Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mt. Hood 50

Sometimes, you have months of build up to a big race. It takes over your life and your every waking moment is devoted to honing your fitness to peak at precisely the right time. Other times, you find out that you're going to be running a 50-mile race with less than three days notice. This was one of those races.

I'd known for several months that I'd be heading down to Oregon for the Mt. Hood 50-miler, but only in a vague capacity as crew/support/driver for Alex who'd already signed up for it. But following a possible episode of burn-out, where I managed to DNF on a single 4 km interval, I decided I needed a break from all this hard training. Then I decided to put my name down on the wait-list for a 50-mile race instead. What can I say? It looked pretty.

We (Alex, myself and Lucy; who was not racing) decided to leave Vancouver bright and early on the Friday morning, which was just as well as an unexpected vehicle malfunction delayed us a couple of hours. Still, we were across the border by late morning and soon well on the way to our hotel. Veering east as we neared Portland, we gradually climbed higher through classic Pacific Northwest forest scenery, with Mt Hood putting in occasional breathtaking appearances as we rounded bends.

Alex had made an excellent choice with her hotel booking. Not only was the out-of-season ski resort very comfortable and well located for the race; it was mere seconds away from the Ice Axe Grill, home to the Mt Hood Brewing Company. It took little persuasion to convince our crew to head here, where we enjoyed a light meal and some heavy beers.
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Mmmm... beer.

The nutritional benefits of dark chocolate and red wine are well-established. So in the interests of a healthy lifestyle I gorged mildly on these before lights out around sunset.

Pre-race wine and chocolate.

4 am came around with its customary haste. We moved smoothly through the standard race-morning routine and were soon driving the 30 minutes to the start as the skies gradually lightened. In places, a slowly clearing mist hung over the landscape. The air was cool, crisp and clear as we picked up bibs and milled around the start area. With very little ceremony, the race suddenly started and we darted off into some flowing single-track.
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Yes, it's another picture of me running.

The first few miles of the course are pretty flat, so there's always the temptation for adrenaline to take over and run out too fast. Which I did for maybe a mile, before relaxing and letting a few of the speedier runners pass me. For a while I ran with Norman who was running his first 50-miler. He said he had a plan to walk a lot of the uphills in the early part of the race. Of course he didn't, and charged up the climbs that began after six miles. I never caught up with him again.

Around eleven miles into the race, the trees thinned out a little and we were presented with one of *those* views that make you remember why running on trails is so special. The valley floor opened up below us, before sweeping up majestically to frame Mt Hood looking utterly stunning in the early morning light. At this point I was aware of another runner gradually gaining on me. It was Andrea, the lead woman. I was a little surprised that she was ahead of Alex, as our pre-race ultrasignup stalking hadn't identified much serious competition. We ran close together until the 14-mile aid station where the course doubled back on itself, all the way back to the start.
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Fortunately, an ascent of Mt Hood is not part of the course.

I grabbed a couple of gels as a precaution and left a few seconds ahead of Andrea. On the return leg, I soon encountered Alex, only a couple of minutes back, looking strong and controlled. I shouted something that I hoped was encouraging without being too disparaging about her competition. I'm not sure that I succeeded on either count. I ran slightly ahead of Andrea all the way back to the start line, the 28-mile mark of the race. Sometimes we were close enough to chat about the kinds of things runners talk about during races. I asked her if she was aware of Amy Sproston's course record. She was, and in fact Amy had encouraged her to take it down.

Part of me was wondering how I could manipulate the situation to help Alex's race. Maybe I could slooooooow riiiiight dooooown and Andrea would too? Or maybe I should run really hard to force the pace? Of course, in the end, I did no such thing and just enjoyed having some company.

After being cruelly forced through the start/finish area, we dropped into a new section of trail for another out-and-back that constituted the second half of the race. I realized at this point that I was feeling quite tired. Had I not tapered properly? Was my nutrition at fault? Lack of sleep? Or maybe, it's normal to feel a little less than fresh after running for thirty miles. Whatever it was, it caused me to trip and fall embarrassingly, twice in quick succession, on totally innocuous terrain. This was clearly a signal. After a steep climb to the next aid station I started pounding back the coke. The caffeine and sugar rush hit me almost instantly and there was a new spring in my step as we embarked on a fun three-mile descent to the river.

Shortly after crossing the river, we encountered the leaders of the race on the return leg, and then started a climb that would take us to the second turnaround. Somehow I was expecting this section to be steeper and was relieved that I was running the bulk of the hill. Andrea gradually slowed down here, and after running together for over twenty miles, I finally pulled ahead. There were a few distractions on this section; a couple of fallen trees that necessitated some mild clambering and a few horseback riders that forced a welcome slowing of the pace as I passed them.

Soon enough I hit the aid station, stopped briefly to reposition my food supplies then headed back down the trail. Andrea was not too far back and pushing bravely upwards. A little later I encoutered Alex, still in second place, who was keen to know how far the turnaround was. Again, I tried to offer encouragement, and with eleven hilly miles left, I knew that her battle for the top spot was far from over.

When I returned to the river, I knew that the final climb that lay ahead was going to be the most gruelling of the race. Fortunately, I was encountering plenty of other runners on the outbound leg and fed off their energy. There was a lot of hiking, and the temperature was rising. When I finally emerged at the last aid station, I complained bitterly about this section. They aid station staff were sympathetic, but pointed out that it was pretty much all downhill for the last five miles. I chugged more coke and pressed on.

The first couple of miles clicked off easily enough. Then there was a downed tree to clamber over. Fair enough, there's been a few of these already today. Although this time, this late in the race, it was a little different. Almost immediately my inner thighs cramped up horribly, and for a moment I wasn't sure that I could carry on. I gingerly walked, then jogged, and eventually resumed something resembling running. There was one final exhausted face-plant with a mile to go, but fortunately no-one was around to see this one. Then there was a short section of road which gave me a chance to try and look composed for the finish line before I crossed in 7:12. Fist-bumps from the race director who then presented me with a Mt Hood beer glass. I ended up in 9th position overall, which I was very happy with considering the lateness of my sign-up.
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More beer!

I chatted incoherently with Lucy for a few minutes while my body tried to recover. Within fifteen minutes I was gorging myself on an excellent burger from the post-race barbecue, maybe a little saddened by the multiple "No Alcohol" signs that were necessary because of the race's location in a state park. Andrea finished not longer after me, breaking the course record and winning her d├ębut 50-mile race.

Alex's race... didn't go quite as well as we might have hoped. Despite gastrointestinal issues - "I've never thrown up so much in my life" - that caused her to walk large sections of runnable terrain, she still finished in third position. Fortunately she recovered quickly enough that we were able to take full advantage of the rest of the weekend relaxing in Portland with craft beers, great food and some life-altering ice cream from...

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Still smiling!

I really enjoyed the Mt. Hood 50. It has a fairly low-key, friendly atmosphere, some stunning scenery and mostly runnable terrain. The course marking was exemplary, the aid station staff super-cool and the organizers were awesome. Definitely one to consider.

Links:

Official web site
2013 Results
My race on Strava
Alex's race report (amongst other things)




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