Chuckanut 50k 2017: From Slow in the Snow to Pain in the Rain

Back in November, when building my race calendar for this year, I decided that 2017 would be a year to focus on running faster over the 50k distance. I planned 3 races, with Chuckanut 50k being a 'B' race - not my main goal race for the year, but a race at which I wanted to perform well. Being in mid-March, Chuckanut is a great first ultra of the year to test your fitness. 

Last year, I found out 2 weeks before Chuckanut that I had been invited off the waiting list into Gorge 100k, so instead of tapering for the race I used the 50k as my last long training run. I had a smooth, easy day on the course and finished in 5:23, placing 22nd overall in a stacked women's field and 1st in the 40-49 age group. I recovered really well from the race, and was back running 3 days later. Leading up to the race, I had really only managed 8 weeks of solid training, due to a nagging hipflexor strain that kept flaring up at the beginning of 2016. Encouraged by that performance considering relatively little training, I wanted to do things differently this year. I planned a 16 week training block, with a nice gradual rise in distance and with tempo runs and hill repeats peppered in after the first month of base training. I was confident that with targeted, consistent training and more of a "race" mindset going into the day, I could knock at least 15 minutes off my 2016 time.

These mugs are the best...

Spoiler alert: I didn't come anywhere near that goal. Instead of finishing 15 minutes faster on the course, I finished 17 minutes slower. 5:40, 21st woman, somehow 1st in 40-49 again. And I'm really proud of this: I realized early on in the day that I wasn't going to be able to run the time I was aiming for, so switched from 'race' mode to 'survival' mode pretty quickly. But it is still worth asking the question: What the heck happened?!

I am still trying to figure that out, to be honest. But there are a bunch of factors that could have contributed to my slower than anticipated race. The obvious one is the winter that we've just had to train through: I wrote about this in my last post, and won't rehash it all here. Suffice it to say that the snow made it incredibly hard to run on the trails, and I ended up only having two long runs not in snow from December until race day: one was a 35k in Bellingham, running the middle portion of the Chuckanut course with friends, and the other was a road 21k that I did the day after struggling through a 3.5 hour trail run in which we only made it 23 k. Because it was taking so long to cover distance on the trails, I ended up doing lots of back-to-back long run weekends (e.g. 3-4 hours Saturday and another 2.5-3 hrs Sunday), which I find generally prepare me well for races. However, I think that repeatedly doing long runs in the snow, where you're having to work much harder than normal to move forward, took a heavier toll on my legs than I realized at the time.

Run Ridge Run 25k. 3:03; 4th female. PC: Chris Thorn
The other main factor, I think, was  a lack of climbing (and descending) in training. Last winter our trails were snow-free, so I was regularly gaining and losing over 1500m on long runs. This winter, we couldn't access any of our usual climbing trails, so my runs had overall much less elevation. The only two runs I had with significant elevation gain and loss this year were that training day on the course, and the Run Ridge Run 25k race, which I did both this year and last, 3 weeks before Chuckanut. I had a really strong run at that race this year, taking 10 minutes off my 2016 time. At the time it gave me a great confidence boost for Chuckanut - but it's possible that running hard in that race took more out of me than I thought, and the effort combined with the sudden return to elevation was a recipe for my legs to rebel.

The week before Chuckanut, my right knee was incredibly achy and sore, so much so that I couldn't sleep well at night. I tried to chalk this up to the usual mysterious taper pains, but I can't pretend I wasn't worried about it. In the race, it very quickly (in the first 10k) became clear that something was mechanically wrong with my whole right leg; I was having different pains for every different type of running (Hip pain on the flat. Behind the knee pain on the rolling sections. Calf pain on the climbs. Quad pain on the descents). This is not normal! It was really bizarre, and I think maybe it was just some manifestation of lots of damage built up over the winter of training. I was staying on top of my hydration (though I probably could have drunk more); I was consuming electrolytes, and plenty of food. 

Chuckanut 50k. Still smiling! PC: Glenn Tachiyama
By the time I reached the Cleator Rd climb, only 20k into the race, I had thrown my time goal out the window and resolved to just run as hard as I could given how I was feeling. I managed a PB on that 5k steady road climb, and also on the Chuckanut Ridge trail, which is my favourite part of the course. I think after the ridge is where I started losing the most time - I felt like I was pushing, but my legs just couldn't move quickly. The course was also extremely muddy and wet, but I can't see that playing a huge role in slowing me down (especially since I was used to running in so much snow!). 

The stretch from the top of Chinscraper, down Cleator Rd and Fragrance Lake Rd, was agonizing for my quads - and I usually love downhill! At this point, I realized that my left quad was now really sore, which I knew meant I had been compensating for my right leg issues by carrying more weight on my left side. Somehow, through all of this, I was still having a great time - despite the current pain, I was fairly certain I wasn't doing any lasting damage, and kept reminding myself how much I love running, no matter what the race outcome is. Sometimes the mental toughness we can gain from this sport amazes me! The last 10k of the race is back along the Interurban trail, and I had mentally prepared myself for how hard this feels - but I still slogged my way through it at a snail's pace, and it seemed to take an eternity. My watch had lost GPS signal at about 46k, and out of desperation a little while later I asked a couple that I passed how long they thought it was to the finish...and they said "3 miles"! I thought I was going to die, haha. In the end, it was more like 2k, and I dragged myself across the finish line in great relief.

It's now 5 days later, and my legs are just starting to feel better. I have a miserable head cold, which I think may have been lurking on race day and a contributing factor to my general feeling of malaise. The leg situation is still a mystery, but I'm hoping that my physio can get to the bottom of what happened there. So, where does this leave me, you might ask, in my year of "faster 50ks"? Well, in a pretty good place, I'd say. I've already had 16 weeks of consistent training, and now have a 50k long run under my belt. I'm taking some down time now, which obviously my body needed. Once I feel healthy again, I'll slowly start ramping my running back up, and will be able to build on all that hard work I did over the winter. 

And through it all, I still love doing this, and am hungry for more. What more can you ask for, really? Oh, and yes I'll be coming back to Chuckanut in 2018. I still have a little score to settle with that course ;)


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