With two weeks to go before the Gorge Waterfalls 100k, I’d written off running Chuckanut as a terrible idea. Racing fifty kilometres so close to my goal race did not seem smart. In fact, when fellow Team7Hills sponsored athlete, Alicia, piped up that she was intending to use this race as a pre GW100k tempo run I dismissed the idea. However, the seed was planted.
When MCM, my GW100k partner in crime, started talking about signing up and encouraging me to join him, I was glad when the race was already sold out and the decision out of my hands.
Still, there was a remaining niggle of regret. While it’s a race that has been on my bucket list since moving to Seattle, something has always taken precedence and toeing the line at Chuckanut had eluded me. This year the pull of this PNW flagship race, and fear of missing out was even stronger. The event was to fall on March 19th, which just happened to be the day before my birthday. The day before my fortieth birthday to be precise. It would be my last race as a sub-masters runner and as the weekend drew closer I had no other celebratory plans in place.
The final nail came around 4 o’clock in the morning in the middle of a long, cold, wet and wild night on the Orcas Island trails. MCM and I were nose deep in sweeping a loop of the hundred mile course and hatching plans for further adventures. We needed another long training run to prep for the GW100k and somehow in the middle of that arduous 25 mile sweep perspectives changed. Just maybe a 50k race a fortnight before wasn’t really such a horrid idea? Just maybe it was worth a shot to contact the RD and beg and plead to see if the entrants list was really impermeable?* It went without saying that I’d have to have some sort of running adventure on my birthday weekend, so why not celebrate with a northward jaunt up to Bellingham, a final long run before the Gorge Waterfalls 100k, and by merrily representing Team7Hills at Chuckanut?
My mantra was “Don’t go crazy.” Chuckanut’s challenge lies in its sandwiching 5000ft of meaty elevation between two slices of white bread first and last 6.7 miles of flat and fast comparatively dull Interurban trail. It would be all too easy to go out too fast and burn up on the first furious 10k. Indeed, when new acquaintance and fellow Magnolian, Stephanie Gundel caught up to me in these first miles and started to tear past I had to consciously ease back, fight the urge to get competitive, and not get carried along.
My intention was to try to nail a relaxed pace that after having run 30k of mountain trail, I’d then be able to match, or preferably better.
Friends and I had taken a recce of the middle 30k a couple of times and so I had a good idea as to what I was in store for there. This substantial filling consists of some solid trail running with a hefty road climb leading to rooty single track ridge trail, garnished with a Chinscraper scramble.
On our reconnoissance missions the Chuckanut Ridgeline trail had felt especially slow and tricky to navigate as Team Kay-Zee. While I love trotting along with my hound, it was absolutely not my favourite trail to try to run while attached to the black beast. Flying solo on race day and letting loose on this section was going to be a treat, so I thought. Surely it would be so much easier to run without Zee? I really believed that I’d be merrily skipping nimbly through the roots and hopping over the rocks that Zennor and I had cautiously inched over together as my constant chorus of “Easy Zee!” “Easy Girl!” and “Woah there!” shredded the outdoor ambience.
It was therefore quite shocking and a little destroying come race day to find myself bumbling along making even slower progress picking my way along the ridge without my hairy friend. Comparing my GPS watch data after the run I can confirm that I took longer to “race” this section than I did on our “easy” social run.
I was tired going into this race. At the end of some sustained weeks of solid mileage preparing for Gorge I was heavy legged and suddenly running was a not so fun effort. I found myself having to push far harder than I normally would to even try to maintain my supposed “easy” pace. Honestly, even running the first nondescript Interurban miles at intended low gear was a taxing challenge, and despite what I told myself, I probably couldn’t have managed to keep Stephanie in sight had I tried.
Heading down to the second aid station I was buoyed by the notes of a tuneful “Happy Birthday” floating up the switchbacks to me as the volunteers serenaded some other runner with birthday cheer, but really, there wasn’t a whole lot to love about this race.
The long steady grind of the Interurban was followed by brief relief when we hit some real dirt, only to be crushed all too soon on the unyielding tarmac slog up Cleator Road. The fun was supposed to really start with the technical single track Ridgeline Trail and its peekaboo views, but all I could give that was cautious bumbling and not a lot of speedwork before all too soon it spat us out onto another awful gravel road. Okay, it was significantly more overgrown and almost camouflaged as trail, but it was still a horrid firetrack road and didn’t fool me. Spirits are then toyed with once more as another more enjoyable stretch of runnable trail deposits you at the bottom of the infamous Chinscraper climb where Glenn Tachiyama awaits to capture the effort. Then back down Cleator, and another short spell of trail before being deposited back onto the Interurban.
I spent a large chunk of the race playing leapfrog with a runner in green. I’d pull it together and run merrily for a spell, then succumb to defeated marching with my heart pounding through my chest while she would relentlessly maintain a clockwork trot and reel me back in every time I faltered.
Mini challenges kept me motivated. Resolved on the road climb I managed to take 2 mins and 18 seconds off my Cleator Road climb PB, but I was not at all happy. (Strava tells me that women’s race winner, Ellie Greenwood, made it up that damn hill twelve minutes faster than me)
Twice I’d recced Chinscaper, and on race day I discovered that twice I’ve apparently taken the wrong route up this climb. Still, it was good to know in advance that while the mountain bike trail is gnarly, the myth is far worse than the reality. The real challenge of this ascent is that it comes at about mile twenty on tired legs when you’ve been anticipating it every step of the way. Thankfully, unlike my previous visit, I didn’t come face to face with bikers hurtling down the trail as I made my way up.
A recent storm had downed trees and derailed attempts to locate the usual aid station at the bottom of Chinscraper. I was gasping but mentally prepared to ascend Chinscraper and then refuel back at my second pass of the St Patrick’s themed aid station atop Cleator Rd. When, instead, I did come across a low key aid station with gallons of water lurking at the bottom of this climb, replete with volunteers querying “Do you need anything?” I was so surprised I responded by breezing out a “No! No, thank you, I’m good!” and blowing on through like a desert nomad presuming a mirage.
Tackling Chinscraper I couldn’t help but be in a good mood, despite the thirsty, weary running. When my trusty legs were rewarded at the top with a sign reading “Over The Hill”, this emotional almost birthday girl didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As we emerged from the strenuous woodland trail into the lofty car park ready for the roll back down Cleator Road I was surprised to hear my name and see a friend, decked out in pompoms and tutu, bouncing and twirling. The frivolous mood was catching and idly socialising with cheerleaders was quickly followed by a lingering pit stop back at the Irish aid station and a mini party over a shot of Fireball.
Ian Burton, who had been pursuing me relentlessly and doggedly biting at my heels for much of the race reappeared while I dilly dallied, snapping me back into action. Giddily I launched careening down the hill, steeling myself for the return to the dreaded Interurban trail, but eagerly starting to smell the faint whiff of finish line.
Focus returned to my goal of managing the final 6.7 miles in equal or better time than the outward journey. Settling in to my task I gleefully dropped Ian, and finally started to pass people who hadn’t left enough in their tanks for this last slog. It was rough, I was more than ready to be done, but it felt good to be on a mission, and finally make it to the bunting having at least nailed my target.
start to first aid: 59:05
last aid to finish: 1:00:47 (includes a 2 min honey bucket stop en route *ahem*)
Chuckanut 50k: 5:58:03 144/301 38/103
Salomon Sense Pro were a solid choice of light shoe for this race with its strong mix of paved road and trail. I’d have perhaps been in trouble if we’d hit a lot of mud, but apart from one or two short sections it was hard and dry.
*Everyone on the waitlist was eventually invited to race.