I’ve spent the majority of this year with my mental and physical training focused on one race: the Mt. Hood 50 Mile.
Funny enough, I didn’t actually get into the race until the end of May. I entered the lottery in January, and while Adam got in during the first name draw, I was placed on the wait list. But, thanks to some luck and moderate trolling of the race website, I had a good sense that I’d get in eventually, so I prepared and planned according to the thought that in July I’d be running my first 50 miler.
Without going into overwhelming detail, training for this race went very well. I ran a few races within the months beforehand as build up (a trail 25k in April, a trail 25 mile in May, and the Mt. Evans Ascent in June), which kept me engaged in my training enough to not get bored. I really enjoyed these races too, and while they weren’t “A” races, they were a great way to build confidence leading into Mt. Hood.
With Mt. Hood falling smack dab in the middle of summer, I was afforded enough time to safely build up sufficient mileage throughout the spring, and when it came time for peak training weeks (>70 miles/week and back-to-back long runs), I was able to (mostly) execute all the miles and the recovery.
I didn’t follow a training plan, but instead I did what I always do and scheduled one week out at a time, with a general understanding of when my big weekends ought to happen in conjunction with tapering. This worked well, and it allowed me to maintain flexibility while still increasing volume. I really enjoyed this training cycle overall, and despite the extra time it took, I was pleased with how well my legs held up to a higher load.
All this to say: physically and mentally I was confident going into race week. I’d tapered well – good sleep, very hydrated, low mileage – and I was feeling restless when it came time to fly out to Portland, which in my experience is a good sign that I’m ready to race.
The race was on Saturday, and we flew into Portland the Thursday before, arriving at the most peculiar of airport hotels late Thursday night. After an okay sleep and a four mile shakeout, we ate a big breakfast/brunch and loaded up to drive to Mt. Hood. The drive is only an hour and a half of so from PDX, and we listened to Jim Walmsley on the Citius Mag podcast the whole time.
Approaching Mt. Hood was unreal; it’s unlike a lot of Colorado mountains since it’s so prominent all by itself. Treeline is much lower the more north you go, so it was wild to stare at the summit while simultaneously being surrounded by the tallest pine trees. This is also a good place to note that the actual race doesn’t really involve the mountain, despite the name. The peak does come into view a few times on the course, however the bulk on the race takes place on the Pacific Crest Trail at the base of the mountain.
Anyway, we arrived at the Best Western Mt. Hood Inn (highly recommend!) with tons of afternoon time to spare and mostly tried to relax and get ready for the next day. I’d scouted out food options in the week ahead of time, so we didn’t worry about finding anything and were able to get a dinner spot no problem.
From dinner onward is when I actually got really, legitimately nervous for the first time. I think at that point I’d been saturated with rest and was just ready to go! It was that feeling where you kind of want the race to start right then just to get over the anxious hurdle.
While sitting at dinner and mowing down our spaghetti and meatballs, we started discussing our goals for the race. We always admit to having dual private goals and public goals: public being the goal you’ll tell your coworkers and friends and your private goal being the one you keep to yourself, if not with one or two other people.
Public goal: Whenever I run a new distance, my goal is always just to finish. Particularly with ultras, you never really quite know what will unexpectedly pop up, and considering this was uncharted territory mileage-wise, there was definitely no need for unnecessary pressure. That said, considering my training and what I knew about the course, I was also confident saying that under 10 hours was a realistic goal.
Private goal: The real truth – I knew my training was pretty excellent, and it would be a lie to say that I didn’t have higher hopes for my race other than to finish. I am a very consistently top 10(ish) female finisher in most of the trail races I’ve taken part in. And that’s great! I’m always very proud and satisfied with those results, and typically I don’t feel that there’s much better I could do. When I allowed myself to dream about what a “perfect” day would look like at Mt. Hood, the thought of finishing in the top five women and finishing under 9:30 kept tickling my brain. That seemed like a reach yet realistic private goal, but again…I shoved those goals into the “if and when” bucket, considering the unknowns I knew I’d come across.
And finally, when Adam and I were reviewing these goals the night beforehand, I told him that the most secret, pie-in-the-sky outcome, if I was being really really honest about the whole thing, would be a spot on the podium. Based on previous years’ times, I knew it was within a small realm of possibility, but not really sensible to go for without knowing how the field would look. But if the opportunity did present itself, I wanted to be in a position to give myself a shot.
Regardless, I was okay having a multi-tiered goal approach to this race, and for me personally – having a more narrowed focus is extremely motivating, regardless of the end results. I knew that so long as I stayed smart and gave it my best effort, there was no chance I’d be disappointed in the outcome.
