There's some stuff about running that I can occasionally struggle with; namely, that it hurts. I think this is true even for the speedsters. It pounds your body and muscles into a pulp after a while, and the objective of mountain running is to endure that over a long period of time and use the beautiful scenery to take your mind off the interminable ouchies which plague your entire being. Or something like that.
So as I say, I struggle with the ouchies. But there's one thing I really love about trail running: hills. I am especially fond of these "SkyRunning" events that boast massive climbs over given distances that really seem to cater to recovering cross-country skiers like myself. One such event, following our adventures at The Rut, was the Crystal Mountain Sky Marathon this past weekend. The legendary Scott McCoubrey built this race and directed it to a "T", with an incredibly-scenic course and a community feel that gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling which does work a bit to overcome the, well, ouchies.
As Alison reminded me (as a caution; apparently she thinks I can get somewhat competitive and expectant), this was my first marathon. But I was optimistic given the climbing involved and the fact that I had decided to use trekking poles, which I believed would cater to my past as a skier, allowing me to use my arms and take some load off my legs. That decision ended up being an AWESOME one, but we'll get to that.
We pawned Fiona off for the weekend to our trusted babysitters/Fiona's Second Family here in town and took off for Crystal Mountain on Friday afternoon. Alison had decided herself not to run after still feeling under the weather since The Rut, and as an alternative to the race offered to help Scott with logistics and some pickups of race supplies en route. We detoured to Spanaway (which always sounds to me like a handy auto mechanic's tool) to pick up "some" water for the aid stations. We were thinking 4-5 jugs of 5 gallons apiece. We arrived and found it was 18 JUGS of 5 gallons apiece, and then in the loading process we all (including the guys who worked there, who were convinced I was either a) a co-worker's brother [owing to my particularly familiar face], or b) Adam Sandler [that happens a lot]) miscounted and we ended up with 20 JUGs. 20 @ 5 gallons x 8 lbs/gallon = 800 lbs of extra weight in the Element. That baby still plugged on like a champ.
Arriving at Crystal we dumped the water with Scott and tucked in for the night in the car, giving Nikki (the Husky) no less than 3 sq feet of sleep space which she opted to ignore in favor of a rather uncomfortable spot right at the base of Alison's neck. Neither one got very good sleep so I'm glad I didn't somehow factor into that pretzeled arrangement. Morning came, and it was race time. I've been experimenting with a higher-fat, lower-carb diet (though I did make sure to have a good few meals with ample carbs prior to race day) and so stuck with a Greek yogurt for my brekkie, along with the requisite coffee. Minimal warmup (a change from the normal routine for me but I'm learning) and off we went. The course started in a very civilized way, with a 3000' (or so) climb to the first aid station at mile three. My trekking poles were amazing; I found myself doing a mix between a "ski walk" (using a cross-country skiing movement involving a glute-centric stride) and "moose hoofing" (same as the above but with more of a dynamic step); both allowed me to keep the intensity moderate but steadily gain in rank all the way to the top. The poles (Black Diamond Carbon collapsibles) were super-lightweight and broke down very easily which caused me no concern. I ended up just carrying them in my hands during the flat and downhill sections, of which there weren't many but the poles were inconsequential in either case.
From mile 3 to 18 I steadily gained position, in the downhills (which can be fully attributed to Alison's teachings - thanks, buttercup) and the climbs. By the time we were ascending back up to the 1st and now 4th aid station (the course from mile 3 performs one big lollipop) I had moved into 11th place and was feeling OK. But in the section between the top of the last massive climb at mile 20 and the aid station at mile 21, I got cooked. I'm not sure how it happened or if I could have somehow prevented it, but I knew when I started to run along the flat/gradual downhill to the aid station that things were declining. My hamstrings, calves and adductors were spontaneously cramping and I began to realize that my chest muscles had grown so restricted that I was only taking half-full breaths. I stopped at the aid station for the first time in the race and sat down to eat. I sipped on some Coke, took a gel and filled my bottle, and watched as a few folks passed by. There was five miles of downhill to get to the finish, with a 900ft climb buried somewhere in there for good measure. I took off, hoping my legs would come back to me a bit after the food and two minute rest.
For the remainder of the race I ran like a cramped-up goose who accidentally sat on a cattail. I was wobbly and slow, and couldn't make a quick cadence without inciting full lower-body cramps. I managed to hold off any attackers until after the 900ft climb to Bear Gap but in the final 1.5 miles of cruising downhill to the finish I stepped aside to allow first two, then three more, then two more people whip by me with such speed and comfort that made me realize there are still great improvements to be made in my running. I crossed the line in 19th place, actually quite close to my whimsically-estimated finish time of 4:45 (I was 4:49). And then I wobbled to a seat and sat down, afraid to rise for fear of collapsing like a puppet whose marionettist went on coffee break. Alison fetched me some tasty watermelon and all was well. We rolled home with a stop for some Mickey-D's (only after races; don't judge me) and I happily grilled up some ribeye and veggies to soothe my rusted limbs.
Like most finishers of long and arduous events it will take me a day or so before I exclaim my excitement to do it all over again, but that time will come soon enough. I had a great time at the race and learned a lot about the gains I've made as a runner, and those I have yet to accomplish. But more than anything I've really come to enjoy the trail running community; it feels a lot like what I remember the xc skiing community to be in years past, before the thunder of professionalism and high(er) stakes of sponsorship, etc. started rolling in. Good thing/bad thing? Hard to tell, but I'm happy where I am. See ya'll out there.