When we parked at the start/finish on a beautiful, pre-sunrise, Pacific beach in Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island, Washington, we knew this would be another great Rainshadow Running event. And, at a balmy 8 degrees, the decision was easy -- this was going to be a shorts and T-shirt race in the middle of December! As several hundred soles gathered for James Varner's typically low-key pre-race briefing, there was just enough time to wish friends good luck. A thirty second warning later, we were off.
I had no expectations or game plan going into this race and hadn't done any real preparation, targeted training, or tapering. This weekend was all about finishing the year with a fun road trip to explore a new location and grass roots running event and enjoy the scenery. Keeping in mind that I typically start out too fast, and recalling Coach R's words of wisdom, at "go" I began conservatively. As the speedsters accelerated away on the introductory pavement, I chatted with a TRR veteran about the Transalpine and Transrockies Runs.
For maybe a kilometre (err, 0.6 mile...). At the first short, steep, hill at the end of the pavement, I settled into my traditional too-fast opening pace and passed a number of runners before diving into the single-track on the way back down. Rather unintentionally, I was in race mode now in a line of runners that flew down the trail back to the beach and a quick jaunt on the sand.
On the way to the famous Deception Pass bridge, the single track had some rocky, rooty goodness, though nothing extreme. Just enough to get the legs warmed up and the mind into the west coast spirit. Yellow caution tape was thoughtfully placed to keep the runners from straying too close to cliff edges. Then came the climb up to the bridge.
The bridge that crosses the narrow channel, called Deception Pass, between Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island is high. And the railing that separates the pedestrian walkway from the open air is roughly at my waist. But, with the osprey gliding on the salty air, the columns of seaweed waving gently in the current below, and the line of snow-capped mountains in the distance across the Salish Sea, I hardly noticed.
The Deception Pass 50k course is a connected series of 7 loops, or out-and-back lollipops. This adds an extra challenge in places as there is two-way traffic on some of that technical singletrack. There were a lot of polite greetings, "excuse me's", and apologies -- half of the field must have been Canadian! This also makes it a social run as you repeatedly get to say "Hi!" to your friends going the other way. And maybe check out how far ahead of you they are... Not that I'm in any way competitive!
One of the lollipops crossed a narrow and sandy isthmus. As we approached, a runner behind me exclaimed "What's that smell!?!?" just as my nose was adjusting to the aroma of rotting vegetation. It was gone in a few seconds and worth enduring to experience the coastal trail on the other side.
By now the blood was pumping, the sweat was flowing, and it was time to shed the gloves and arm warmers as I approached the first aid station. Jack Pot!!! Rainshadow Running aid stations are typically well stocked. This one had PB&J sandwiches. Oh, this was going to be a very good day! A quick 1.8 mile out-and-back later and I was back in PB&J heaven... Too soon? No way!
Leaving that aid station the second time, I was suddenly running largely on my own and away from the group-think that had been helping to keep my pace fast. A short period of misty west coast rain kept things cool and completed the day's weather forecast. My right knee, which had been a bit creaky the last couple of weeks, was starting to produce occasional minor pain. Frequent glances at my watch showed that my heart rate was in a zone that, given recent history, risked future GI trouble. The coach sitting on my shoulder was warning me of the inevitable, but I was on a PB&J high!
Crossing back over the bridge to Whidbey Island, this time on my own, I was 17 km in and was running at a 20-25 km race pace. I decided to hold it to the next aid station and re-assess at that point. With no performance goals beyond finishing, if things didn't work out, I could always slow down as much as needed and never admit the fast start!
After some slippery steps descending from the bridge, it was back to some fun switch-backy singletrack rounding Goose Rock. A break in the forest revealed a picture-perfect marina across Cornet Bay before the switchbacks on the trail up to the summit got serious. For a brief couple of minutes, the course was not runnable!
After a fast-running descent from the summit, it was on to a mile of pavement following the shore on the other side of the bay. The discomfort was relieved as I took in the weathered buildings and grove of white masts in the previously observed marina, and then landed right in the next aid station and more glorious PB&J!
