesome sister-in-laws, next year I am grabbing Douglas. Be warned.
Two years ago it was unseasonably warm for the race, almost 70 degrees and sunny. The Hillbilly Half was my first trail race and I fell in love with running trails. Last year, I pushed myself to do the full Mountain Marathon; I got lost for a bit and still made it back in time to not feel completely crushed.
By the time this year’s race came knocking I knew the course well and I was ready to rock despite the insanely wet and cold winter we’re having. There would be the infamous puddles, too big to not plough through. There would be snow, and perhaps even rain and hail and every other type of weather we’ve been having lately.
The start: This is my eighth trail race and being familiar with the course, I don’t feel my usual nervous jitters at the starting line. I love that the course starts off on a forest road. The course climbs right away and this surprises many first timers, but the wide forest road gives plenty of space for runners to spread out and find their groove. My goal in those early miles is simple: Run, don’t walk the hills, but don’t kill yourself either, there is plenty of climbing still to come.
Mile 2.5: The first switchbacks on single track trails require sure-footing and a good groove. I’m warm now and find myself in a good group of people who are running a similar pace than me. No one’s overtaking me and I am able to pick off a couple people ahead of me. I’m feeling good so far, but am still trying to be cautious.
Mile 4: While I keep several people in arms length on the forest road climb, the course veers off onto one of the steepest and gnarliest sections. Here, I am ready to attack. Most people choose to walk this section, but my legs like me today and so I run, and overtake.
Mile 5: It’s quite snowy on the trail now, which makes for a beautiful day in the forest. The puddles are getting bigger too which makes for wet feet. I have two runners ahead of me and two behind. We’re in good distance, apart that no one is attacking. I reckon most know about the final climb just ahead of the turnaround point.
Mile 6: The only section I walked on this course is the final forest road climb to the turnaround point, I chew on a gel shot block while walking uphill and gather myself for the descent. A quick sip of water and I am off, downhill now. The slowdown at the aid station did cost me a couple of places but I wanted to make sure I get a brief breather in before screaming down the hill.
Mile 7: My favorite part of out-and-back races is cheering on the runners panting up the hill while I zoom past them on my way down. “Good job.” “You can do it.” “You’re almost there.” Those encouragements mean the world to me when I am the one climbing and I love to share the love with my fellow racers.
Mile 9: Where is everyone? By now the distances between runners around me are pretty stretched out. I don’t hear anyone behind me and can’t see anyone ahead of me. I’m still hoping I can pickup a couple of places, but on the windy single track it’s hard to see ahead for more than 50 feet.
Mile 10: Finally I connect with a another lonely runner ahead of me and we start chatting about this year’s racing plans. Yes, I call myself an ultra runner, but this dude is doing a couple of 100Ks and several 50 milers. My upcoming program is outright tame compared to his.
Mile 11: The final miles are turning into a mind game. I’m still feeling strong, but I’m alone again on the course. The muddy single track downhill on the final steep switchbacks is in better shape than I expected after a few hundred runners blazed through today. I try to be fast, but cautious, my mind is starting to turn toward my race on Chuckanut mountain outside Bellingham in two weeks. Don’t get injured now, focus and finish fast, but safe – I tell myself.
Mile 12: At the last aid station the volunteer asks me if I need anything. I tell her “I’m good.” She ‘warns me’ that there are still 1.5 miles ahead of me, but encourages me by telling me that I look great and reminds me to keep my chin up. That’s what I needed to hear to find the strength to attack the final stretch.
The finish line: I finish strong, feeling great. But after I check my final time (2h12m), I’m sort of bummed. I was hoping for a greater improvement over two years ago, I wanted a time closer to the 2 hour mark. Overall, I’m pleased with my placement (26th out of 147 finishers) and how the race went. Knowing the course so well really helped me feel confident during every section of the race. This was a great season kickoff, but man, I need to train on hills in order attack them faster.
Chuckanut50, you’re up next.
PS: All pics were taken by Mathias Eichler the prior week on a scouting and training session on the Hillbilly Half course.