“…I’m on the ground. I heard a ‘pop’ on the way down. How did I get here…?” The thoughts race through my mind and so does a frame-by-frame replay of the past fifteen seconds. The last thing anybody wants to have happened to them during a trail race just happened to me, and it’s the first thing that’s happened.
Backcountry Rise had been my first half-marathon trail the previous year, organized by Daybreak Racing, and held in the Mount Margaret backcountry of Mt. St. Helen’s. The start and finish line are a bit different in the best way, showcasing a partnership with the Mt. St. Helen’s Science Institute. It’s truly an exceptionally beautiful place, expansive fields interspersed with very runnable single-track ridgelines, observatories, and plenty of bees during the summer. The race course is no joke, either, featuring multiple thousands of feet of gain and descent, rocky sections, a brief road stretch, and a natural arch in a rock wall which I had heard so much about. To say I was nervously excited for making this my first twenty-mile trail race would be an understatement.
The night before was spent camping in the parking lot with every other runner who decided a pasta dinner and nice sunset sounded like a fantastic option for the night. A few friends from the Tacoma Running community showed up, and I managed to be one of the very last people to grab any sort of food, but that’s what you get for showing up at 7:55 pm with an 8:00 pm end time for dinner. Drink a beer, keep telling your friends you’re not upping to the 50k, and try and get some sleep. I opted to wake up with the 50k runners at about 0600, or, rather, the opening and closing of car doors nearby ensured I woke up with the 50k runners. Ben, my car-companion, tent-mate, and generally great runner and human, was running the 50k anyway as was another friend, David, so it was not an issue to wake up early and see them off. Plus, this race featured coffee much better than many others, so that was a bit of a motivation to move around. The only downside was a couple of hour stretch before the 20-miler started.
Much of that time was spent staying warm, talking about the course, filling water bottles, and general logistics work to ensure a successful race. “Exactly how fast do I want to run until hitting up the crawl to the ridgeline?” “How long do I plan on spending at each aid station?” This was supposed to be a bit of a proving race, to see how far I’ve come since beginning to trail run the previous year. 0900 rolls around, and after some brief thank-you’s, announcements, and we’re off. The same bottleneck occurs at the start as last year, but this time I’m much more prepared for it; a section straight down a dusty trail from the institute causes a beeline of runners, with a lot of walking and stuttering. Yet, I’m nailing my mile pace and feeling really, really good doing it. “This might be the race I’ve been hoping for”…and then I hit just off the side of the trail, a slight camber, some underbrush, and a weak right ankle buckles in on itself.
I went down and went down hard. Friends pass by, strangers pass by, and most ask “How are you? Are you okay?” to which I creatively respond back with an “I’m working on it.” The worst part was remembering the popping sound, and not having any range of motion in my right foot. Seeing my ankle immediately swell to over twice its normal size isn’t exactly a happy moment, either. Ten to fifteen minutes go by; I use a lot of words not worth repeating and eventually gain enough strength to get up and walk a bit. I know that the volunteer crew at Aid Station 1 (AS1) is waiting for an injured runner at this point, so I make the decision to keep moving forward. If I can manage it another 2+ miles, maybe I can get enough help to do…something. Those 2+ miles feel like the longest miles of my life. Every inch was pain, shuffling movements, and fear of further damage to the ankle. Eventually, I hear a noise and see somebody just over a small hill, asking if I’m the injured runner.
Which, yes, yes I am. The medic did a great job giving me a cold compress and eventually wrapping in an ace bandage. I didn’t look, or feel, great heading into the station, and was probably visibly in pain and looking a bit out of it. I move around a bit, talk to the medic a bit about how far the next aid station is, and how I’m more-or-less screwed if I hit a patch where I can’t continue between the two spots, and make a couple of jokes with the Northwest Dirt Churners crew who were manning the station about making my friend who’s on the 50k course drive my car home, and crazily amble on. Fortunately, most of the next handful of miles are uphill, and I can walk or shuffle along in a poor impersonation of a power hike. Catching up to some other runners and friends was a breath of fresh air, and really pushed me to keep going. This community is amazing, people I didn’t know were asking how things were going, and a couple of us came up with creative stories as to how we were definitely, undeniably, going to win before we fell very far behind.
Hitting the ridgeline around mile 9.5 was exactly what I was hoping for, and part of why I kept running. You hit this beautiful stretch on one of the higher points in the area, all single track, with lakes visible around you, and a daunting Mt. St. Helen’s off in the distance. Running hurt, but I would have regretted passing up views like that. There was an innate drive to finish what I had started, to keep moving, to not look back except for that lake I just passed by, and to see what’s out there. Everything went a lot slower than it normally would have, but I was beyond happy to be running, to be on those trails, to be sharing that experience with the other runners and volunteers out there.
Aid Station 2 (AS2) comes up about 8.8 miles after AS1 with…people in dinosaur costumes. Unexpected and the kind of levity I needed with where my mind was headed. There’s a struggle to let go the feelings you have knowing how upside-down an entire day has gone on you. Some mixture of disappointment and fear of what continuing to run will do to my body instead of turning back. Eat, drink, eat, drink, keep moving. There’s nothing more that can be done until the finish, knowing full well that the three miles will be the hardest of the course if last year was any indication. More loose rock, gravel, a stretch of road, and the entire hill back up to the Science Institute. Those miles are mostly a blur at this point.
Finally seeing the finish line, finally seeing that wooden “Backcountry Rise” sign, was an emotional moment. The same crew from Northwest Dirt Churners came right up, surprised to see me at the finish, somebody from Tailwind said I won a shirt and handed me one, and I got a pint-glass for crossing that line. Maybe I did it for the pint glass. What I can say is I won’t be forgetting the amazement out of my friends seeing me at the Science Institute and hearing that I finished the race. Or the complete strangers still asking how my ankle was, or saying it helped them to keep going just by seeing me still out there. The trail running community is a special thing, and everyone supports each other in their own way. It fed me, and in turn, I fed some others during their own race day. So why not turn around? As soon as I was able to move again that option became less and less of a possibility. It was a decision to push myself and see what would happen, knowing full well that it would likely result in a lengthier recovery process, but being driven by a desire to finish what was already started, to see what was already there, and maybe get a good story out of it. Somehow, all three of those things happened, and, well, I’ve never been so proud of a 5 hour 36 minute race time.