A day spent strapped into a car making a 200 mile round trip in order to run 20 miles on some leafy trails away from home seems a little dubious, crazy even. The journey has deterred me from making this pilgrimage before. However, this year I was looking for a good long trail race to bolster my Gorge 100k training plan, and a friend with positive reviews gave my arm a good hard twist.
Still, on Sunday it especially seemed like lunacy when MCM, ZDog and I left Magnolia and found ourselves driving through interesting weather strata en route to the 2015 Fort Ebey Kettles Trail Run. A crisp and sunny spring morning was striped with slow banks of depressing fog. As we drove we watched the outside temperature dip and rise, pondered what we would find at our destination and mentally made plans to add or remove layers of race day clothing according to the fluctuating readings on the car dash. This was not just a question of optimizing performance and comfort, but of proud display. Our swanky, but somewhat skimpy, Team 7Hills sublimated race singlets were freshly in our clutches and we were excited to flaunt the new duds on trail as our favourite local running shop’s Magnolia Representatives.
Ignoring the option of an early ferry crossing as far too bushy tailed for our liking, we also took the possibility of finding ourselves on the wrong side of the ferry barrier for the 8 o’clock sailing seriously and opted to take the ferry short cut across Puget Sound out of the equation completely. A more relaxed start to the day, where we left Magnolia at a reasonable hour with coffees in hand, and rolled ourselves the whole long way to Fort Ebey State Park was the plan. It seemed be a good one until heeding Zennor’s increasingly frantic and imploring symphony of whines from the boot we found ourselves impatiently striding around a grotty motorway rest area trying to coax a desperate but very private dog to choose the absolute perfect spot to do her business while crucial travel minutes slipped past. (In retrospect this was actually pretty well timed on Zennor’s part and I really ought to thank her for not opting to wait until we were mid race and making me wrap up and carry her stinky waste with me for miles.)
After a high paced northward jaunt on the motorway we turned south, crawled our way back down Whidbey Island and eventually reached Fort Ebey State Park. Inching past all the snooty early bird cars and through the closed campground that was being used as an overspill car park we managed to find ourselves a cosy berth and were much relieved to find ourselves with half an hour to spare. Thank goodness for a civilized mid morning start time.
At packet pick up I ran into a little bit of a glitch. With an “A” surname I am usually smug and an easy spot at the top of a check in list, but today my name had gone awol. I had to frantically call up preregistration evidence on my phone before being allowed to reapply, fill in another form and eventually collect my bib. By the time the confusion was smoothed, and I was good to go, runners had already started to chomp at the bit and gather in the paddock. If there was any explanatory trail talk I had missed it. My next slim minutes were a frenzy of visiting the porta-loos, dropping surplus effects onto the drop bag tarpaulin, and simultaneously trying to meet, reacquaint and be friendly to trail friends popping up in every direction while not be seemingly aloof and rude as I hoofed it to where I wanted Zennor and I to be amongst the mass start.
Now that we’ve enjoyed a couple of races together I’ve realised that it is far easier for Zennor and I to try to be super aware of our surroundings and quickly step aside to allow faster runners to pass, than it is to try to overtake slower runners from behind with a surprise dog nosing past at knee level. With this in mind I intended to seed us fairly forward without being completely on the front line. I wanted to avoid being trampled and attempt to stay out of the way of what should be the fastest 10k and 1/2 marathon competitors, but still be towards the front of the pack.
Unfortunately when the runners were released we found ourselves battling behind a much heavier stream of people than I had hoped. It felt like we were caught in a starting surge swell and swept back a little further into the throng than I’d wanted. It was an uphill start and immediately we also had to run the gauntlet of coming up below a gaggle of spectating dogs gathered at the crest. Thankfully Zennor passed that test with flying colours but having had to slow and reel her in to safely pass left us even more packed in and we hit the single track at a shuffle. The first miles were uncomfortable as I worked hard to keep an eager Zennor polite as we trudged along unable to stretch our legs in the queue. At every available opportunity we leap frogged into runnable gaps until we were able to find personal space and begin to relax into our easy pace. Hitting the fork splitting the 10k and half marathon routes was a relief. Although I initially ground to a halt, confused and uncertain as to which way my race was headed, once pointed in the right direction the trail grew quieter. Now my girl and I could run comfortably and start having some fun.
Fort Ebey is notable in that the area was formed by ice that once smothered the land and then receded over 15,000 years ago. Glacier melt created the large depressions known as kettles, giant puddle holes in the landscape. Zennor and I had a good time getting familiar with them as we slogged our way through the forested state park. The course was rolling and very runnable with no huge climbs to tackle, but the impressive accumulative elevation loss and gain provided by the kettles did a good job of steadily wearing down the legs and made us work hard. The total elevation gain over the twenty miles comes in at around 4050 ft.
