“Fear is a good weathervane for what’s worth doing.”
— JT Lehman (@alpenflo)
Even though the official Go Beyond Mt. Hood races were canceled as a consequence of COVID, I decided to run the course on race day. It gave me something specific to train for and prevented me from losing motivation. There would be no aid stations, no friendly competition, and no award at the finish line. Thanks to my coach, Rob Hamrick, who set up his truck as a mobile aid station, and the folks of NW Dirt Churners – Shane Darden, Liz Fero, and Matthew Clover – who kept me company on the trail. The success of my first 50-mile race demonstrates the importance of community.
My training highlights included mountain adventures on difficult routes. The focus was the time on my feet rather than distance traveled. Through the winter months, I trained at a higher elevation in snowshoes, and in March summited Mt. Hood for the first time. Long runs at race intensity were interspersed throughout the spring: Rooster Rock to Table Rock 25k, Prineville Reservoir 40k, and the Summer SolstAss 50k (Silver Star Mountain). The Yeti Challenge or 5 miles every 4 hours for 24 hours (a total of 30 miles) was a fun way to build endurance. A few weeks prior to the race I ran back-to-back long runs, 18 miles around Huckleberry Mountain, and then 12 miles on motocross trails in Washington. Running with Eric Crandall and seeing all the trails he built was awesome. I did strength training for my feet/ankles, calves, hamstrings, quads, and core several times a week. My stats for the year leading to the race were 850 miles, 160k elevation, and 200 hours.
The day before the race, Rob and I scouted the course. We checked out Miller’s Trail where it connects to the PCT (conveniently located across the road from our campsite). We then drove FS-4260 until we reached the power lines to access Red Wolf Pass aid station. There was a closed gate, so we had to figure out a different plan. We found an alternative route on Wilson Road through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation that connects to the power line road from the north via BIA 47.
My fear of being alone in the wilderness was escalating into anxiety. What was I afraid of? The unknown was taking shape in my mind as being alone with no one nearby to help if I am in trouble, such as if an animal or crazy person attacked me or if I otherwise become injured. In reality, what I needed was something to distract me from my thoughts. I am the boogeyman. To ground me in the beauty of the forest and get out of my head, I warmed up with a few solo miles south from Red Wolf Pass. It was during this pre-race calibration that I decided my sustainable pace range would be a 12 to 15-minute mile.
Race day I woke up sometime after 4 AM and slowly dragged myself out of the tent. Nerves were affecting my appetite and I couldn’t stomach my usual pre-run breakfast burrito. After trying several alternatives, I was able to eat most of a bagel with banana and honey.
Before I knew it, Rob dragged his foot across the dirt and I had an official start line (really close the real start line) and I was off! The first few miles of the course wind around from Clackamas Lake Ranger Station and connect to the PCT heading north along Timothy Lake. There is a road crossing and several trail intersections. I stopped a few times to check the course on my Garmin Fenix 6s. Loading the GPX file in Garmin Explore was key for a smooth race since I had never run this course and was going solo to start.
The morning was cool and clear. I was anticipating a hot afternoon based on past races and decided to push a little faster than my race pace before I became overheated. This was a gamble because I did not want to overdo it and later bonk. Only time would tell how my body would respond. I felt the solitude of running solo in the woods during the early morning and acknowledged my subdued fears without allowing them to take over.
The first aid station was 8ish miles in at FR-58. As I emerged from the trail, Rob was there with his cowbell and truck, back open with water and food (watermelon, orange, PB&J, gummy bears, chips, and bacon). He changed out my bladder for a full one with Tailwind. Other resources available to me were Squirrel’s Nut Butter for my chafing, Leukotape, and freshwater.
The next segment was probably the easiest because I was warmed up, the terrain was not technical, and there were phenomenal views of Hood to distract. Before I knew it I was with Rob and Liz at the Frog Lake aid station. Here I crossed paths with another rogue runner of the course! And be it good timing, as soon as I was ready to depart, Matthew arrived ready to accompany me. Before we arrived at the FR-58 AS, Shane caught up with us from Timberline and the three of us continued. At this very time, we passed a group that included Go Beyond race directors, Todd and Renee, who encouraged me on my race!