I slept probably a grand total of one hour on Friday night beforehand. Obviously race eve sleep is never great, but this was exceptionally awful for me. I woke up constantly with a paralyzing fear of the distance, which was the first time since registering that an actual “fear” came over me of running 50 miles. Had to happen at some point, right?
Regardless, our wake up call rang at 3:45am and I popped out of bed, ready to get everything in order. Our drop bags, hydration vests, outfits, etc. had neatly been arranged the night before, so all we had to do was dress, eat, and pack up. The race was a half hour drive from our hotel, so we were on the road by 4:30am or so to get to the start with plenty of time to spare. I ate a packet of Picky Oats (How ‘Bout Them Apples) along with a can of cold brew coffee. This combo was a favorite of mine throughout training, and it worked perfectly energy and stomach-wise. I also sipped on a Nalgene of water all morning, although I was wary of starting the race with TOO much water in my bladder.
We arrived at the start and it was fairly smooth sailing. We dropped off our drop bags, picked up our bibs, sunscreened, portapottied, and before we knew it we were being herded to the start line for instructions. I was excited! And oddly calm; it felt like we were about to just go for a casual group long run into the woods. During the countdown to start, I gave Adam a good luck kiss, and all of a sudden we were off to run 50 miles!
RACE, PART I: MILES 1-13
The course is a double out-and-back, with the start/finish line in the middle, and nine total aid stations (three of which you hit twice). This made the whole thing very easy in my head to break up: four distinct long runs, one at a time. The first out and back was ~26 miles total, making the first 13 a very comfortable distance to mentally manage. The weather was ideal (50 degrees, clear) and straight away – the trails were something out of a dream! Squishy soft and dry dirt with the greenest, diverse vegetation 360 degrees around. I had to hold back from whooping and hollering around every corner.
I found myself running the first couple of miles with a long line of guys who were all a tad combative to pass one another, only to be immediately leap-frogged by someone else. No bother, I just hung in my spot and focused on staying exceptionally comfortable and relaxed. I wanted to be totally chill on the first section – treating it like an easy long run. It was really simple to do so since I was in a long conga line of people and simultaneously so distracted by the scenery. The only issue I noticed from the get-go was that so many people together made the air around us exceptionally dusty. I wasn’t really breathing much in, but I consciously noted that we would eventually need to spread out simply so that so much dirt wouldn’t be constantly kicked up in the air.
Eventually, the train thinned and around mile five, there was a lone runner behind me – a female whom I could tell I was able to lock step with pace-wise. She introduced herself (Kylie – from Manitou Springs, Colorado!), and within less than 10 minutes we discovered that not only were we both CO natives, but we knew a ton of the same people, both ran the Pikes Peak Ascent the past two years , and we worked as lifeguards for the same pool growing up. What?! The trail world is so small! Anyway, I was thrilled to have someone to easily run with, and the miles were flying by as we chatted the whole time. It was both of our first 50 miler, and we were both intent on not getting carried away and staying smart. It was so comforting to have another newcomer to share in that endeavor! Both of us kept saying to one another that we could go ahead if we wanted, but it was pretty clear we were both much more interested in company than being alone.
The trails were so runnable, and I was so distracted talking to Kylie that I was shocked when we’d already started to see other runners coming back the other way! I love out-and-back courses because I love seeing other runners and cheering for people. After a couple of guys passed by, we saw the first place woman who was crushing! She was seemingly so far ahead of us. Neither of us knew where we were standings-wise (nor did either of us really care at that point), but we were shocked when we passed by a photographer who yelled, “Second and third women!” when we went by. Uh, say what? I admittedly didn’t really believe him, and since it was basically a quarter of the way through the race, it didn’t particularly matter. But, sure enough, we came to the first turnaround/aid station and hadn’t seen any other females. We loaded up on more water and food, and as soon as we turned around, there was female number four right on our tails.
RACE, PART II: MILES 14-26
After a few minutes on the way back to the start/finish area, the fourth woman (Jen, from Florida) caught up, and the three of us were all running together! Lady gang! This is what I am all about. Not too long after we’d saddled up with Jen, there was Adam coming the other way! He looked awesome and I was so happy to see him so soon after the turnaround.
Jen had an impressive ultra resume including a few 100ks and a 100 miler, and it was so lovely to learn about her and Kylie throughout this first section. I’ve admittedly never been so fortunate to have this kind of partnership in a race before, and I’m not sure how I’ve survived so far without it! I really leaned into the fact that I was leading our cohort and could therefore set the pace; since neither of them were interested in separating, I realized that I was completely in charge of our effort and could really keep it controlled since they were following me. This is a good place to note that I also kept my watch on time-of-day mode the entire race, meaning I was running entirely by feel, and I cannot recommend this more for ultras. I stayed relaxed, kept drinking and eating, and couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful the scenery was.
