Smith Rock Ascent [my lame ultra]

What is there to say about a race in which you did not do very well (even relative to regular back of pack-ish finishes)? Well, quite a lot really. 

Some background. Smith Rock is a climber’s mecca in Central Oregon, quite near Bend. I chose this race partly because the photos were so compelling (see some we took below) and partly because it was long enough
after Chuckanut 50 km (7 weeks) and far enough before White River. Plus we like Oregon. 


After Chuckanut, I was not very tired - compared to how I felt after the Squamish 50 km last August. But I was really busy at work, had to travel to San Franscisco, skied with my sister who was visiting from Hong Kong. Obligations and opportune pleasures combined to make me super busy. Plus I used the down time from running to pack more activities in. All of which might have contributed to what happened next.

About 3 weeks out from the race, my left MCL started to hurt. This was a familiar pain as I had sprained it 3 years ago after a long day on Whistler - which had ended with me spending close to an hour clumping around the open day lots in my ski boots searching for my car. The next day I ran 75 minutes in pain. That was the last time that I ran in 12 weeks. 

Why did it happen this time? First of all, I was stressed regarding work, nothing in particular, just volume and intensity of obligations. Second, I didn’t rest quite enough after Chuckanut but also because I packed too much in (see above). Third, I was perhaps overdoing it on my glut strengthening exercises which took a toll on my left SI (weak spot). With a weakened SI, the exercises introduced a shear force medially. Fourth, I let my left quads get too tight on the lateral side and stopped doing my vastus medialus exercises. So weak in the wrong place. Finally, my adductors were totally taut and needed a massage.

My last longish run (really a hike) was under the gondola 2 weeks before race day. After that, I pretty much had to hoist myself up and down stairs. My MCL could not bear my weight.  Perversely - mostly because I could not fathom missing my race - I forced myself to do 3 ill-advised flat runs that week with the result that a week out from race day, I could only walk (not run). 

By the time I talked to Gary (coach) a few days before the race, I had taken on board the strong likelihood that I would not be running Smith Rock. Lynne and I had already reserved a vacation rental by owner house near Smith Rock park, arranged dog and cat care, and - most importantly - wanted to see Michael, my phd student, race. So, I was still committed to travelling to Oregon,  just not racing. 

I told Gary how hard that decision was to make - but that I held out a 5-10% chance that I could run the race. We both agreed that I had to keep my eye on the prize: White River 50 miler at the end of July. 

Secretly, I pictured myself running it. I never lost the dream. We drove down two days before the race. I had run for 30 minutes that morning with some pain - but not excruciating. On Friday, the day before race day, I ran 25 minutes. Stiff from the drive and the run the day before, the MCL really hurt at first but then settled in. There was no avoiding the truth: even 25 minutes was hard, let alone 50 km. I told Lynne that it would be folly to race.

On race morning, I woke up at 430 am and lay in bed. I just felt like I could do it, but then second-guessed my intuition. Was desire to race swaying my inner compass? Finally, I got up stealthily and had another intuition to roll out my left arch and foot. Why had I forgotten to do that lately? Because it really helped (inexplicably). Then I turned on my phone and emailed my Mom that I was going to race.

When Lynne woke up, I broke the news. We devised a plan for me to run around 10 km. I would run the first few km, then turn back to the start instead of continuing to Aid Station 1. She would wait for a message from me and pick me up after her hike in the park. The planned turn-around is shown (lower left) in the annotated course map below.

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We met Michael and his wife (also called Lynne) at the race start. It was his first ultra and he wasn’t injured so he was un-conflicted and super cheerful. Lynne took this photo of us

I told Michael about my plan to run 10 km. I had no idea how it would feel but had a strong drive to try.


No nerves, nothing but curiosity about what would happen.


The start is always a relief. The course starts and ends with a brutal hill (down to start) and we queued to get there.


Then amazingly, I was running. Very slowly but running. And my MCL did not hurt. Immediately, however, everything else started to hurt as every possible protective muscle in the body took over. For the first 10 km or so, it was my calves that hurt, then my left hamstring attachment and so on. But, I was jubilant because I was not damaging a hard-to-repair ligament, just tiring muscles - which can recoup. And there was beauty.


I totally missed my planned turn-around point and got to Aid Station 1 where I emailed Lynne that I was going on to Aid Stn 2. By now, it was already hot. The temperatures quickly reached 27-28 ˚ C (low 80s F) where they stayed for the whole race. An interesting thing I should have known: 27˚ C is way, way hotter with no trees. And about 85% of the course was in direct sunlight. To me, a forest runner, it felt like the face of the sun. Still, getting to Aid stn 2, about 12 miles in (all signs were in miles - which was confusing in a 50 km race) was not too rough despite my myriad muscle strains.

The thing about ultras (I sound like I know something — which I barely do) is that you usually have 20-25 kilometres of pure pleasure, an exultation that you are running in beautiful forest/desert/wherever you are. But this one went right to discomfort. After Aid stn 2, there was a steepish climb (totally exposed of course) and I started passing people. Since I had started 2nd from last, that was not a great accomplishment. Still, I started to think I could finish.

