The downside of staying with Sue and David – they are early risers. We were up by 4 am and Sue was already all ready to go. I woke up and packed as much as I could into my little race water pack. It does feel little when you’re trying to carry gels, salt tablets, toilet paper, napkins etc. But it all fit in. Sue’s race pack was an even bigger camel back but given most of the terrain was more of a hike than a run, I think it was prudent.
We began driving out from Hood River and whatever plans I had of driving back to shower before I drove to the airport quickly vanished. Hood River was 20 miles in the other direction. We drove towards PDX, took the exit for Cascade Locks OR and then crossed over a bridge (called the Bridge of Gods) over to WA. I can see why it’s called that. If that bridge breaks, you’re kinda at the mercy of the gods. But moreover it’s called that because of the view. Incredible. Couldn’t take a photo because I had to stay on the bridge.
We got into the parking lot at 6.30 AM. The race wasn’t starting until 8 AM. People had camped out at the meadow where the race began. It was super laid back. People were getting ready slowly. Went over and picked up my packet and somewhat regretted not paying for a race tee. I came all the way and wouldn’t have a race tee! This race was so laid back – there was no timing chip (all on gun time) and no finishers medal (at least not for 25K). The race is organized by Rain Shadow Running. They have a bunch of PNW races, each of them look harder and more beautiful than the other. A lot of the Tejas runners do their races here in the PNW with RSR. There were about 8-10 Tejas runners at this race, most of them doing the 50K, including Joe. It felt great, almost like home because I knew so many people.
The race began in this cluster, the gun went off. We ran out of the meadow and onto the road down to the trail. The trail began winding upwards immediately. I told Sue I was going to go really slow. I was panting already like a dog and the trail hadn’t gotten pretty yet. And then it got pretty steep so we all went down to power hiking. Saw Sue still powering through with a shuffle. She is much better on uphill than I am. After about 2 miles it didn’t look like we were coming on any downhills and this is what separates TX from the mountains. In TX we got hills, some of them might be steep but they’re rolling. You go up and you come down soon after. But here you go up, up and up and eventually you come down but it could be miles before you do.
I put on my ipod and began to run. The trek got steeper. At one point we turned a corner and it was a single dirt/wet earth track that was going uphill at 40 degrees or something. If you stood, you’d slide down towards the runner behind you. It was tough climbing uphill like this so early into the race. This was all within the first 5 miles. I was out of breath and my calves were yearning to stop. And then suddenly just like that we glimpsed the view.
And this is how the mountain eggs you on. Most of the running/hiking is on protected trails and then you’re suddenly rewarded with a glimpse of such utmost beauty that you forget all about your calves and your frustration with the terrain and you thank it. Because if it wasn’t for the steepness, there wouldn’t be that glimpse.
After about 5 miles, we suddenly started to go down. The ground is softer than in TX, it’s soft earth instead of sharp rocks and cedar chops which have it’s own charm. You get used to touching your feet lightly onto the ground so your feet don’t get caught or twisted or roll on a rock. Eventually I asked Sue if I could go past her and then I just took off. I had finally acclimatized and I was going downhill, it felt great and so off I went. I almost flew down for about half to 3/4 of a mile, running hard but never feeling hard. I got down to the first aid station and it continued on downhill for a while. We crossed a bit of a bridge and then the incline began a bit. But it was still net downhill so I thought this was the only time I could pick some time up and enjoy the speed while I was at it.
While I run okay downhill in TX, in PNW it takes on a whole new meaning. In TX even when you run downhill it can be nerve racking because of the rocks and pebbles. But here on soft earth and grass, you can’t even brake if you want to. You just keep flying down and this wasn’t just mine but most other runners’ experience.
Eventually all the running fast downhill creeps up on you and I remembered Olga’s advice on squats. Oh boy, did my quads hurt now not to mention my toe nails. I’d never been so looking forward to climbing again when I came upon the second mountain. This was Mt. Hamilton. Here are some gorgeous pics of the course taken by other runners over the years of this race.
I saw Vicki, one of the TT 50K runners on the course and we kept passing each other back and forth. She did much better on the uphills and on the second time climb I began to get a bit tired. I ate a bunch of gels and kept taking salt tablets every 30-45 minutes. Though the weather was in the cool 60s I was losing a lot of fluids. Even then with all the exhaustion it felt so much better than running in the TX heat. Anyday. I’ll do a mountain a day if it is no higher than 65 F.
Here’s again where I began to flag in energy but I didn’t feel bad because I felt I was doing a good job on the nutrition. Eating lots of gels and salt really, really helped. I always end up eating when I’m really hungry but this time I kept eating at regular intervals. Most ultra runners have this down to a science but I run fewer miles and usually don’t obsess or think about it. At some point I caught up with some hikers and this is when the mountain again began to egg you on. A glimpse here and there. I tried to keep sight of Vicki to keep me going. But the trails and the switchbacks were deceptive, she was quite ahead of me. Here’s a pic of her waving down at me.
As I hiked and hiked, over a million switchbacks because they felt like they were never going to end, I began thinking that there has to be something heavenly up there. My mind was already turning to mush but I was keeping on going thinking seeing that view would be like seeing God. Maybe that’s all there is to seeing God. Probably why people like building temples up on the hill because after an exhausting trek, people were ready to believe anything.
The hiker behind me was catching up. I wanted to be ahead of him but I was tired. He wasn’t running a race, I was. But he looked calm and strong. I asked him if he wanted to pass me. He was like, you’re almost there. This is one of the last few switchbacks. You’re there. Keep going. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Those kind words at that time meant a whole lot more than he’d ever know.
And then I finally made it. And it was worth every step. Because I almost had to sit down and choke back my tears. I thought about why I felt like that – it wasn’t because I was tired or hurting, that hardly mattered. It was because what my body was enduring was so unimportant and so insignificant amongst those giant mountains that it automatically just made me feel so grateful that I was there. That I existed on top of that mountain and nothing else could be more important or more beautiful. Life would go on like it does but in that moment it stood still.
The pics aren’t great. It was cloudy but I know what I saw and how I felt. And at that time I was exactly at halfway mark. About 7.5-8 miles and I had the remaining to go. But I felt I could go on forever. It was absolutely worth it. All my worries about finishing, the hike up everything vanished. All I could think about was, I am so happy I made it here.
By the time I began my second hard downhill run, my quads were pretty sore. I wanted to break my speed down but I just couldn’t. Gravity took me along and I still kept running as fast as I could. My only regret that I knew now the best was over and I’d left the utmost beauty of the course behind me. But the rest of the course didn’t disappoint. I ran across narrow ledges with deep, 200 ft falls down but looking out onto a forest of green pines and snow capped peaks in the distance. And despite my exhaustion, quad soreness and burning toenails from running and stubbing, I just kept saying thanks, thanks, thanks. Thanks to the strangers who put this race up. Thanks to the stranger who helped me through the last few meters of the hike up. And thanks to being alive.