We leap-frogged with a couple of different groups of guys throughout this section back toward the start/finish line, but generally the three of us stayed together the whole time. At one point around mile 23 or so, Jen decided to jump ahead of us and I followed her back to the midpoint with Kylie close behind. Running behind Jen, I did notice that she hesitated a little on the rockier downhills – which I only recognized since I myself am not particularly strong on them – but I did make a note in the back of my head that this ought to be something to remember later in the race.
Coming into the mid point, I still felt exceptionally relaxed and calm, and I was encouraged at how easy the miles had felt! My plan was to take my time at the start/finish aid station and use the time to regroup physically and mentally before the next out-and-back.
Jen and I ran side-by-side into the cheers of the volunteers and race directors. I took off my vest and asked for full refills in both my bottles. I took a salt pill (I took several salt chews throughout the day as well) and ate watermelon and potato chips feverishly while getting sponged off. Amazing! I added more Tailwind to one of my bottles, put a new pack of Honeystinger chews in my pocket, and darted for the bathroom. On my way to the porta-potty, I saw that Jen was already headed out for the second half and moving really well. No matter, I just needed to run my own race now.
RACE, PART III: MILES 27-38
I think I spent 3-4 minutes total at the start/finish aid station, and once I set off for the second part of the race, I tried to very intently refocus on the new task at hand. I knew this part would be hillier, hotter, and obviously more intense considering the miles we’d already logged. My goal was to finish both of my bottles between all the aid stations in this section (24 ounces every six miles), which was a lot for me but proved to be necessary as the temperatures rose.
We immediately headed uphill on this second out and back, and I found myself once again in a small train of guys. We all chatted, exchanged info on where we were from, but generally the tone was a little more hush-hush than the first half. Understandably, since things were starting to get a little more serious. This was the only section of the day that my stomach was a little sloshy and unhappy. I blame the watermelon, but it didn’t last too long, and I remained intent on eating, drinking and taking the chewable salt pills that were now disintegrating in my vest. Generally, whenever my mind started to wander or get nervous, I distracted myself with more fuel and liquids.
I was hiking more in this section and starting to feel a little fatigue, but my spirits were high, and I was really happy to be over halfway done with the run. The small group of us came to the first of three aid stations in this section, and this was where I got my first sports bra full of ice. The glory of this cannot be overstated; having a slow-melt of ice soaking your shirt after nearly 30 miles of running is a sensational feeling. I had partnered up too with a guy from Washington (William!) who had run several ultras, including this one, and he was complimentary of how I was faring in my first 50, which helped motivate me forward.
Following this aid station, William and I started a long descent which lasted a few miles. It was very enjoyable and nice to turn our legs over, but all either of us could say was how much it was going to suck climbing on the way back. This section was also a little overgrown too, so I was getting moderately bush-wacked on top of already being filthy from all the dust/dirt. This was also the point in the race that I dropped my one and only f-bomb (due to a fly that would not leave me alone), which is actually a small miracle on its own.
During these miles (31-35 or so), I also started thinking about my finishing place. I knew I was in a very solid third, considering the first place woman was so far ahead of any of us and I hadn’t seen Jen (#2) or Kylie (#4) for a long time. And honestly, I was completely thrilled! Third place was not only super solid for me; it fell right into my secret A-goal of being on the podium. In my head, the spot was mine to lose, so finishing in third became my primary objective as we neared our final turnaround point.
And then, about two minutes up the trail, I saw Jen. I was initially a little surprised since I was sure she’d plowed ahead, but my surprise quickly shape-shifted into exhilaration.
All of a sudden, I felt like a lioness who’d just come upon food for the first time in days. All of a sudden, this had become a real race.
I paraded into the final turnaround aid station with a huge smile and a boatload of energy upon my newfound competitive adrenaline flowing. While my bottles were getting refilled, I loaded my pack with gummy bears, ate some chips and coke, and got a full soak-down with two wet sponges. I’ll say it again: the glory in this feeling was like none other. As the volunteers were doing this, I looked each of them (somewhat deliriously) in the eye and told them that all of this was worth it for how good it felt. I also got my hat and sports bra filled with ice, grabbed a grape Otterpop, and gallivanted back to the trail for the final stretch of the race. On my way out, I noticed Jen still had her pack with the volunteers…and considering the long downhill section we were about to be gifted, I decided now was the time to make a move.
