Hot on the Trail of an Ultra

Posted on Posted in Blog

Author: Mathew Hill – mathewpaulhill@yahoo.com

Wednesday, July 11, 2012, and my current hometown of Medicine Hat, Alberta, is shrinking to a pinpoint existence in my rear-view mirror.  Driving East along Highway 1, my goal is Vancouver, BC, where I’ll pick up my friend and running partner, Steve Monteith, to drive down to Ashland, Oregon, where we’ll compete in the 2012 running of the Siskiyou Out and Back (SOB) 50K trail race.  I had run the race in 2011 for my first ultra-marathon and really enjoyed the scenic, not overly technical, yet still challenging route.  The 2012 race was to be my 2nd ultra, with strong hopes for PB-ing and improving on my 6:29:16 2011 finishing time.  For Steve, the ultra-bug had caught him and he was anxious to add to his marathon successes with the successful tackling of his first ultra.

Steve and I had good experience running and training together back when I lived and ran in Vancouver.  We planned to help each other attain our individual goals in the SOB 50K: mine to PB, his to complete and finish in good form.  Exactly how, though, we were going to accomplish these goals, we weren’t quite sure, but it was what we planned on….knowing full well that even the best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy.

Several days before leaving The Hat (Medicine Hat, AB), I had begun a concerted effort to hydrate.  A bottle of water or weak Gatorade became my constant companion.  In my long 14+hour solo drive to Vancouver, each cup of coffee was followed by more water and/or weak Gatorade…with many bio-breaks!

Finally arriving in Vancouver, I gratefully laid my head down for a few hours sleep on the air-mattress set out by Steve.  Sadly, it was to be only a short nap as I planned to join Steve in his Thursday night marathon clinic at the Broadway Running Room.  Not only did I look forward for the chance to stretch my legs and get some gentle pre-race mileage under me, I also looked forward to catching up with some old running friends also participating in the marathon clinic.

As luck would have it, running that night consisted of hill-repeats.  Steve and I both cautioned one another not to go too crazy and really hammer down with too many repeats.  Caution, thankfully, won out and we both held to 2 or 3 repeats each.  The real test was a short day and a half away on Mount Ashland and the Siskiyou Gap.

Early the next morning, July 13th, after an evening meal with farewell beers from well-wishing fellow runners, and more than a few well-timed remarks of Bromance finding its way to an ultra-marathon, Steve and I hit the road.  This time, the direction was South to the US border and our final destination of Ashland, Oregon.  At the border, the US border official asked the usual questions: Where we were heading? and What were we going to do once we got there?  Our answer merited the shocked response, “Wait, you two are running 50 kilometres…in oneday?!  I thought you guys meant a 50K bike-race!”  Once past the flabbergasted border guard and finally underway in the US, we continued the hydrating discipline and made sure again to follow each coffee break with twice as much water/weak Gatorade.

Tim Olson and SOB race organizer Rob Cain at the race Start/Finish Line

The drive down also included trading off driving so one could nap or just take time off from the wheel while the other drove.  Steve and I benefited from sharing deep mutual respect for one another’s profession.  Steve, while also working a regular 9 –to – 5 job, was also the lead guitarist for a band called Star Collector, and I’ve been working as a coffee roaster and coffee cupper/educator for the last 10 years.  Conversations in the car ranged from the construction and destruction of Van Halen (aka – Van Hagar), the musical guitar genius of the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and Eric Clapton, to proper roast developments, chemical reactions in the roasting process and the industry standards found in coffee cupping.  And, man, did we drink a lot of coffee!

Once in Ashland, our first destination was Rogue Valley Runner to confirm registration and pick up our race shirts.  It also gave us the chance to meet and speak with other racers.  It was during our meandering conversations and glad-handing that Steve recognized Tim Olson, winner of the 2012 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race (http://ws100.com/).

 

Eager to show our connection to the race, I shared with Tim that Steve and I had participated in marathon clinics taught by David Papineau, a 2-time (2011 and 2012) Western National veteran, earning both times the coveted sub-24 hour completion belt-buckle.  In fact, it was Dave Papineau’s (or “Paps” as he let us call him) vocal love and extolling of trail-running that set the initial spark for Steve and I to expand our running to include ultra-trail races.

Once registration and glad-handing successfully completed, Steve and I directed our attention to figuring out the night’s lodgings.  Initially, we had planned to camp at the race start at the Mount Ashland ski resort.  Once in Ashland, though, tired and hot from the road, we chose instead to find a hotel.  Luck was with us and we were able to find affordable and better than adequate accommodations.  We laid out our gear, got supplements and drop-bags prepared and only then set out for town and a final pre-race meal.  The streets in Ashland were filled with Shakespeare aficionados and runners alike.   An eclectic mix, to say the least.


