It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these things, so bear with me while I catch my… bearings… and try to remember how to write from the heart and not from the head for some end of term paper. (see previous post)
In February, it dawned on me that I would lack a concrete challenge in my life once I graduated from my master’s program the next month, in March. So I defaulted to my usual outlet when life begins to bore me a little: running. There were certain things I could go for: sub-18 5k by October, sub-3:30 road marathon… but there was one that stood out, clear as day.
I was taking a leadership class that term, and the professor had an interesting approach to the class. He was a very sensitive man, despite playing 4 years in the NFL. He structured the class so that the first half of the term focused on improving ourselves before focusing on leading and helping others improve. One exercise challenged us to remember our 3 biggest failures, and one of the failures I thought of was my DNF at the Gorge 100k in 2016. There were more parts to that exercise that gathered external feedback from families and friends and it was an enlightening and eye-opening class that I’m better for having taken. But that’s all beside the point…
While thinking of my next challenge, it was crystal clear to me that I needed to address and rectify this failure in my mind to grow as a person (this was a very… thoughtful class. Lots of meditating). So I started searching for 100ks in Oregon between July and October. I found the Wy’east Howl race on July 27th. Mt. friggin’ Hood. I reviewed the entry requirements… 50k in last year… okay. Looks good. Register.
Training was progressing, hitting 20 mile runs with hill repeats, feeling loose and strong. So, of course, I decided to do a fartlek run and my hamstring bugged out because I’m old and I pulled it in November of 2018. I’ll spare you the details but from April through May it was a back and forth issues of hamstring and calf and I just stopped running altogether to let things recover.
That turned into July 1st really quickly, and I was slightly fluffy and definitely out of shape. By this time, my girlfriend had registered with her brother-in-law for the half marathon held on the same day, and none of us had really done any running. My girlfriend was a little nervous about getting lost in her first trail race and I was in no shape to run even the 50k, so I emailed the RDs and asked to be dropped down. Half marathon party!
Fast forward to race day, none of us have really trained for this. The longest run in the group was a flat 7 miles at sea level. The starting line was at the beautiful Mt. Hoods Meadows Resort, a place I had only heard about before race day. Liz (my girlfriend) and I had camped the night before at a primitive campground off the highway to Hood River and after parking at the ski resort, we grabbed our bibs, used the bathroom (as stated earlier, we were at a primitive campsite…) and met up her brother-in-law that had driven up that morning from Portland.
Gathered around the trunk of Liz’s car, we packed bottles and packs with Gu’s and Huma’s, some first aid essentials, topped off bottles, lubed up and headed to the starting line. On the far end of the Meadows patio was the familiar arch of Daybreak Racing, a custom build from a local carpenter with local wood, the same arch I had seen last year at their Tillamook Burn race – except this time with a laser-cut steel Wy’east Howl race logo attached. After a few short instructions, a group high-five, and quick kiss, we were off!
I needn’t remind you how miserably out of shape we were, and I initially scoffed at the 4,500ft starting line elevation, but boy-oh-boy did I realize that I had been living at sea-level for the last two years very quickly. I could see what Liz’s eyes were saying as we climbed the first 1.5 mile hill, but I had already decided weeks ago when emailing the RDs that I would run the race with her and make sure she stayed within herself, stayed healthy and had fun!
I will disclose at this point that I have no GPS data for this run. I realized at camp that my watch was dead and my phone had no signal, and that any mileage points, elevation proclamations, or other miraculous claims made within this post are estimates and/or exaggerations. If you want specifics, go to the Wy’east Howl Half Marathon webpage and see for yourself, you nerd. I’m here to tell a story.
So, the first climb was a bitch. What initially starts as a windy service road through tall pines quickly becomes an exposed, loose gravel service road. And it winds, and switchbacks, and you think you see a summit but it’s a false-top. Liz was already cursing me for encouraging her to sign up for a trail race at this point and the climb was already taking a toll. And then she stopped cursing me, and then she slowed down a little, and I knew she was filled with pure, thick, molten regret. My motto for us for the day was “we’re out for a long hike.” So I encouraged her to stop, and catch her breath, and relax. She suffers from exercise induced asthma and grew up in Portland at seal-level, so this may as well have been Kilimanjaro.
I learned long ago when working with first time trail runners that it often helps to explain things in terms of minutes instead of miles. Liz was miserable and I guessed we had about half a mile to the top of this climb. Luckily, I had glanced at the elevation profile the week before the race and knew about where the climbs were and how long they were. (See disclosure above) I asked her, “can you hike uphill for about 10 minutes?” “Yeah.” “Ok, that should put us at the top of this hill!” And hiking along we continued.
Already concerned for Liz’s mental status, I was instantly relieved when we were rewarded with a slightly downhill single track at the top of the climb! Almost immediately her spirits were lifted by the relief from that shit-ass gravel road climb. That wasn’t the trail running I love and had so excitedly wanted to share with her, so the single track was a sight for sore eyes, and legs.
I vaguely remembered a shortish down-and-up portion from the elevation chart and knew we would be chilling for the next mile or so. We wove around on beautiful single tracks that passed through tree groves and meadows, beside boulders and over roots. Never too up, never too down – a paradise for these sea-dwellers.
