It’s Friday night. 10pm. Contact lenses already plucked from the eyes. I was intending to wake up with the sun and get lost on Hunchback Mountain for 27 solo mountain miles. A favorite training run.
“Why don’t you just mash up here tomorrow morning and see if you can get in the race?” He says. Doesn’t take much convincing.
I grab my backpack and stuff a handheld and whatever gels I have left in my cupboard. 4 hours of sleep and absolutely zero taper, I am in the Green Goblin burning carbon and rubber, slugging black coffee out of a crusty mason jar and employing a zombie-headbob to the Black Keys.
Weaving through dark forests at 70 mph, I begin to make out Mt. Hood’s omnipresence as it wakes from its evening slumber. It’s magnitude and beauty never ceases to steal air from my lungs momentarily. I arrive at the start with just enough time to meet Todd, and he graciously lets me into the race (for the record, I was provided a spot earlier). Here we go!
The weather is crisp but I am certain some mercury will be raised later in the day. In a matter of 20 minutes, I give hugs and “good lucks” to familiar faces of this new community I now feel fully a part of. In a crowd of 150+ runners, I connect with a few friends and training partners: Trevor, Yassine and Joe Kleffner, all men of the highest caliber. Talented runners, committed husbands and awesome fathers, they are an inspirational crew exuding nothing less than positive energy and smiles. I feel honored to know these people and share the trail with them today.
THE FRONT NINE
Void of any battlecry or war anthem, the race starts and everyone finds their place. After several minutes, the lead pack begins to spread out. Yassine and a short mohawked runner moves ahead and out of sight. I hang with Trevor and Joe into a very comfortable pace. Having not run a 50-mile distance since May, it took me a few miles to accept this agreeable speed. The Mt. Hood 50 is a simple course:
– 14 miles out to Frog Lake, then return to the start/finish.
– 11 miles out to Warm Springs, then return to the start/finish.
Two out-and-backs with a forgivingly moderate amount of total climbing (5,600ft)
The Frog Lake out-and-back section was a beautiful, relatively pain-free experience. Skirting past steaming lakes and lifting fog across dewy meadows. Pristine country. About ten miles in, the forest thins and we are treated with a most impressive display of Mt. Hood’s dominance of everything that surrounds it (including us). It’s glacial armor shines and contrasts magically with turquoise sky in a sacred dance of color and element. Roots along the trail take advantage of my attraction to this divine goddess and attempt to take me down. In my transfixed gaze, I somehow negotiate a surprisingly technical section of PCT singletrack with ease.
As I reach the turnaround at Frog Lake (Mile 14), Trevor and Joe take a bit more time to restock and I sneak out quickly after a shot of Coke. Now in 3rd, I climb strongly out of Frog Lake and begin the hunt for Yassine and Mohawk-Head.
At around Mile 17, I hear a rustling in the woods. Bear? Elk? Nope, just a 135lb Moroccan stumbling out of the woods. Yassine! I draft behind his pace as I learn more about his GI distress than was probably necessary. Regardless, I am surprised to have caught up with him so early in the race. Having trained countless miles with this guy, we laugh, hoot and holler our way down the cushy singletrack and our pace naturally quickens in pursuit of #1: Mohawk-Head.
Eventually, we catch him as we breeze through Crater Aid Station (Mile 22.4). I then find myself leading the race with Yassine. Our swift but manageable pace brings us back to the start-finish (Mile 28) in 3:19 and, after a quick transition, we both head out for the second out-and-back section.
THE BACK NINE
Entering the race with a good 40+ miles already on the legs for the week, I begin to feel the miles as I enter the 4th hour of running. The day is beginning to heat up as well, making for some hot, exposed sections of trail. My mind drifts from here to there, but I constantly bring it back to the basics. Sharing the lead, I keep telling myself to stop being consumed with the end result, but rather focus on the steps necessary to achieve that end result. And those steps live right here, right now. Water. Salt. Food. Relaxed breath and mind. Inhabit now.
Nearing Red Wolf Pass Aid Station (32.5 miles), Ian Sharman (you might know him from slaughtering the 100 mile U.S. trail record earlier this year?) catches up with us and eventually passes, looking efficient and effortless. Knowing he was in the race, it was only a matter of time before we were to see him.
The trail descends significantly and all that I can think about on the downhill is how interesting this section will be coming up. I hang with Yassine and we continue to work together on this tougher half of the course. After this 1,000ft descent, we make a long, gradual climb that drags on to Warm Springs Meadows Aid (Mile 39). Ian is just leaving as we arrive, so he hasn’t put considerable time on us.
After a minute or so of rest and refueling (and fair amount of grunting), we begin the 10-mile return to the finish. Around mile 42 is when I begin to lose my grip on Yassine. He slowly pulls away and my fatigued legs can’t quite pull it together to follow, after 5+ hours of constant running. I pass Trevor and then Joe as they work strongly towards the turn-around. My sizeable gap from them was encouraging, but knowing their tenacity, it wasn’t in the bag just yet.
The 3-mile climb up to Red Wolf Aid (Mile 46) was the only section of the course that I really hiked, and I felt that I wasn’t losing much by temporarily choosing this method. As runners would let me pass them on their way to the turnaround, many informed me that Yassine wasn’t too far off, only a few minutes. This complelled me to dig deep into my pockets of perseverance, but I wasn’t able to come up with much. Little spurts of speed would propel me through some sections, but then I would lose pace and settle into a slower crawl.
With only a few miles to go, I was ready to be done. The fast pace and rising temperatures resulted in tennis balls for hamstrings, on the constant verge of seizing, no matter how many S!Caps or water consumed. Low on gels, out of water. Running (ahem) on empty. I keep hearing cars and activity coming from the start/finish in the distance. But, to my disappointment, nothing would be around the bend.
Finally, I see the road and I know it’s over. As I hop up onto the road off the trail, there are cheers and encouragement coming from strangers and I round the corner to see the finish line. The time of 6:49 flashes to my right as I end the run. 3rd Place.
Extremely happy with my performance, I spend some quality time rooted firmly in a lawn chair, surrounded by two incredibly inspiring athletes discussing the race and other things. Ian Sharman is a class-act and I hope to cross paths with him more now that he is an Oregonian. Yassine ran a strong race and once again found that gear that is tough to beat. Trevor and Joe finish strongly a bit later, and we all ham it up a bit after the race in the sunshine and glorious Northwest summer.
Immediately after, I had to drive straight to Eugene for a weekend memorial service with my family. It was along the MacKenzie River that we recognized the death of a great man (my father’s cousin), and through this heavy dance of grievance and celebration, through tears prompted by heartfelt eulogies and stories from his best friends, loving family and wife, I was once again taught some powerful lessons: To love without absolutely zero hesitation. To take risks in the pursuit of your passions. To say “yes” to any call for adventure and personal growth. To tell your father, mother, brother, friend or partner that you love them.
Right now. Do it now. Act on it now. Inhabit now.
Top Three: Me, Ian and Yassine.
Memorial Weekend: Being a Kid Again with Family.