Right off the bat, I had exceptional excuses for dropping out at the Lumberjack Endurance Runs – the weather and the flu. Things beyond my control. An act of god. I suppose, that is as good as it gets, when considering validation for your first ultra marathon DNF (Did Not Finish).
The weather was vicious – cold rain, wind, nearly-knee-deep mud on certain stretches of the trail. This is the ninth time the 100 miler, 100k and 50 miler were put on by the Poulsbo Running Company near the tiny coastal town of Port Gamble. It is located on the west side of the Puget Sound. This year’s race had the most dropouts in the history of the event. The run usually attracts between 50 and 70 participants among the three distances. “2018 will go down as one of the hardest Lumberjack races to date. Saturday was the wettest April 14th in 22 years and the trails showed it, Babcock and Ewok sections were the muddiest I’ve ever seen them,” said race director Chris Hammett. “I think the 27% finish rate in the 100 miler says it all…. what a year!”
Lumberjack Endurance Runs is a loop course, the type where runners keep circling the same loop of trail, eventually compiling enough distance for their target race. Some people hate these. Personally, I find the consistency in scenery helpful, especially when trying to settle into your running “groove”. Knowing what terrain to expect, precisely when to expect it, where each aid station is located are quite useful when trying to tap into whatever physical and emotional resources you may have access to.
Resources, which, in a perfect world, would develop over the preceding months of training. My training for this race was hampered by an encounter with the influenza virus. Having gotten sick with the flu about four times this winter, I took weeks off from training to rest and recover. That resulted in not being able to put in as much training volume as I would have needed to get ready for a 100 miler. My heftiest weekend back-to-back was a modest 20-and-25 mile effort! Overcome with a spell of realism, I switched down to the 100k, hoping that running 62 miles would be within reach.
Mr. Hammett was not lying. The course was indeed soaking wet and muddy. Babcock and Ewok sections he mentioned became pure mud. Even with wood pallets thrown down too avoid sinking through, your pace slowed down to a brisk walk at best. Tougher portions required the balancing act of hopping between roots and rocks, trying your best not to have the mud swallow up your lower extremities. The rain was to blame not only for the mud, but also the cold. Usually, I do not need top layers beyond a tech shirt, combined with a wind breaker, when I run in the rain. I rely on the heat my body generates while running to keep warm. Not that day. The rain seemed to instantly soak everything, zapping out every shred of heat within minutes, to the point of teeth chattering, as I ran.
After the 7AM race start, the rain let up a few times. During those bouts of respite, I was able to pin my ears back and gain some ground, negotiating the roots and the rocks, the ups and the downs, the mud and the dirt, getting familiar with the types of food offered at the aid stations, circling the same twelve miles over and over. By the fourth loop, I was becoming quite exhausted. The cold and the mud and the rain and the lack of proper training all started to add up, as my pace slowed down.
I was able to manage 50 miles in a pedestrian time of twelve hours. As I arrived at the start and finish area, I considered the possibility of dropping out. Deep down, in my brain’s heart, I knew that I could manage one more loop, even in the dark and the rain. I could will myself through twelve more miles. I decided, however, to allow myself the luxury of DNFing. With a smile on my face, I declared my dropping out the race officials. Then, I immediately plopped down into a camping chair in front of the roaring fire, happily accepting a Dixie cup of local keg beer and a slice of cheese pizza for physical and emotional recovery.
“There is no room for pity or hand holding in ultra running,” said Mary Blain, a local-ultraruner-serving-as-a-volunteer, as she handed me that emotional recovery pale ale. I think I agree. Out here, in the woods, it is you against the distance. Feeling bad for yourself, or whatever circumstances life stacked up against you achieves nothing. I failed at completing the distance, but succeeded in pushing myself another inch or two past my comfort zone. Next time I toe the starting line of an ultra, I will be much more prepared, with invaluable trail experience in the back of my mind. Remembering the way volunteers encourage runners approaching the aid stations, I say, “more cowbell!”