RACE PART IV, MILES 39-50:
I’d say I “bombed” downhill, but that isn’t entirely true considering I’d now run over 38 miles and my legs had zero “bomb” left in them. But I was hustling, and I was wildly happy! I sucked down my Otterpop, rejuvenated by all the ice on my skin and my soaking wet shirt. I was practically screaming at the other racers coming up the trail about the Otterpops at the aid station, as if all I was meant to do in the world was to deliver the glorious message of sugary ice at the end of the trail. There was certainly a primal feeling motivating me at this point, and I didn’t question it.
My main focus, though, was to just keep moving. The narrative in my head was on repeat, something to the tune of: “Get distance between you. The more you run, the further ahead you’ll get. This is hard for everyone at this point. Second place. SECOND PLACE. Could you even imagine, second place?”
The downhill section was moderately short-lived, but eventually I started seeing a lot of runners coming back the other way which was really encouraging. Several of them started yelling out, “You’re number 2!” – which obviously was incentivizing. I made sure to smile and cheer on every single person I saw, and nearly everyone did the same – are there any better people than trail runners? One guy in particular whom I had run some of the early miles with yelled, “SAVAGE!” when he saw me, and we high-fived enthusiastically as we crossed.
Right around mile 40, I saw ADAM! I was so excited to see him. I raised my arms in the air and shouted nonsense (something about Otterpops). He said, “You’re definitely in second, and you’re definitely not catching first.” Ha! I loved seeing him and how good he still looked, and of course he reminded me of the big climb that I knew was coming.
The temperatures were around 85 or so at that point, which I definitely noticed, but I also felt very ready for it, as if my body had hardened a bit to running in the heat. While wilting in the hot weather is always a specialty of mine, I’m proud to say that this was perhaps the first hot race I’ve run where the temperature wasn’t really in my mind all that often.
All that to say, the mile+ long climb in the sun wasn’t fun. I allowed myself to walk nearly the whole thing, knowing I needed to stay smart and preserve energy for the final miles. Throughout the last section of the race, whenever the upward slope flattened a little, I did try and run for short segments, consciously thinking, “I don’t run Dino Ridge every week to get beaten on the hills!”
I was all alone now, save for the people I was passing on the way out. I maintained enthusiastic cheers whenever I saw any other racer, and otherwise maintained a systematic rhythm of drinking, eating, and salt-ing. Around mile 43, a woman yelled that I was about a mile and half from the final aid station, and as I went by her she yelled, “You look great lady bird!”
Obviously she had no idea of my name or my nickname, but this comment both nearly brought me to tears and made me acutely aware of all my amazing friends who’d encouraged me during the race and who were undoubtedly thinking about me (and Adam) right then.
I snuck a look behind me as I came up to the final aid and saw no one within the minute or so of trail. I refilled my bottles (succumbing to the Gu Brew energy drink at this point since I was out of Tailwind), got more bra ice, and was deeply inflated by the volunteers who all encouraged me to “go get the number 2 spot!”
I was hurting though, and as I confirmed on the way out that there were still over five miles to run, I narrowed my focus on one foot in front of the other.
The good part about the final five miles was that they were moderately downhill. The bad part was that it wasn’t downhill enough to really give any gravity assistance; you were definitely still needing to work. On fresh legs, these woodsy miles would have been heaven, but right now…there was nothing fun about them. Despite still having my watch on time-of-day and not actually watching the miles click by, I knew I was moving slowly. Both of my IT bands felt like bricks in my legs, and my quads were seizing a little with each step.
But, I maintained focus: eat, drink, salt, breath. It was practically on autopilot right now, and I kept myself distracted by thinking of all the training I’d done to mimic this point.
I remembered running in Leadville at 2:00pm the day after the Mt. Evans Ascent, on a trail that was exactly like this.
I remembered running the final downhill stretch of Kenosha Pass, which I distinctly remember thinking did not feel downhill at the time.
And I very specifically remembered the 90+ degree runs I forced myself to do after work in order to condition myself to endure these conditions.
It was working – all these instances had worked – and they were motoring the final miles of the longest run I’d ever done.
With about 2 miles to go, William (!) surged by me, and he was the first person who passed me this whole section. It admittedly worried me a tad, and I timidly asked him if he’d seen Jen recently. He told me he’d left her at the previous aid station, meaning she wasn’t all that far back. William was running well and fast which made me think I still had a good enough gap, but this certainly helped motivate me to keep running.
I thought about what Julia had told me before the race: “You only get to run your first 50 miler once, make it a good one to remember!” It felt like I was running this for both of us in a lot of ways; we both had the goal of running 50 this year, and she’s practically the reason I started trail running in the first place. I didn’t actually start believing my training for this race was sufficient until Julia acknowledged and praised it as such. That’s the thing about training partners…their belief starts to fuel your own. With less than two miles to run, telling Julia that I had gotten second woman was truly the only motivation I needed.
