Tillamook Burn 50k 2017: Redemption via Pinot Noir

A month and a half ago, I ran the Chuckanut 50k as my first ultra of the year. As I wrote in my last blog post, I had a pretty terrible run there: I never once felt good, the whole race, and missed my time goal by a large margin. It was, and still is, hard to put my finger on what went wrong that day, but something was just... "off". I came out of that race absolutely wrecked: my quads were incredibly sore for a week afterward, and I took 2 full weeks off running before gingerly easing my body and mind back into training. I was also feeling a little deflated, because I had trained hard through the winter and didn't feel like my performance was representative of my fitness. But as with everything, I had to draw from the experience what I could, then put it behind me and move forward, with my sights set on the Tillamook Burn 50k 6 weeks later. Because of the extended period of time off after Chuckanut, I basically just built my running back toward the 50k distance, figuring that I wouldn't need to taper much going into this next race. Brendan calls this the "slingshot" method, and I was about to find out how well it would work.

Just after the turnaround. Photo courtesy of Steven Mortinson
All I can say is, what a difference 6 weeks can make! Tillamook Burn was this past Sunday, and I had as close to a perfect race as I could have imagined at this point in the season. Because Brendan and I made this Oregon trip a mini-vacation, I had a completely different mindset going into this race: I was very relaxed about it, and just wanted to have fun. We drove down on Friday and checked into our cute little airbnb, an apartment in an old farmhouse in Forest Grove - in the heart of Oregon wine country and only a 30 minute drive from the race start in Tillamook State Forest. After a quick shakeout run along the rolling country roads on Saturday morning, we spent all afternoon touring the various wineries that were within a 20-minute drive from our apartment and sampling flight after flight of wine. I'm not entirely sure how much Pinot Noir (my favourite wine, and the one Oregon is best known for) I consumed that day, but you could say it was not exactly my usual pre-race preparation...although I was making sure to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated(!). It was such a relaxing and fun day, and I slept like a log that night (after devouring a huge amount of pizza). I honestly don't think I have ever been that well rested going into a race...perhaps I'm onto something with the wine drinking?

The race started at the very civilized time of 8:00, and we arrived at the start about 45 minutes early to a cheery and chilly scene at Reehers Camp, with people gathered around a big bonfire at check-in and the bbq food truck and local brewery already set up on site, getting ready to dole out post-race snacks and beer. The 50k course is an out-and-back, on what had been described to me as "very runnable" trail, but with lots of climbing. The route gains and loses about 2000 m (7000 ft) of elevation, so I knew that the course, no matter how runnable it was, was going to be a challenge. This was my 6th 50k race, and although I feel like I've gained a lot of confidence over the 3 years that I've been running them, I still don't feel like I can "race" an entire 50k. It just seems like too daunting a task, both mentally and physically, and there is still part of me that is worried I'll go out too fast and blow up in the latter stages of the race. With all this in mind, my race strategy, loosely, was as follows:

1. (and most importantly) Have fun! Smile all day.
2. Cruise the first half - don't work too hard too early on the climbs, but let go a little on the descents because (a) I love downhill, and (b) I know my legs can take it.
3. After the turnaround, run as hard as I can, while still saving some energy for the last loooong 7k climb.
4. Try to go under 6 hours.

At the start.
As usual, a lot of people went out very fast from the start, and I just let them go. A few runners passed me on the 5k climb up to the first aid station, including two women, but I didn't let myself worry about it. I took it easy, slowly and steadily working my way upward, feeling a bit sluggish but reminding myself that it takes me a long time to warm up and starting a race going straight uphill is never going to feel great. I hit the first aid station at the top in about 43 minutes, and ran straight through it into the long, winding downhill that followed. The course was quite muddy, and the clay-rich soil made for some very slippery, messy footing that made uphills even harder than usual, and downhills a fun slip-and-slide. This ~7k descent trail crossed a number of creeks, which varied from just getting toes wet to being over the ankles-deep in water. I resigned myself early on to the fact that my feet were going to be wet all day, and was grateful that I had worn wool socks.
Lots of up, lots of down. Repeat.
A note about the course: the entire thing is absolutely gorgeous. A thin ribbon of single track running through a lush forest, huge mossy boulders, eerily beautiful burn sections, creeks, waterfalls...it was really hard not to stop and take pictures. The trail is smooth and flowy, with very little in the way of the rocks or roots that we are used to in Squamish and North Vancouver. The first climb had really spread the field out, and once I started on that descent after the first aid station, I pretty much ran on my own for the next hour or so. I could see a couple guys ahead of me as we snaked through the forest, but we all stayed on more or less the same pace, and I was just enjoying my solo time on the course. Although I was happily trucking along, I didn't really start feeling good until I reached the Storey Burn aid station, about 20k into the race. I wondered, does it really take me this long to warm up now? Something shifted as I ran out of that aid station, with a little banana and coke in me, and I suddenly felt really strong. The next stretch of trail was my favourite part of the course; it rolled along the side of a ridge and was incredibly fun, with stunning views. I passed a few runners en route to the turnaround at 25k, and of course started to see the leaders coming back in the other direction. With every single runner I crossed paths with, I exchanged a quick "nice work!" or "looking strong" - I love this sport. It's like the dirt and forest strips away our differences in ability and makes us all equal in our love of being out there: egos need not apply. 

I counted 5 women ahead of me, with the first 4 being significantly ahead and the 5th maybe 10 minutes in front of me. I ran into the turnaround aid station at University Falls with 2h57 elapsed, followed shortly by two other women, and after a quick slug of coke took off down the hill, back toward the start/finish. I knew that I would have to run essentially the same pace on the way back to dip under 6 hours, and hoped that my strategy of not pushing too hard in the first 25k would allow me to stay on pace even as I started to tire (as one inevitably does after 3 hours of running!).

It's hard to explain how good I was feeling in the second half of the race. I attacked the uphills more aggressively, and pushed hard on the descents, where I knew I could make up the most time. I started passing runners early on, and was passed by no one after the turnaround. As I expected, that last long climb seemed to take forever, but I put my head down and ran as much of it as I could, power hiking the steeper sections and keeping myself motivated by picking off runners ahead of me (of course offering encouragement as I passed them, though ;). I almost hugged the aid station volunteer when I saw her, because I knew that meant that there was only 5 k to go, and it was all downhill. At this point I assumed that I was going to finish in 6th, which I was very happy with, but I soon rounded a corner at top speed and almost barrelled into the 5th place woman. I yelled "great work!" as I ran by, and just kept bounding down the hill, scared to look back to find out she was giving chase. She was a strong runner, and the knowledge that she was behind me motivated me to push hard right until I saw the rustic wooden finish arch. I crossed the line in an awkward little leap of happiness in 5h51, smashing my 6 hour goal and actually running a slight negative split (my second half was just over a minute faster than my first half). I high-fived race director Jeremy, he passed me my Tillamook 50k beer mug, and I collapsed, elated, into Brendan's arms. What a day!

It's now 3 days later, and I'm recovering very well, while still riding the runner's high. It was so much fun to do the race as part of a vacation; a much-needed one after an extremely busy 8 months of work. I'm thrilled to know that all that training I did over the winter, despite perhaps not giving me the result I wanted at Chuckanut, culminated in a near perfect race experience for me at Tillamook. Now for some rest and recovery before picking up the training again for my A-race of the year, the Squamish 50k in August. And yes obviously, I will continue to drink pinot noir.


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