But then I remembered. After this point we have a 4.5 mile downhill section that drops… 2,000ft.? So I told Liz that we had a really long downhill coming up, which in principle sounds great, but it’s gonna last for about 4 miles and if she felt fatigue in her quads that she should slow down or walk. I think this was pretty sage advice and probably helped her in the latter stages of the race. *pats self on back*
So we cruise down, winding through more gorgeous trees and meadows and vistas and we hit the first aid station – a self-serve fluid and gel table. I check my phone to see the time and tell Liz to have a gel. We’re about 4 miles and about an hour, hour-ten into the race.
We continue along and pass by runners and are in good spirits and chatting occasionally when I remind her that, though the course is a lollipop, we still have to get back to the starting line. Which means whatever we go down, we gotta go back up. This may have snuffed whatever flame of passion she was developing for trail races, but I know that being a realist is the best mentality for a trail runner.
The course, as you will see below, is absolutely gorgeous. Every twist and turn you take reveals a new view of the summit, or a vast expanse of ridge lines, or a tree-lined and misty valley. It’s breathtaking, and often. Anyway, I say this because I was also playing the role of documentarian and I would frequently drop back to capture Liz with an amazing backdrop or a pristine view of virgin wilderness. Which means I would, also, frequently sprint to catch up to Liz. This will become relevant later.
We hit the bottom of the lollipop and take the turn back home. I feel I had adequately prepared Liz to mentally handle the worst of what she thinks could happen, so when she surpassed that and finally hit peak misery, she wouldn’t be completely devastated.
We begin to climb. At first gradually with a few steep bumps, but then it got pretty friggin’ steep. And I reminded Liz that “we’re out for a long hike” and we took frequent but brief stops to let both of our heart rates drop. We met a few folks along the way, some were friendly and dirty and salty and perfect, and some were curt and matching and usually wearing headphones, but I’m not here to judge anyone, I’m here to tell a story.
I distract her briefly by pointing out incredible views and flowers and trees and that dang volcano right there! It works like charging an old iPhone battery does – effective, but brief. I’ve been feeding her gels every 30-45 minutes so she’s good on calories, but she’s running low on water and we’re about 10 minutes from hitting the self-serve aid station again.
I give her the rest of my bottle and we continue on. Luckily we hit the aid station when we did because we were both really low on fluids and I was getting a little hungry. I had been eating the Huma gels (I think thats what they’re called) and I like them for ease of ingestion, but they don’t really satiate. So I ate two strawberry banana Gu’s at the aid station, which were delicious, and that put enough in my tum-tum to keep it less grumbly.
We still had about a mile and a half or 2 miles left of the climb, but I think the fluids and gels helped lift Liz’s spirits more sustainably. We hiked on and chatted and laughed and I tried to dance and generally be an idiot to make her smile because I knew she was getting a bit beyond that anticipated peak-misery I mentioned before.
And I, too, began to feel the race – and more specifically, the wind sprints I was doing after snapping photos. In classic McQuaide fashion, Beavis and Butthead, my stupid-ass calves began to catch a little here and there, faint quivers of future spasms. (That might be the most poetic of “quivers” and “spasms” since 50 Shades of Grey.) So… I continued to remind Liz that we were just “on a long hike” and encouraged her to take breaks whenever desired (and for my own benefit to keep those calves in check).
Anyway, we hit the top of the climb and the uppy-downy part and she’s running a bit and walking a bit but in much better spirits than before. We have a good time and commiserate and I taunt her with promises of future race suffering now knowing the worst of the race is behind us.
Or so I thought. Despite the remaining 1.5ish miles to the finish being nearly 90% downhill, that downhill was run on the same FUCKING GRAVEL SERVICE ROAD. Listen, I’ve run some courses. I’ve run up some mountains and ski areas, I’ve run in the Sierras and in the Gorge, but that service road was some of the most bullshitty, annoying, painful terrain I’ve covered. And if I was fed up, I think you know where poor Liz was. What kind of reward was this from a 4.5 mile climb? Where was the justice? Of course, this was just trail-brain taking over because we were both well beyond any distance that we had run recently.
Recognizing my own self-pity, I knew I had liven it up to get Liz back into the run. So swirving and leaping and dodging larger gravel rocks I hoped to remind us both that this should be fun, and that we’re really privileged to be able to be out here doing this despite how tired and ready to be done we were.
When we hit the end of the service road and entered the parking lot, we were happy and laughing, but the slight incline grade of the parking lot slowed us both to a walk. I would have walked even if Liz wasn’t there. I coaxed her into running once we hit the dirt – the last 300 meters of the race. She declined, but later regretted, my invitation to hold hands while crossing the finish line.
Cameron, her brother-in-law finished well ahead of us, nearly an hour I think. But Liz completed a really tough trial half marathon at altitude nearly 20 minutes faster than I had predicted she would have. So fuck yea, great race!
Daybreak Racing does an incredible job with their race afterparties. Food and drink tickets were provided and runners could get a great selection of grill-stuffs. I think I got the pulled pork sandwich. There were also sausages, I think. And you get a free beer in your finishers pint glass! Equally thoughtful were the wood finisher medals, which doubled very nicely as post-race beer coasters.
Anyway, we had a blast, I’m so happy I was able to be with Liz for her first trail race, and I re-recognize how important it is for me to get out to trail races at least a few times a year.
If you want a gorgeous mid-summer trail race on a volcano, you should 100% pick Wy’east Howl. I don’t have any insight into the 50k and 100k courses, but having explored a little bit of this area I would guess it’s probably pretty friggin’ sublime. Maybe I’ll see you out there next year!