4:00 AM the next morning found us getting ready in our hotel room, dressing in rushed anticipation for the day’s trail-running challenge and with the usual touch of anxiety that something might be forgotten in the rush to get out the door.  One last check, though, followed by a final do-over check, found us climbing into the car and heading for Mount Ashland.

Praise and homage to coffee!

Arriving a few minutes before 6:00 AM, the parking lot at Mount Ashland ski hill was just beginning to fill with cars and runners milling about in preparation for their races – 15K, 50k or 50 mile.  The morning was still cold as the sun had yet to top surrounding mountains so the thankfully supplied hot coffee was a welcome boon to keep the cold at bay.

A little after 6:00 AM, the 50 Mile racers had their start and then Steve and I, along with a little over 200 other racers, got in line to pick up our 50K bib numbers.  All too soon, we 50K runners had our bibs affixed, final preparations made and then gathered at the start/finish line for the final 10 second count down for the start….and we were off!

 

The race quickly saw us leaving the ski resort parking lot and accessing the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) heading South West towards Siskiyou Gap.  Initially, I pulled out in front of Steve, finding myself amid a group of fast-moving runners along the single-track trail.  I knew I needed to break from this fast-paced group soon or I would too quickly start burning through my energy.  I could also see that the race-trail was much different than the previous year’s race, which had to be re-routed due to excessive snow-fall.  This year’s race was to keep to the PCT and would be a true “out and back”, involving a total course elevation of about 4200 feet, featuring about 7000 feet of climbing.

The first aid-station at grouse Gap came mid-way between kms 6 and 7.  French-themed with fresh-baked baguette-swords slung on the backs of moustached beret-wearing aid-station attendants, the welcome fair of water, electrolytes and food was offered alongside a choice of either red or white wine.  Still being so early in the morning, I wisely chose the white wine.  Chilled and bright with just a hint of crisp, clean citr…..’hell with it!  Get back running!!!

Steve and I caught up near the 2nd aid station at Willamette Meridian Gap at the beginning of a gruelling sustained up-hill ascent.  Quickly Steve and I fell into a pattern of walking a bit and then alternating who called out the next marker to run to.  “To the tree jutting out on the trail” followed by “To the next block of shade” followed by “To the next….”  And on it went all the way to the Siskiyou Gap aid station where we arrived tired from our climb, but in high spirits, looking forward to the awaiting aid station nutrition, as well as what we had prepared in our drop-bags.

Concentrating on the down-hill!

At this aid station I also discovered a new replenishment concoction: a mixture of coca-cola, electrolyte drink and pickle juice.  I had read that pickle juice was the quick-cure for cramping and figured I would risk trying something new during the race.  Thankfully, I had no adverse issues with it afterwards and felt remarkably energized.  Happily I repeated the same concoction at subsequent aid stations.  And, for me, a new fueling tradition was born!

The support and camaraderie of long-distance running also showed itself to me in a humorous moment with a fellow runner.  I had always been a strong up-hill/ascent-runner though had trouble managing down-hill/descents due to a compound of injuries affecting my left knee (anterior cruciate ligament tear) and the left side of my body as a whole (paralysis from a head injury).  By chance, I had passed the same runner 3 times on ascents (“Runner behind.  Can I get by?”) JUST BEFORE the trail turned down into a descent and the runner I had just passed was forced to pass me (“Runner behind.  Can I get by?”).  On the 3rdand thankfully final repetition of this, as he passed me, I said, “I’m so sorry man!  I don’t mean to keep doing this to you!”  His immediate reply was a joking, “No worries, you’ll just pass me on the next up-hill!”  I laughed out-loud and this put a smile on my face for the next few kilometres.  The immediateness of his reply showed both his acceptance and understanding of my challenge with down-hill running and cognisance of my strength at up-hill running.  The message was clear, and it was the same message other runners on the trail were telling each other: “No worries, you’re doing great!  Don’t give up!”

Around the half-way point, Steve’s left IT Band started giving him trouble.  The discomfort quickly increased and there was real fear in his eyes that he would DNF the race.  I had had similar trouble with my left IT Band during my first marathon a couple years before and I encouraged Steve not to lose hope and make it to the next aid station to see what medical aids we could find there.  Unfortunately, the next aid station didn’t have an ace bandage, which is what I was hoping for, but did have a roll of gauze and medical tape.  I wrapped Steve’s knee tight as I could with the gauze, taping it as tight as I dared.  We headed out for the next aid station hoping a larger medical supply would be found.

