The Cascades in Washington State, perfectly balanced between lush valleys, thick, impossibly green forests and snowy peaks, are what dreams are made of. Their proximity to the ocean draws persistent rain and fog that envelop the slopes and generate a temperate rain forest in the lower valleys and alpine climate at higher elevations. Their relatively low altitude, compared to the Rockies of Colorado, make them an unspoiled running paradise.
The Sun Mountain 50 Miler takes place every year in May on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, by the small town of Winthrop. The trails snake though grassy fields on the valleys floor and across creeks and forests on the mountain slopes and are never too technical or rocky. The course is described as “fast”, which is a relative term, considering the 7,600 feet of elevation gain. The race is perfectly organized by Rainshadow Running and its owner, James Varner, who does an impeccable job organizing the race, marking the course, pulling all the aid stations together and providing a party atmosphere at the finish.
Running a 50 miler requires endurance, perseverance, motivation and a solid nutrition and hydration plan. Racing a 50 miler requires all of the above, plus the experience to know when to hold back. When I lined up at the start of the race alongside 150 other runners, I had no expectations but still enough butterflies to fill a greenhouse. At 7am, someone yelled “go” and so we went, following trails well marked with ribbons and arrows.
Running and runnig
I wish I could say I felt great from the beginning and that I was able to grab the lead and hold it until the end. The reality is that my legs felt dead for the first 20 miles and, during that whole time, I was not sure if I was going to be able to come out of it. The human body is still a mystery to me and why or how such a change would happen 20 miles into a race, is beyond my grasp. It only takes 20-25 minutes to warm up, it only takes an hour to shake off soreness or tightness from a harder workout: why it would take me 20 miles or approximately 3.5 hours to finally start feeling like I could run within my means, is beyond my understanding.
Perhaps it was the change in the course: the first 20 miles are more rolling and the last 30 are more mountainous with long climbs and long descents. My legs and brain have always enjoyed big ups and downs, because they are mentally easy to break down and allow me to make time. Or perhaps it was simple motivation: for the first 20 miles, I was 5th woman soon to become 6th and there were perhaps 40-50 people ahead of me. Once I started powerwalking on the hills and running well on the down hills, I passed several runners and two women, moving up to 4th and then 3rd. It is amazing what motivation will do: perhaps, that’s all it took for my legs to increase their turnover.
Legs kicked into action
A simple encouragement from one of the aid station volunteers and lots of Coca-Cola at the 27.8 mile aid station gave me a boost: heading into the mile 36.2 aid station, on a long down hill, I opened up my stride and, suddenly, passed the 2nd and 1st women at once, who were running together. After that, it was pure joy and adrenaline that drove me forward for the last 15 miles. Joy because the place was absolutely beautiful and, from the summit of Patterson Mountain, the last big climb in the race, you could see forever. The snowy peaks of the Cascades were breathtaking and it was like looking into my soul: a view I will never forget.
I finished in 8h 27m, winning the women’s race and coming in 10th overall. I was elated with my performance and ability to hold it together. Most of all, I came away with stunning mental images, awe and desire to go back to explore more of this incredible landscape.