Matthew and Shane left at Little Crater, and Liz and I continued on. Again the course map on my watch came in handy as Liz and I navigated to Clackamas Lake Ranger Station. We passed another MH50 runner who we identified by his Go Beyond hat. Liz reminded me to drink and encouraged me when my body started to hurt. She congratulated me as I surpassed my longest ever run. The companionship and support from Matthew, Liz, and Shane boosted my morale and provided me with the confidence I needed.
I took the first S-Cap at the halfway point to replenish my body with electrolytes and potassium and took 2 more pills during the race one at the next aid station at Red Wolf Pass and another on the way back from the turnaround. Rob and his dog Rennie accompanied me on the out-and-back to Warm Springs. I was grateful to have my training partners with me for what were the most challenging miles I have ever experienced.
Downed trees stacked like giant pick-up sticks covered the trail for a mile. A few miles ahead we encountered two men on horses out to clear the trail of trees. Another bit of good fortune. We thanked them for their service as we stepped aside from the trail for them to pass.
Every person I spoke with about the course told me it is essential to stop and cool off in the Warm Springs river crossing. My knees ached going downhill toward the river. I sat and extended my legs. The cold water on my heated body was shocking, but 30 seconds later my knees, hamstrings, and feet were thanking me. Only a couple minutes in the water made my legs feel 10 miles younger and I was able to continue pain-free, at least for a little while.
Rob warned me this was the toughest part of the course because the next few miles were a steady uphill to the turnaround. I would want to stop and walk, but he encouraged me to push through. I locked in and continued trotting the entire way, to my satisfaction within my goal pace of less than 15. I felt strong. The hill did not seem like much of a climb with my recent experience trudging up Starway after 25 miles. Rob even had a #Strava PR in this section.
The most difficult part of the race for me was returning from the Warm Springs turnaround. Back down the hill, I felt every painful step as if I were landing on my knees. Again, the return river submergence brought me back for a short time. Rob took a video of my howl of pain and cold all at the same time. Hurdling over the fallen trees was slow but perhaps also good stretching. Then climbing the hill towards Summit Butte, to the peak of the course a little over 4300 feet, my back ached. “ow…Ow…OW…” my mantra grew louder. I stopped and bent backward against a large downed fir tree and POP! My back rib adjusted and the pain subsided.
Rob and I sped up as we approached Red Wolf Pass. I rolled out my hamstrings. Rob handed me a beer and Liz handed me two Tylenol. Didn’t realize this at the time, but that 1-2 combo was exactly what I needed. With swollen knees, my team wanted to make sure I had support in case they got worse and became problematic. A thru-hiker trail name “Speaker” had been chatting it up with Shane and Liz for a bit. He listened in and said, “if you drive my pack, I will run with her.“ We all looked at each other and the next thing I know, I was off into the woods with a complete stranger. As we headed off, I found out that he ran a 50-mile race. Speaker asked if I wanted him to distract me. I told him, no, I would like to focus on finishing, and for the next 4 miles, Speaker and I ran together in silence. This was my favorite part of the course through open forest with a maintained trail. We ran strong until meeting up with Shane and Liz with Speaker’s pack at the Headwater trail intersection. After emphasizing my thanks, I sped off as fast I could for the finish.
I finally crested the small hill and gained the road. I turned the corner and could hear and see Rennie and Rob ringing the cowbell and whistling loud as ever. I dropped the hammer the last 100 yards and crossed that newly created finish line now complete with a red safety cone. Immediately after finishing, I was led to an outlet of Clackamas Lake where Rennie swam about and I sat under the evening sun with my lower body emerged in cool water and drank Garry’s chocolate milk. My body ached so well and my mind was a satisfied blank.
Why run 50 miles? Why race when the event was canceled? There are so many explanations: keep my training momentum going, do something that is not expected of me, follow through with plans, be self-reliant, push my boundaries. Ultimately, I think that what drives me is when I accomplish what brings me fear, I find a bit of peace. There is no greater feeling than overcoming fear. Better yet is doing a good job at something I wasn’t sure I could do at all. I do not want to be stuck worrying about the “what-ifs” and “should-haves.” With a strong will and a lot of effort, I can chip away at my boundaries to let in light.
The support from the trail community has me awed and feeling grateful. The returns are monumental. A little time and attention make an incredible difference to someone who is pursuing a challenging goal such as running an ultra.
Final Stats: 11 hours 46 minutes total time, 5600 feet elevation gain, 6 aid station stops, 1 hour 15 minutes non-moving time