The wrap seemed to work well and Steve made it to the next station just as the tape was beginning to loosen.  Unfortunately, again, no ace-bandage was available…but they did have a roll of black duct tape!  I sat Steve down and over the gauze wrapped his left knee in a criss-crossing duct-taped support wrap, leaving the knee point free to bend.  A bit more food and liquids and we were back on the trail.  And another use for duct tape is added to the infinite-growing list of its uses!


Steve finds a second home on the trail!

The day was growing hotter, though a soft breeze kept us just a slight side of cool.  The air, though, was a bit harsh in a mixture of trail dust and smoke from nearby forest fires.  Still, the day was near perfect and Steve and I kept the pace, alternating front-runner position in our 2-person running group, keeping one another motivated and on a good pace.  It was during one of Steve’s front-running stints that he took a fall.  One second, he was running, the next second, hitting the dirt.  Thankfully, he was little worse for it, save a dusty shoulder and a bruised rib, so we carried on encouraged by aid-station attendants assuring us that we were nearing the finish.

I was really beginning to tire, though, and it was showing.  I continued running, but my walk breaks were getting common.  Steve, though, never stopped pulling me along.  Often, he would wait for me to catch up, give a word of encouragement, and then start the pace again.  I really owe it to him for helping me through this final push.  I had never run a full race with a partner the way Steve and I were and especially here in the final Ks of the 2012 SOB.  His support and encouragement were invaluable.  Thanks, Steve!!!

At 45kms, we really hit our stride and carried it in with only one short walk break.  Amid the loud cheers from spectators and runners alike, Steve and I finished side-by-side; Steve at 6:07:11 (113th place) and me at 6:07:13 (114th place).  We came in dead-center out of 228 total runners.  He had finished his first ultra and I had PB-ed by dropping over 22 minutes from my previous year’s time.  We high-fived and gave each other a well-deserved hug.  We had succeeded in helping each other reach our goals!

Hanging out at the Finish Line!

After a few minutes walking around, we gratefully shared a beer (Nice Rack IPA) provided by Southern Oregon Brewing Companyand walked around, grabbing some food and talking with other runners.  One thing that we both remarked to one another, and were pleasantly surprised at, was how good we felt after the race.  At one point, after both remarking how good we felt and how little discomfort we were in, we both said at the same time, “I feel like I could keep running!” We grabbed two chairs and joined a few runners at the parking lot’s edge overlooking the mountain valley below.

In talking about how good we felt, and how different it was from other previous races where one or the both of us had crashed and burned (just a few weeks prior, I had run the Red Deer, AB, marathon and wound up in the med-tent afterwards where I went through 2 litres of IV saline), Steve and I both agreed that it probably had a lot to do with the strong pre-race hydration discipline.  Never once during the race did either of us feel “stripped out”.  Tired, yes, but not like grinding gears just to get to the finish line.

We both decided to take this lesson to heart and practice it religiously in the future.

At this race’s end, Steve and I both gained and lost: Steve gained the confidence that he could take on and succeed in running an ultra-marathon, having lost the anxiety and uncertainty for it somewhere along the trail, for which he also gained a bruised rib that would remind him of the physical price he paid for his ultra-marathon success.  I gained a PB for my second ultra-marathon, as well as a running visor as a runner-up prize in the Dirty (and Bloody) SOB contest with the loss of my left index toe-nail during the run, while the winner, Marjorie, received top prize (a hand-held water bottle and carrier) for 11 stitches on her left knee.

As for the both of us, Steve and I gained the memory of a near perfect week-end and an amazing trail race.  Steve and I had always been good friends and good running partners.  Now, though, that friendship and running partnership goes a bit further…7.8kms further than before, to be precise.   And at the SOB, we gained the experience of running together as partners in a team effort, giving help and support when it was needed, as well as offering one another ceaseless encouragement.   Most memorable of all for the both of us, though, was that the entire race, all 50 kilometres of it, gruelling and easy kilometres alike, was fun.  Pure, unreserved and exhilarating trail-running fun!  Hats off to the SOB staff and volunteers!   Thank you so much for a perfect trail-running experience.         See you next year!

 

Steve, how do you feel about taking on the 50 Miler?

 

View from Siskiyou Ski Resort – Start/Finish of the SOB Race

Author: Mathew Hill – mathewpaulhill@yahoo.com

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