Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sun Mountain 50K

Sun Mountain 50K
Date: Saturday, May 16th, 2015
Temperature: High of 78 degrees
Race Data: 7:44:48  137th/150 finishers GP: 69/75 

Making the decision to race with an injury is not an easy one, and so individual it is hard to quantify your reasoning to anyone else without sounding like a lunatic. Except to the fellow runners who have been in that position and struggled with the same decisions. So yes, I knowingly chose to run 7-8 hours in pain. Significant pain. Because I had been training for this 50K since January. And really, I had been in 50K training mode for nearly a year. The first one was the Defiance 50K in October, which went extremely well after a summer of training in the mountains and nearby trails, building strength and mileage slowly with my running partner and friend, Sarah.

The second 50K in February, Orcas Island, did not go as well. Emergency gallbladder removal in November set my training back a bit and I wasn't as well prepared or as strong for the extremely difficult course made tougher by the weather conditions. I missed the final time cutoff at mile 25.6 on top of Mt. Constitution by 7 minutes and got my first DNF. It was a crushing disappointment but I focused my sights on my training for Sun Mountain. I probably should have taken some time off after Orcas, but I didn't. Hindsight. I had another DNF at the Lord Hill 20-miler in late February, completing 14 miles before calling it quits due to unrelenting calf and knee pain. I took a couple of weeks off before my next race, the Hillbilly Half, in March. It went well and the knee/calf issues seemed like they had resolved. However, the knee pain continued to flare up during long training runs, culminating a couple weeks ago at the Grand Ridge Marathon, which was supposed to be my longest training run before Sun Mountain. My physical therapist diagnosed it as patella femoral pain syndrome, PFPS, aka "runner's knee". A decision had to be made. Take the next two weeks off, hope the issue resolves, and go for it at Sun Mountain? Or not try at all.

So, there I was, at the start line for my 3rd 50K. My apprehension leading up to the race about my ability to actually run through the pain for that many miles, coupled with my lack of long runs leading up to it, had resolved. My 9 mile trial run the week before on the road was painful the whole way, and the feeling was still fresh in my mind. However, a calm had settled in the past day as I repeated to myself, my boyfriend, and friends, that I wasn't just going to "try to finish", I WOULD finish. There was no question and no alternative in my mind. 

The thing about a Rainshadow race, or any mountain trail race, is that you can count on the unexpected. Prepare for the unknown.

The first 6 miles or so were relatively pain-free. I began to feel optimistic that having only run once in the past two weeks had allowed some healing and recovery. My knee started to stiffen on the downhills but we had enough uphill climbs to walk that it would subside. The temperature was already climbing at 10am. I was carrying 50 oz of water in my hydration reservoir with 600 calories of +Tailwind Nutrition, a mix of Raspberry Buzz and Unflavored. I also had a 10 oz handheld with water in the front pocket of my pack. By the time I reached the first aid station around mile 8, I'd gone through all the water in my handheld and half the water in my reservoir. A very helpful young guy, probably 11 or 12, helped me refill the reservoir. The aid station was well stocked with PB&J sandwiches, chips, cookies, M&M's, and fruit but the only thing that appealed to me were the grapes and bananas. I grabbed a handful, said hello to my friends Chris and Amanda, who were slightly ahead of me, and continued on. 

The next aid station arrived a bit sooner than the 17 miles mentioned in the course description, somewhere around mile 15. I was thrilled since I needed to refill my reservoir again and was also feeling the effects of the heat and needed some food. This time I took a handful of grapes and some orange slices. I was still able to run on the flat sections despite the now constant pain in my knee. However the stiffness didn't allow for much more than a shuffle on the downhills and any attempt to pick up the pace caused sharper pain. I was almost relieved when we got to the climb up to Sun Mountain Lodge. Along with the knee pain I was also starting to feel pretty nauseated from the heat and I suspected the diluted Tailwind mix in my reservoir wasn't supplying enough calories because I could feel my blood sugar crashing. I tried to eat a few of the Tree Top Fruit Snacks in my pack but couldn't eat more than a couple. I stopped and mixed 100 calories of Tailwind into my handheld and drank that quickly. Immediately I started to feel better and was able to start running again.

I reached the last aid station almost 6 hours into the race. I was thrilled to see I was about 40 minutes in front of the cutoff and even more excited to hear that there was only 5.6 miles to go. The orange slices were the best tasting things in the world at this point, and I probably ate 4 or 5 before continuing on. The last big climb was shortly after this, with an elevation gain of around 1200 feet in 2 miles. On my way up, I spotted Chris and Amanda on their way down and we waved enthusiastically, having not seen each other since the first aid station. 
Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama

The steep downhill climb back down the mountain was probably the most challenging part of the race. Still slowed to a shuffle, with an added sideache that wouldn't subside, I knew I had plenty of time to finish but my Garmin had died around mile 23, so I had no idea what mileage I was at or what my pace was. I could see the road far below and knew the finish line wasn't much further beyond that. After what seemed like hours, but probably was only a half hour I'm guessing, I reached the road and saw my friend Kelly. A welcome sight! Admittedly, I had more than a slight case of race brain at that point and despite the arrow, paused trying to figure out which direction to go. She pointed me the right way and said there was only a mile or so left. I responded that I thought I could probably do that, and she said "of course you can". 

Of course I could. Back on the trail to the Chickadee trailhead, I alternately ran and walked with another woman until we saw two volunteers telling us it was only 200 yards to the finish. We could hear the sounds of The Pinehearts traveling through the trees. I came through the finish running, to the sight of my boyfriend, Jason, waiting with flowers, and my friends Chris and Amanda. And I got my high five from James Varner that I'd missed out on at Orcas. Finishing my first 50K last October was pretty momentous but the mental and physical endurance required to get to this finish line made this one even more so.

It is three days later as I write this report and I am still limping around with a painful knee. I'm on a self-imposed two week break from running, and then I'll try a few miles. I have no regrets making the decision to run this race.

This is a race I will do again. Despite running with an injury, I enjoyed this course immensely and cannot wait to do it again in a healthier state. It also helped me decide to run the Orcas 50K again next year, and finish those last damn 6 miles. 

Finishing this race renewed a confidence in my mental toughness that has sometimes been lost to me over the years, especially in moments of self-doubt. To me, this is what running is all about. Discovering new strength within you, and then challenging yourself to find even more. Be more. Do more. 


  1. Oh, I had no idea you were hurting that much :( That sucks. I hope you're recovering okay. Totally get the mentality of a runner and choosing to run on an injury, though. We are stubborn folk! Also, I just realized from reading this, I ran the PD 30k the day you ran the 50k. Probably saw you out there, too!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks Sybil! I bet we passed each other on at least one of those PD loops! What's next for you? I considered the PD 50K again this year but I think my next 50K will be Orcas again in February. Going to take a break and run 25K's or less for a while.