Chuckanut Race Report:
Chuckanut was supposed to be a show down between me and Gary Robbins, which meant it was a race I had been looking forward to for months. Unfortunately, Gary was still recovering from Dirty Duo and his travels in Europe and decided racing would jeopardize his training for Western. However, there was no shortage of competition. On Friday night Gary counted 10 guys that would be fighting for the podium.
To race or not to race?
The 2 weeks before Chuckanut I was battling a cold and only running for 45 minutes per day before exhaustion would stop me and I would shuffle home defeated. Wondering how I was going to complete 50km I hopped into the car on Friday to drive down to the coast where I was meeting up with Gary. When I got into North Vancouver I threw on my Montrails and went for a half hour jog. As I headed out the door I was praying my legs would finally feel OK. For the first time in 2 weeks I actually had a little spring in my stride giving me a glimmer of hope that I would feel good on race day.
Gary and I headed down to Bellingham Friday night and stayed with Barb, a friend of Gary’s. It was a sweet pad, and only 10 minutes from the start line, which meant a pretty relaxed pre-race morning. I had made the mistake of not properly planning a race strategy for the Dirty Duo at the start of March and it cost me dearly during the race, so for Chuckanut I had plenty of fuel and bottles, and with the use of drop bags was confident that I would be able to keep myself well fuelled throughout the race.
That was until I found out that there were no drop bags this year due to road closures. With people already heading toward the start line there wasn’t much time to hash out a plan B so I grabbed two of my bottles and asked Gary to find a way to get the other two to aid stations 3/4.
Is this an ultra!?!
Chuckanut starts on a 10km flat gravel and paved trail – this isn’t typical for an ultra and neither was the start. When the gun went off Greg Crowther from Seattle, who happens to be a 2:22 marathoner, bolted into the lead. It was a pace I have never seen in an ultra. However, as with most ultras no one seemed too concerned about someone getting away and the following pack was happy catching up with old friends and easing into the race. This has never jived with my track background and I also was not about to let someone of Greg’s pedigree get too much of a lead. Greg has publicly acknowledged his challenges on technical terrain and steep downhills but considering the race finished on the same flat 10km he had a good chance of winning this race. So I tried to pick up the pace to match his and hoped I’d be able to close the already sizeable gap later in the race. Luckily for me Hal Koerner eventually made the same decision and pulled up beside me around km 5. This gave us the huge advantage of being able to chat while hunting down Greg, thereby keeping our mind off of how insane the pace was.
My kinda course.
Gary told me I would like this course, which means most true ultra guys probably wouldn’t. It wasn’t too technical or too steep – all the hills were runable, and it had lots of flats. In other words it was easy to lock into a rhythm and just run. When we left the interurban trail we headed into some classic west coast single track. It was beautiful, winding and hilly. It wasn’t long before Hal and I were able to hunt down Greg, and once we hit the first long technical downhill at about mile 10, Hal and I slid into the lead. The downhill popped us out at aid station 2 and at the base of a 5km climb on logging roads. If I had to choose, I would say that this type of terrain suits my running strengths best. On hills that are not too steep I’m able to get into a rhythm and keep running indefinitely. However, while I led up this section, Hal and Greg seemed to have no problem hanging on.
Eventually we headed back into some sweet single track and topped out along the ridge trail. It was awesome up there. Crisp air. Narrow, winding single track. Amazing views. Several times I had the urge to stop and take in the views and enjoy the feeling of being in the west coast mountains again – but the thought of getting chased down kept me going. I am not sure where or how, but along this 12km technical section I was able to start opening up a gap on the rest of the field.
All systems shutting down.
By the time I was heading down the long descent to the base on chin scraper I was beginning to bonk. As with many of my ultras I made a series of bad decision that had culminated in my race falling apart. At aid station one I dropped one of my bottles so I only had to carry one. Unfortunately, I dropped the full one. Instead of stopping and exchanging it for the half full bottle in my hand I decided I couldn’t lose the precious seconds and kept going, figuring I could make it to aid station three where Gary would be waiting for me with a fresh bottle.
Aid station three was half way up the 5 km logging road climb but as I approached I couldn’t see Gary or Roxy… they weren’t there yet. I later found out that Gary had to hike a good 4km to the aid station and missed me by 20 minutes. In the meantime I had a decision to make: I could plug on with a bottle that only had a few drops left in it and hope Gary would be at the next aid station or fill it up with whatever the aid station was offering. I chose the former. Like with many buffets, I have had some brutal experiences with aid stations and I didn’t want to fall to the same fate again.
Fast forward 12 km to the hill heading down to chin scraper and I was beginning to cramp along my diaphragm and in my calves and my energy was seriously waning. I knew if I didn’t get fuel soon I wouldn’t be finishing. Luckily there was an amazingly stocked aid station at the base of chin scraper (they even had big pots of hot soup!). There was no question that I would be risking the buffet this time around. I quickly filled my bottle with Nuun and grabbed two Clif shots. Most people describe chin scraper as the hardest part of the race but getting those electrolytes and fuel was a life saver for me and I felt better at the top of the climb than at the bottom.
Are you sure this is only 10km?
Once I crested the top of chin scraper all I had left was about 5km of downhill running and the 10km interurban trail home. I leaned into the downhill and was happy to see Gary at aid station 4 with a fresh bottle and some gels. Even better was Gary’s excitement at seeing me in the lead with only an hour of running left.
At the beginning of the race Hal warned me how long the home stretch on the interurban trail would feel. For 43 painfully long minutes I oscillated between visions of a pack of gangly and ravenous ultra runners hunting me down and me giving my victory speech, which means I probably looked like I was doing a fartlek workout – one moment running for my life, the next slowly jogging a victory lap. Constantly glancing over my shoulder I was sure I was going to see someone gunning me down. Somehow, however, I managed to hold everyone off and win in 3:53:54. All my initial fears were confirmed though, when Greg Crowther came barrelling around the corner for a strong second place finish. I was glad I had decided not to let him get too far ahead at the beginning of the race. It is not often that an ultra is decided in the first 10km, but today 1st, 2nd, and 3rd went to the guys that went out strong.
Shades of red and white
I am not sure if it is the proximity to the border or the promise of warmer weather but there were a lot of Canadians in the race - fast Canadians. As the 20th place person crossed the line the race announcer pointed out that more Canadians had crossed the line than Americans! And there were great finishes by the whole Montrail crew. Aaron Pitt rounded out the top 10 for the men and Ryne Melcher had a strong finish as well. Ellie Greenwood was 1st for the women with Lisa Polizzi not far behind in 3rd spot. Cheryl Beatty also finished strong in 5th place for the women.
Chuckanut is a sweet race. The course is beautiful and has a little bit of everything. The volunteers were awesome and kept me upbeat the entire race. And most importantly, the weather was amazing! Everyone should put this race on their calendar for 2010!