Between Aid stn 2 and 3, there was beauty but also an intensification of the pain, especially going downhill. My right hip seemed to be the most affected. Just before Aid stn 3 (at 19 miles), the dreaded “whole body pain” set in. That morning, just before setting out, I had grabbed a single Phenocaine (a natural painkiller composed mostly of curcumin) and wrapped it in a micro piece of paper towel. Now, I fished it out. To my disappointment, I found the gelatine had melted and most of the orange contents had leaked into the paper towel morsel. So, I licked up as much of the orange powder as I could. 

Seemed to help as by Aid Stn 3, I was still optimistic that I could finish. Plus I snagged a caffeinated chocolate Honey Stinger which greatly lifted my spirits. Just as I was leaving the AS, I saw my pal #752 - who was also running with an injury withdraw. He was slumped on the ground shivering (it was burning hot and in direct sun). His friend Ryan had flown in from Tennessee the night before to run with him. Ryan had hung back all day to stay with Matt. Now he arranged for him to be driven back to the start and sprinted off. Then he turned around and said “I can stay with you.” No I told Ryan, “You go now. You were a great friend.” So, he dipped his head, tossed his long pony tail, and took off with an easy gait. 

Suddenly there was a  cacophony of noise as we entered the territory of a band of cows. We are not talking one or two or even 20 cows but at least a hundred, all bellowing at the top of their lungs. I was alone so stopped and waited for another runner. I was afraid. Luckily the runner behind me seemed very familiar with large numbers of cows. She assured me that they were all tagged (did this prevent them from charging?) and were more afraid of us than we were of them. This did not seem possible. I accounted for my hesitancy by explaining that where I come from, we are on the lookout for bears and cougars - not cows.


This picture does not do the herd size justice as I waited until I was safely out of bellow range before taking it. It turned out that the biggest threat of the cows was that they had eaten sizeable amounts of the orange flagging.

Speaking of flagging… at the race briefing, the RD had announced that the race was well-flagged, and that we should see a flag at least every half mile. Well, let me tell you, a half mile is a long way to go back if you miss a flag. A couple of times, I stopped to wait for another runner to confirm I was still on course. Michael reported the same thing. Where we are from, you don’t have to run 800 m to confirm you are on the right path.

By now, I was as hot as I have ever been at a race. Even the half-ironman I did in Hawaii (while hotter in temperature) was more tolerable as there was an Aid Station every mile
with ice. Then amazingly, we ran through a parking lot. A man from Nebraska had a huge plastic box full of ice water, pop and ice (well, he had ice until just before I arrived). His daughter was running (she was just ahead of me) and he had driven there to support her - and as many runners as he could. He handed me an ice cold bottle of water - which I poured over my head. Kindness of strangers.

That should have helped but just about then my energy crashed. In retrospect, I blame the caffeinated Honey Stinger. But it was also the heat, not eating enough, the pain etc. I started walking and probably walked 3 km in total when I decided that I should pack it in. I had never planned to run this
whole race, had done a good job, and by the time that I reached Aid Stn 4, would have run 26 miles. No shame in that. 

I turned on my phone to email Lynne that I was going to walk to AS 4 and then get a ride. At first, I had no service, so waited and tried again. Sent the email and just as I was turning the phone off a message from my Mom flew across my phone. She wrote that she was thinking of me and then told me something about my brother (whom we lost when he was 17). Not many days go by when I don’t miss Tristan. I know it is the same for my Mom. 

When I read her email, I knew I had to finish. Alone in the forest, I shed a few tears but picked up my pace and cruised into AS 4 where I emailed Lynne that I was going to run it in. The service was so spotty that she only got this email hours later. It was miraculous that I got the message from my Mom, the race saver.

The last 5 miles were truly brutal. At first, I could run as I had filled my bottle with half coke and found some ice, but then suddenly my calf cramped. I fell down and massaged it out, took another salt stick, and kept going. But hard to run after that. Then a relentless downhill sealed my misery. There is about 4 km of steep descent until the last 2 km or so of flat at the end. My right hip just didn’t let me run it. Free money wasted. Instead, I thought about Capes (my chocolate lab who died this year at 15 1/2) and my brother — as I clambered downhill in the melting sun. A large yellow butterfly flew by me very slowly so that I could admire it.

Watch died at 7:13, about 40 minutes from the finish line. The last 40 minutes were not pretty. Finished in 7:52. Official time was 7:53 as the guy read my number back to me wrong as he was writing it down (timing chips, baby) so I had to hobble over and show him my bib. It took Lynne a minute to recognize me as she was expecting me to come from behind, not through the arches. But I did.

Things I learned.
It really is all mental.
You have to completely commit to a race, not test the waters. 
Eat more than you think you need in the heat. Bring liquid nutrition.
Take a Salt Stick every hour.
Bring pain killers if you are already in pain (stupid).
Sufferville ends and then you are
really really really happy that you ran - and finished.

Footnote: Michael finished his race in 6:24 with no mishap. What a great start to an ultra career. His wife Lynne ran her first 10 km the next day. She came in 16th overall, 9th woman and won her age group. They must have had cheshire cat grins all the way home. 

Technical notes:
Last years course was 4100’ of climbing; the course was changed this year and Tomtom put it at 5275’. Michael’s Garmin said 4600’. Probably somewhere in between. 

I finished 177 out of 194 finishers (there were DNFs of course). And there were lots of super super fast chicks in Oregon. Check out my age group. This does not depress me; it makes me certain I can be better.

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