Rhododendrons were reminiscent of the manicured grounds of an English stately home. While skipping through narrow leafy corridors I fancied that we were being drawn forward to disappear down some rabbit hole. Freshly cut trails of leaf clippings strewn underfoot added to such fancies of being led through, or towards, some mysterious overgrown secret garden.
Rhododrens weren’t the only invasive ornamental plants in abundance. Charging down a steep gravel floored chute, a striking white slash cutting through densely packed tall shrubs, I think I recognized broom to be the beastly plant that scratched and clawed at me with it’s slender branches, but as it reminded me of Devon I grinned with comfortable familiarity.
Still, I was glad I only got to navigate the broom patch once as that little section proved hazardous by dog as well as plant when Zennor got excited by the encroaching vegetation’s tunnel effect and had to be curtailed from bolting forward and dragging me the whole way down on my bottom. A white knuckle moment, but not the worst episode of the run. That was when we were tackling what I think was possibly the most technical rooty downward stretch of forested trail and she spotted an unidentified live snack fleeing our path. I missed any ear twitch warning signs and I apologize for anyone in the vicinity whose peaceful mediation I sharply pierced as I screamed in terror and yelled at my daft dog as I did my best to stay on my feet and put the brakes on while she powerfully dragged me down the trail, feet whirling Road Runner style. We had to have a sit down break and a stern talk after that one.
Erupting from shade into sunlight to run the mini loop along the bluff and pass by the start/finish was a delight. To experience open space again, a brief grassy interlude, and look out across gleaming water after staring at enclosed trail for miles was uplifting. Energy was exchanged from the gathered crowd, bright colours after a natural palette gave a festival air, and the steep scramble back up to the cliff top was a particularly fun treat. The sun was playing and the quick blast of warmth on skin magnified the burst of joy. Zennor didn’t appreciate it as much as I did though, the temperature change between woods and clearing was marked and both times we returned to run beneath the forest canopy she seemed to breathe a sign of relief and return to a gait that was more romp than enforced march.
My enjoyment of the trail was only hindered due to unnecessary fretting. Although I had diligently studied the course information beforehand, insignificant details like there being two marked loops and that twenty milers would be running the half marathon loop followed by the 10k loop fled my head once I was in the thick of running the race. It was very disconcerting to be running the course and not have it be crystal clear what the longer distance runners were supposed to be doing. As I hit 13 miles and found myself running towards the finish line bunting I was perplexed. Still expecting to see something more substantial than a notice simply indicating “next loop” I had to falter, scratch my head, and query the marshall before carefully avoiding the finish chute and diving back on to the trail again.
On our second cautious traverse of a slippery wooden board walk over marshland I pulled aside to chat to a woman who queried how far my dog and I were running. As I socialized and told her that I hoped we were on track to complete 20 miles I took my eyes off Zennor and wasn’t quick enough to stop her suddenly plunging muzzle first into the rank marsh water. She hastily slurped up countless enemy micro-organisms before I could yank her away and offer more sanitary, but no doubt less tasty, water from my bottle. At least I was reassured when the lady told me that her husband had just run past in a similar state of doubt, and now Zennor had given me something else to worry about.
The rest of the race was pretty care free and involved just reveling in our forward motion through the woods. I settled down into trusting that I wasn’t off track, we kept on running and exchanged cheery greetings with friends we passed along the way. We indeed came through the finish chute around the twenty mile mark, and we had a grand time enjoying unseasonal weather in beautiful surroundings.
3:15:34 – First lady (and dog) home.
Even without the highly satisfying finish time the Fort Ebey Kettles Trail Run was definitely worth the road trip.
Boring GEAR STUFF (for my future reference):
New Balance WT1010V2 with Injinji toe socks.
Team7Hills race singlet – seriously! It’s February, in the PNW, and I was able to wear my thin singlet, as a single layer, and I was perfectly comfortable! I even had to roll down my arm sleeves!
The North Face freebie arm warmers from a Cougar Mtn trail race. Not my favourite pair, but I chose these ones because they are an obnoxious colour and they perfectly matched my shirt.
Nathan hand held for water – normally I use the integrated pocket to carry my iPhone and gels, but for this one I left the tech behind and instead stuffed it full of dog treats. It smells a little ripe now. I hoped to rely on aid station grub for myself, but found that I had to skip that plan as the offerings seemed to be sparse and I didn’t see anything that was obviously guaranteed untainted by the presence of nuts. Luckily I had crammed a small packet of Honey Stinger chews into the back pocket of my Pearl Izumi shorts and that saved me.