At this point, I was just under halfway through the race and on a pace to finish in under 5 hours! Next up were two laps of the same 7 mile loop, returning to this aid station two more times, guaranteeing that magic food at every aid stop between now and the finish!
Shortly after leaving the aid station on the first lap, the trail turned and climbed into the woods at a grade that my legs could, at this point, still handle. Before long I was running in solitude through an old cedar forest of brilliant green on a trail that varied between runnable climbs and speedy descents, sometimes technical and often smooth, on a bed of damp leaves or through short sections of shoe-sucking mud, along wide double track or narrow singletrack between ferns and patches of swamp grass.
During all this fun, my right calf developed a bit of a pain that felt like a minor pulled muscle. I altered my stride to protect it, removing what spring was left in my step to avoid pushing off and aggravating it. On the bright side, my knee pain had disappeared and I was moving reasonably well.
After climbing for most of the first half of the loop, the second half had some fast running back down toward the aid station. As it drew near, I passed the posse of Okanagan friends just heading out for their second loop. At 34 km in, I had just completed 7 miles of hilly trail in 1 hour and was only 5-8 minutes behind these very fast athletes! I was indeed having a very good run!
After a solitary first loop, the second was full of other runners on their first. But, it turned out to be a bit of a struggle as I continued to avoid making the calf pain worse and, as I started to lose some strength and energy on the climbs, discovered that one cannot run on PB&J alone. It was (past?) time to break out the Vega gels! Guaranteed to pull one out of an energy low!
I spent a lot of time on the second loop doing mental math, converting between miles and kilometres to figure out how far to the finish and how much longer I'd have to last. Toward the end, my adductors started threatening to cramp, but I made it back to the aid station without incident. This time, extra electrolyte drink and a mouthful of salty potato chips joined the PB&J.
I had 30 minutes left before 5 hours. It was 5km to the finish, I had a belly full of PB&J, some Heed and Nuun in my reservoir, it was cool... and I was wearing a fast yellow shirt. Time to hit it!!
The return on the paved road started well as once again I ran past the marina with textbook technique.
Bam!! Every muscle in both legs spasmed at the same time as I narrowly avoided a total seizure and collapse to the pavement. I steadied myself and, through sheer willpower, kept my quads from cramping as I stood there contemplating my options. I drained every last drop of electrolyte-infused water from my pack and started walking carefully. When that seemed to work, I tried a very careful jog and promptly danced a bit of jig as everything spasmed again. This was going to be a long 5km. Where were my trekking poles?!
I started to hobble my way along again as a few runners started to pass me. A couple out for a walk struck up a conversation.
"How far are you running today?"
"Wow! Well, you've only got 2 miles left. Good luck!"
"Thank you!" (It was 2.5 miles, but who's counting...)
A few minutes later an outdoorsy-looking lady was driving by and, noticing my predicament, pulled over.
"Hey, would you like a ride to the finish?"
"Thank you for the offer, but I think I'll make it." Aside from the legs, I was feeling pretty good and was not going to contemplate a DNF!
"I think she was hitting on you..." came from the next runner to pass me a few seconds later.
She'd already driven away. Well, too late now! I soldiered on.
After some time, I was able to resume a careful jog without seizing up. Soon I was on the home stretch to the finish, stumbling along the fun singletrack I had floated over just 5 hours ago on the way out.
"Sorry man, I feel like a dick passing you at mile 30!" the next runner apologized as he powered by. No worries!
Finally, the finish came into sight. I collected myself and assumed a reasonably normal, if slow, gait for the benefit of the audience as I approached and crossed the line. Seven runners had passed me in the last 5km and I finished in 5 hours and 10 minutes.
Waiting at the finish on the beach was a warm shelter, a live band, a feast that included giant grapes, delicious gourmet pizza, hot chocolate, hot cider, cold beer, and a great group of friends! A perfect end to an amazing event!
For any runners not yet ready to face a snowy winter, the Deception Pass 50k is a great race on a scenic and fun-running course. With a 25k option, this event makes a nice December getaway in a beautiful corner of the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps I'll escape again next year to greet some friends on the course and try to save another 10 minutes!