One of the most valuable things someone can do as an athlete (besides appreciating the quantity of ice cream you can consume), is knowing your strengths and challenging your weaknesses. I used to hear this all the time from my ski coach, who would tell me and my fellow athletes to "train your weaknesses, but race your strengths". And it makes sense: if you're a slayer on the flats, say because you're coming from a road running background and you can click off 6 min/miles all the live-long day, then you should keep an eye to trail races that have more undulating terrain where you can take advantage of that same ability. But at the same time, focus your time during training on developing uphill power and downhill technical abilities, so you can adapt to the conditions you'll face.
For me as a former ski racer, I have a propensity for the uphills (the steeper, the better). So I have a soft spot in my heart for James Varner, who considers it his contribution to our fine community to build ever-tougher courses on the steepest terrain around. Bless you James, and may your casseroles forever feature crusty corners.
Most recently, Alison and I (along with many other Cascade Endurance athletes - stay tuned for more race reports!) traveled to the Umtanum Rec Area outside Ellensberg for the Yakima 50km and 25km trail races. After a long wet winter in Seattle I think everyone was burning their Gore-Tex in celebration of this fine event, held in a sun-soaked river valley on the dry side of the Cascades. This year's weather didn't disappoint, as temperatures were in the high 70s and even low 80s throughout the weekend. And then there are the courses.
Each course boasts an impressive amount of vertical gain, and it comes at you like the resounding drumbeat of Iron Maiden, without mercy from start to finish. As I raced the 25km I'll focus on that, but other CE athletes will fill in the details for the equally taxing (and hey, twice as long!) 50km course.
Leading into this weekend my hopes were small; our whole family contracted some very unpleasant cold virus last week and it's lingered unlike previous colds; the symptoms never seemed to dissipate and any substantial activity was met with a barrage of coughing and phlegm-riddled sputters. But I was deadset on pinning a bib on for the first time since September's Crystal Mtn Sky Marathon, so I focused my energies on simply feeling well prior to Sunday's start. On race morning I still felt pretty flat, with a stuffy nose and high heart rate, but felt the overall energy was good enough to toe the line, and at the very least I would get some decent mileage out of the day for training. I once again brought my trusty Black Diamond carbon trekking poles with me, as I will swear by them for aiding on the climbs. There were some big guns at the start line and knowing about the bottleneck at 200m in, I felt the best I could do was to get out fast and try to hang on.
The 25km started with a bang right into a 2-mile, 2000' climb on singletrack up to the ridge. Out of the start we proceeded at a moderate clip and I was in 5th place leading into the trail. My heart rate was way higher than I would've liked for the effort, certainly due to the illness I'd been fighting, so I focused instead on perceived exertion, making sure not to overreach in the first few miles of the race. About halfway up the climb, Maria Delzot (eventual women's winner and an epic runner) passed me and linked to the two guys I was drafting. I reluctantly let them go; I just wasn't feeling good on the hill and knew if I had any chance of surviving the day I would need to be conservative for a while. I linked up my poles and settled into a steady rhythm on the hill, pleased to see that once things got steep I wasn't losing much time to those ahead of me.
At the top of the climb there was a 3-ish mile section of rolling doubletrack with gradual ups and downs to keep you pushing the pace. This was where I really felt flat; I just couldn't get the turnover or power out of the legs at speed, and could tell I was losing ground with each step to the leaders. At the far end of the ridge we began the descent to the aid station and turnaround point on Roza Creek; I kept thinking about moving my feet quickly and not braking with my quads - Alison's teachings on downhills have come in handy over the years and I know I'm going a lot faster than I used to. Sure enough, about 1/3 of the way down I found myself gaining on one of the guys who had been in front; his speed on the ridge had been solid but I was able to be carrying more speed through the technical downhill and came around him about 1/2 mile from the turnaround point. From there I hoped to get a gauge on how much room I had on those behind, and quickly started back into the climb.
And I nearly fell over.
As soon as I started into the (very steep) initial climb of the return trip, my heart rate skyrocketed and I had to come to a full stop for thirty seconds to let things settle. I had been drinking conservatively but steadily, and had eaten no food due to lack of any hunger. My main concern was that I had pushed too hard despite trying to remain conscious of the day's limitations, and that I was facing an imminent blowup. I slowly regained a tempo with my poles and was happy to see I wasn't in too much danger of being caught at the moment. There was one runner who was coming on strong after the aid station and when he sidled up to me we stayed together most of the way up; it was nice to have some company to take my mind off of how unpleasant I was feeling, but his tempo when the hill leveled out was too much for me and he moved quickly away.
From the top of the climb onward I was on my own; I nabbed a pickle at the water stop on the ridge, which helped quell the cramping adductor I was trying to ignore, and focused on running wherever I could. I knew the day wasn't going to be representative of what I ultimately wanted but I shifted my mindset to treat it as a time to just sit with the discomfort, and learn from it. What hurts? How bad is it, really? Some things you can ignore or partition, and some just smack you in the face repeatedly like a fresh trout. I managed to hold off the fish until the end, but then it came on pretty hard... one more racer passed me before we entered the downhill portion of the return journey, and from then until the finish I just tried to keep the legs moving. I just wasn't feeling good; it felt like I had run 30 miles instead of 15, and the cramping in my legs suggested I had just gone beyond the day's limit. All I wanted to do was cross the line without getting smoked from behind by someone who could actually put in a decent sprint. I hobbled my way around the parking lot and up the gradual path to James' awaiting high-5, and then collapsed into a deck chair under the finish tent, glad to be done.
What did I learn? One of my most admired coaches, Steve Magness, recently wrote a blog post on Monitoring Stress Loads, and in one portion he discusses the reality that not all days will be great days, that in fact most of your training (and even race) days will be average. If we dictated our decisions on performing or training on whether we feel great, we might never get out there. Perhaps yesterday was over the line for me in that regard; I ended up finishing 7th overall, but nearly 30 minutes back from the lead. I know I can do much better, but it lets me know what I can do when things aren't all there. The correct decision changes every day and the best thing we can do is make use of the resources available and choose accordingly.
Congratulations to everyone who raced both the 50km and the 25km, with a special shout-out to our Cascade Endurance athletes getting some great efforts in on a wicked-tough course. A big thank-you to Sarah and Ashley for caring for our dependents (Fiona and Nikki) while Alison and I raced; to James and the Rainshadow crew for another totally fun/hard/beautiful event; and for the whole trail running community for kicking ass. See ya'll at the next one.