We only get better when we do things we’re not good at. Knowing this, and in the spirit of pushing my comfort zone, I signed up for the Yakima Skyline Rim 50k. The terrain is the complete opposite of what I’m accustomed to in Vancouver. Instead of running through a canopy of branches and lush greenery, Yakima offered expansive views, dry trails, and endless wildflowers. The was no mud. There were no puddles. And the views lasted for day. It’s a mental trip when you can see runners 2 kilometers in the distance like a line of ants. Add 9500 feet of elevation gain and I’d found the perfect place to get in a good day of Western States training. Yakima is a badass race for badass runners, and perfect training for badasses-in-training like myself.
The drive down was a blast, as I had the company of my friend Nicki Rehn. She’s a Barkley-running, adventure-seeking, super fit friend who I credit with helping me get started in ultra-running. It poured rain the whole drive… until about 45 minutes from our destination. The sun came out, the roads dried up, and the temperature (much like my mood at the time) was sunny and warm. The taste of summer was in the air.
On arrival in Ellensburg, we grabbed some food (two meals in three hours, no biggie), visited with friends, and put our feet up. I made a point of grabbing a carrot juice as I’ve recently developed an early-onset-superstition about it. We spent a bit of time selecting race outfits (Nicki, a lululemon ambassador and fluorescent enthusiast, loudly endorsed my pink plaid shorts over tried-and-true black). Lights off at a decent time and I slept soundly until our alarms went off at a reasonable hour (thanks to a nice 8AM start – aka sleep in).
We grabbed a coffee and breakfast at Starbucks (surprisingly, their oatmeal is good when you’re not able to make your own breakfast), and drove about 15 minutes to the race start. Let me tell you, with friends in the car and Sirius playing upbeat tunes, cruising through Yakima canyons on a sunny Sunday is a pretty happy place to be. When I caught up with James and relayed my views, his response was “It’s a good life, isn’t it?”
Yes, yes it is.
I found the legendary Billy Simpson for a pre-race hug and hello, had a few last minute laughs with Nicki, and we were off. The aggressive first climb was…well, aggressive. I was extremely tempted to pick up the pace which I knew was a horrible idea. I’ve been known to follow through with horrible ideas in the past (ex-boyfriends, hair dye, surfing in jellyfish-infested-waters, etc) but this time I listened to reason. I could see Nicki plodding up the hill strong and steady ahead of me and there was no good reason to be anywhere close to her at this point. And slow and steady to start is never a bad idea. I made sure to take a look around at the top of the 55 minute climb and appreciate the view. Because this race was an out-and-back, I’d be here again nearing the end of the race. I gave a silent wink to the climb I just finished and thought – I’ll be back in no time.
I peeled off my top layer and started in on some actual running. At the time I figured this ridge to be relatively flat (we’ll revisit this later on). It felt good to be running on different terrain, to get out of the mental space of familiarity, and feel the stomach butterflies that only appear when there’s a race number pinned to your shorts. The downhills were rocky and technical – I was happy I brought my poles along. I’m still finding my stride with poles (when to use them, when to carry them, when to pack them away) but I definitely used them to my advantage on the climbs and to manage my footing going down. We went down a somewhat steep hill called the Elevator Shaft (we’ll revisit this later on, too) and circled into the aid station. A cheeky volunteer cheered me on going down the hill. “Way to go, Canadian!” I tilted my head to the side (things that make you go hmmm), paused, and asked how he knew I was Canadian. “Because you’re so white!” was his response. Immediately I smiled and forgot about the heat, the climbs to come, and the fact that I was only 1/3 of the way into this torture-fest we sometimes call fun.
The aid station volunteers at Yakima were so lovely. Lovely to such an extreme degree that I began wishing they were more sinister, as their friendly nature was making me want to stay and hang out. My pack was filled with cold water, I snacked on watermelon, PB&J’s, and grabbed a gel I’d never tried (Mandarin Orange– might be a new favourite). I kicked myself out and off we went to the next climb. I’m not convinced these climbs ever end, to be honest. I’m probably still climbing as I type this a week later. I had visions of underground conveyer belt animals laughing as they continually kept us climbing. When this happened I realized I should probably start talking to some real people (last time I did a big race I made a mental note to chat with strangers more often, to pass the time). I prodded up the hill chatting with a nice crew from Seattle who ALSO wondered about a hill conspiracy. The climb never ended. Until suddenly… it ended. There’s a life lesson in there I’m sure.
The views were expansive and the wildflowers were popping out. I picked up the pace when I saw a video camera (it only matters that I APPEAR to be running hard) and got excited when the leaders starting coming the opposite way towards me. I knew the turnaround station was still a fair distance away, but it was encouraging to see fresh strides coming towards me. I passed Billy about halfway down the climb, looking strong and awesome as usual. A few minutes later I saw Nicki coming towards me so I let out a yell “Go, NICKI!” and scared the sh-t out of a guy running a few steps in front of me, to the point that he tripped and fell. Sorry about that buddy. I’m just keeping everyone on their toes.