Second place…second place…it’s yours to lose at this point. Keep moving!
We were at that point where around every single corner, you expect to see the finish line. Frustratingly so…the trail seemed to curve and continue without any end. But then, like the sweetest song you’ve ever heard, the distant noise of music and cheers came into earshot.
I saw the trailhead entrance and was welcomed by a few volunteers, reminding me where to go for the finish (thank goodness, because it was likely I would have stopped right then and there). The lead-up to the final road stretch was up a short and steep little climb, and I jokingly asked the volunteers if it was acceptable to hike those few steps.
I turned onto the road, made a left into the dirt parking lot area, and straight ahead saw the most beautiful finish line I’ve ever seen. No other runners, just a perfect straightaway for me to float along to the end. I don’t actually know if I’ve ever smiled that big.
I heard my name announced as second woman, crossed the line, and fell into the most soulful embrace of the race director. Following immediately after, the first place woman gave me the biggest hug as well. Again…no better people.
Within a few minutes, the cheers of the spectators picked up again and there was Jen, finishing with the biggest smile on her face too. We both hugged as well and immediately went to sit in the shade. I drank three full pint glasses of ginger ale and the two of us surveyed the aftermath of the day to our legs, before getting a good hose off from some volunteers.
Following, we had the awards ceremony where I received a unique, etched glass and a free pair of Nike trail shoes of my choosing! I spotted Kylie too (who finished 4th!!) and gave her a hug and we each thanked one another for all the shared miles we’d had. I am certain we’ll have more runs together in the future!
I plopped down eventually and changed into my flip flops, though everything I was doing was in fairly slow motion. Relaxing in the shade seemed like the proper move while waiting for Adam, and while I sat and chatted with some fellow runners, I noticed that November Project SF leader and pro/badass ultrarunner, Paddy, was strolling around! It was one of those awkward instances where I very much knew him and he very much didn’t know me, but I went to introduce myself regardless and after telling him who I was, who I knew, and how I finished, I don’t think he gave me less than three hugs.
In the midst of talking with him, I glanced behind my shoulder only to see Adam running into the finishing chute!!! He will be the first to admit that he, too, was far ahead of when he thought he would finish and again…I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bigger smile on his face.
I “darted” toward the finish line to greet him, only to overhear him thanking the race director and telling her, “What a great race!” Anyone who knows my husband (himself included) would agree that this is not his normal demeanor at the end of any race. 🙂 What a day!
After some food, story-telling, and cheering for people coming in, we gingerly and slowly made our way back to the car to head for the hotel. I could not wait to tell everyone A) that we survived, and B) that we thrived!
There’s still a lot for me to process about this race. Overall, I am overwhelmingly satisfied and psyched with the outcome; for perhaps the first time, my patience and my understanding of running “smart” matched my competitiveness – and it’s a symmetry I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved before.
Physically, I’ve probably never been so beat up following a race either (short of having an actual injury). It’s five days later and I’m still so tired, so hungry, and I have a little bit of a cold. My legs aren’t acutely sore anymore, but the two days after the race were probably the most soreness I’ve ever felt.
I’ve been asked by a few people if I think 50 miles is my distance, which the verdict is still out on. I did really enjoy the training and confirmed I have the endurance to compete, but it really is so…long. I do understand why the ultra community jokes that the 50 mile is the first “real” ultra distance. There was a distinct point during mile 29 of Mt. Hood that I thought, “Wow, I’ve never missed the 50k distance so much as I do now!” which is humorous in hindsight to think of 31 miles as “short.” So, to be determined what this means for future races…but I can say this race has really inspired my trail love even more so.
I cannot finish this report without an enormous thank you to my people: my training partners, my family, my friends, my fellow runners…I have been overwhelmed by encouragement and kindess both before, during, and after this race, and without you – none of this would be nearly as rewarding or fun.
The community of runners, the volunteers, the overall ethos of the sport: trail running is an exceptionally comforting reminder of how good and supportive people can be. I’m so happy to have chosen this race and experienced it so fully – as for what’s next race-wise, still yet to be determined, but for the rest of the summer you can find me hiking big mountains and running trails with my friends!
Official finish time: 8:56:49
Gender place: 2nd
Overall place: 28th
Nutrition (estimated): 4 sticks of Tailwind, 2 packs Honeystinger chews, 1 bottle Gu Brew, potato chips, watermelon, gummy bears, salt tabs, 1 life-changing Otterpop