The turnaround aid station, once again, was staffed by super friendly and helpful people who I wanted to sit and hang out with. There were a few friendly dogs whose ears I wanted to scratch, and a large bowl of watermelon I would have happily devoured right there on the dusty floor. But I stayed on my feet and started fueling. A big positive that happened at Yakima is I finally conquered my Coke problem (I realize how that reads, and I’m keeping it). Coca-cola is an ultra-runner secret weapon, but I’ve had difficulty with nausea when I’ve tried it in the past. This time around I took two Ginger chews after each glass (my friend let me steal some of her ginger earlier on – thanks Jen!) and they appeared to work. Good to know for Western.
Running out of the station I felt a bit of pain in my ankles and the ‘where’s the finish line’ thoughts kicked in. Not exactly what you should be thinking about with 4+ hours left of running. I entered the aid station at 3hr 40mins and left about 3hr 50mins. I entertained thoughts of finishing under 8 hours (silly, silly thoughts). I was here to train for Western States, and truthfully the longer I spent on my legs the better.
About a quarter of the way up the climb I’d recently come down, I realized something felt off. Something was missing. Two things were missing actually – my poles. I’d set them down at the turnaround station and completely forgot about them. This happens when I’m in the presence of food. I entertained the thought of going back for about 0.00002 seconds, but once I knew there would be added climbing I said Heeeeeellll Noo. As James said in his pre-race email, “don’t give yourself bonus miles, the race is hard enough.”
The climbs on the return route felt longer, the steps heavier, the pain more apparent. This race is no joke. I plodded along starting to think less than nice thoughts about running. I find at this point of races (past the halfway mark but nowhere near the finish), things can go one of two ways: Say f&%$ it and walk it in. Or, say f&%$ it and push as hard as I could, because that means I’d be done sooner. So far, my race record is 100% the second option.
I ran with a guy who had brought his dog, Guinney, for the second 25k leg. I found Guinney to be a great distraction, considering my soft spot for animals and Guinney’s inherent JOY to be running. As I rounded the corner to get to Aid Station #3, I stopped dead in my tracks as I remembered a paragraph from James’ course description. I looked up at the “Elevator Shaft” and would have sworn we did NOT go down that hill earlier in the race. It got 100% steeper in the past two hours, right? No? It’s always been that way? Well, it’s just mean. Before I made my way up, one last stop at an aid station. The crew was just as friendly and chipper as they had been four hours earlier. When I couldn’t get my pack open, they did it for me. When I snuck past the bushes to a makeshift bathroom, they guarded the trail for me. When I downed one cup of coke, they were ready to re-fill it for me. And the same friendly jokester volunteer was once again commenting on my Canadian-ness (it’s a word). At this point I was a little more red than white but he put a smile on my face and that’s worth more than gold when you’re 75% done an ultra. I checked the time and realized I COULD get to the finish by 8 hours if a miracle climb were to happen.
The final climb, not going to lie, was pretty painful. Remember earlier when I swore I was running on a flat ridge? At the time I was running down a gradual descent. Which meant now I was running UP it. Every time I rounded a corner I was convinced it was the last one. We MUST be hitting that descent soon, right? I ran when I could and walked with purpose when I had to. I tried not to dawdle. I reminded myself of how much Western States is going to hurt, and how badly I want to be well prepared for that race, and how good this pain was for me. Eventually, I reached the top of the final descent, the top of the first climb of the race where I’d winked at the view many hours earlier. This time, the wink was a
small frown giant middle finger but there was relief knowing it was the final countdown.
I started chatting with a girl who I’d leap-frogged with for much of that final ridge. In a small world occurrence I found out she was also from Vancouver (hi, Julie!) and her strong descents led me down the hill. I was getting fairly desperate to reach the finish line, knowing there would be pizza and beer but most importantly I would get to stop running. I pushed… although looking back now, I could have pushed harder. I could have hurt more. Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda….I crossed the finish line in 8 hours 4 minutes to a hug from James Varner. Truly, he is of the most solid people I know…despite an urge to punch him for the past 8 hours and 4 minutes.
The best part about Rainshadow Running Races is their after party! I changed into some comfy clothes, grabbed a slice (or three) of fresh wood-fired pizza, poured a cold beer from the keg with the assistance of Alicia, and sat in a camping chair to enjoy company of friends and The Pine Hearts. With the sun hitting us at the perfect angle, a couple friendly dogs napping at my feet, and great people to chat with – I was not wanting the evening to end.
What did I learn?
- I have a lot of work to do in the next six weeks preparing for Western States.
- I love running in new areas and exploring different trails, even if they hurt.
- James Varner rocks, and so do his Rainshadow Running events.
- I’m destined to never have a third toenail on my right foot.
- I’m forgetful in races. Crew is a game changer.
- Watermelon is a secret weapon.
- I should push myself more often.
- I can suffer more.
- I’ll be back for Yakima 2015.
- Friends + trails + sun + competition + live music + shower access are ingredients that make a very good life.
And of course I can’t forget the most important thing:
- Western States, I’m coming for ya. #seeyouinsquaw