Sun Mountain 50 Miler – or We’ll Make it I Swear … Livin’ on a Prayer

A 50 mile ultra that I was way undertrained for but was way more fun than I expected

Events, Featured, Trip Report
Est. Reading Time: 14 minutes

Go and grab your favorite beverage, put your feet up, and relax while I tell you a little story.

A little background

It all began a couple years ago when I started running. My friend, Katie, had made it a goal to complete a 5K a month for a year with the topper being a 1/2 marathon in the fall. Being the good people we are, a few of us decided to join her on her quest as support. I figured “what the hell, I can roll out of bed and throw down 3.1 miles easy peasy” and that’s what I did. We ran a bunch of fun 5Ks and had a great time!

That September, I ran my first 1/2 marathon – the Chelan Shore-to-Shore Half. It was hot and long and I distinctly remember crossing the finish line a hair over 2 hours and thinking “Why in the hell would anyone want to turn around and basically run back to the start?!”

But we had finished our goal and I moved on, never to think about running anything longer than a 5K again.

And then I turned 40.

With that came a new goal – completing my summiting of all of Washington’s volcanos. I used running as part of my cardio training and found I was actually enjoying it. Soon, 5Ks were warm ups and 5 miles wasn’t unheard of. Hell, I threw in a few 8 and 10 milers as well!

I swore I would never run another marathon or any race in Seattle again

By the time fall 2017 rolled around, I had successfully snagged the summits of the 5 major volcanos and had run a few half-marathons.

So of course I signed up for the Seattle Marathon. I figured I had been running enough that I could pull a sub 4-hour race based off my half times.

And I did. And I swore I would never run another marathon or any race in Seattle again.

Apparently I love to break promises to myself because I decided to sign up for a 50K in 2018. The pragmatist in me recognized I should actually train for this so I enlisted the help of a coach – thanks Bri Graves for helping me get ready! – and set off on a robust run plan. I left the pavement more and found my groove on the trails and wondered why I hadn’t been trail running my entire life.

Soon, my mindset changed and 10 miles was short, I’d regularly run half-marathon distances just because, and 20-24 trail miles were a great adventure. And I finished my first 50K (there’s more to the story here but that’s for another time).

And then I trashed my hamstrings. I decided to run the 2018 Seattle Marathon (see: broken promises to self) just to see how all my 50K training would translate to the road, got a bit overzealous on my speed work, and my hammies revolted. Bastards. I went and saw a PT, took some time off for rehab and wondered if I was going to run Seattle. Ultimately, my PT gave me the “Well, I’m not going to tell you not to run so …”, and run I did. I somehow pushed thru and was able to beat my first marathon time by 35 minutes.

I celebrated by getting lazy. Really lazy. I stopped running long distances. The weather turned. I had all the excuses. I think I was just burnt out on training.

2019 – A new year

I still wasn’t running with regularity. I’d drop a 5 miler here and there but my heart wasn’t really into it. My buddy Tony, on the other hand, was kicking ass as he was training for his first 50 miler – the Sun Mountain 50M. I laughed and thought “Of course you are, you’re a beast!” He finally got me chatting during a momentary lapse of sanity and said, “man, you should totally do this race. It’s going to be great!”

Of course I signed up right then and immediately wondered why I would be ok throwing away $150 on a race I wasn’t actually going to do.

I immediately wondered why I would be ok throwing away $150 on a race I wasn’t actually going to do.

I’d like to say I got back into my 50K training routine, but I didn’t. I think I was averaging maybe 25-35 miles a week at this point. I had other things I needed to do! I did manage to pull off a 17 mile long run that I was not happy with; it wasn’t even a good run – mostly pavement and much harder than it should have been. So lazy.

Nevertheless, race day got closer. Maybe I could pull this off. I looked at the cut-off times. 14 hours to go 50 miles? I can fast hike that pace (HA!). This should totally be doable, I’ll just walk (HA!). A lot! I had no aspirations of setting any time goals and decided I would do whatever I could to just cross the finish line.

May 11th, Race Day!

I awoke in a cold sweat, the sheets on my hard hotel bed soaked with all my precious pre-hydration

Dawn came early on race day. 1:30 am to be exact. I awoke in a cold sweat, the sheets on my hard hotel bed soaked with all my precious pre-hydration. I fell back into an uneasy slumber, riddled with tweaky dreams of oversleeping and missing the race start.

My alarm ended the suffering at 4:30 am. I got up, crammed some oatmeal and peanut butter into my face, made some last minute changes to my drop bag and headed out the door.

Too much gear. This got trimmed down right before I head out the door.

The race began at 6 am which allowed all of us participants to witness an immaculate sunrise in the Methow. Temperatures were slated to get into the 80s – something no one was thrilled about.

Tony and I set off jogging mid-pack, chatting with those around us, and excited for what lay ahead. I knew our run together would be short-lived as he was aiming for a much faster pace than I and I was totally ok with that.

Shortly after the start, we all began the climb up Patterson Mountain. Everyone was in great spirits and excited for the day. Bunching up into single file was convenient as it helped prevent a spicy start to the race. I wasn’t going to complain at all about the traffic.

About half-way up the climb, I realized I had made a slight error. I forgot to pee. My body didn’t forget and began to let me know of my oversight with a constant pressure in my lower abdomen. There were too many people around and not enough cover for me to duck off trail for a quick talk with nature so I held it.

After cresting the summit of Patterson, the trail began a nice fun descent. I was chatting with Tony and a woman running in front of him for a while, and it was great hearing about her races (I cannot remember her name unfortunately). Between the conversation and bounding down the trail, my need for urination steadily became more urgent. Every step was “Bladder”. “Bladder bladder bladder bladder bladder … ” Oh my god, where is a tree?!

The trail eventually ducked into a wooded section at about 5.5 miles and I finally got to pull off to talk to a tree. It was glorious. That was also the last time I saw Tony, his pack bounding down the trail as I re-anchored my floating teeth.

We had gone off course.

Upon returning to the trail, I fell in behind a pack of runners with a renewed spring in my step. I zoned out a bit and, as the lead runner of our little traffic pod veered off to the right at a junction, the group of us followed suit like ducklings. The trail started descending rapidly and I began to suspect we may not be heading the right way. I pulled out my phone to check the GPS route and sure enough, we had gone off course. I alerted everyone and we all turned around to trudge back up the slope. It was an easy mistake to make – there were pink ribbons marking the spur we took. The error was that there weren’t pink and yellow ribbons. Whoops! I pulled down the pink blazing on my way back to the main trail to prevent anyone else behind us making the same mistake. What’s an extra 1/3 mile when you’re planning on 50?

The pack began climbing back up toward the Sun Mountain Lodge, the sun shining down upon us as we made the ascent. I hit the first aid station at 6.6 miles and, not in need of aid, kept moving through.

The course continued on the Kraule trail and, as I was taking in the gorgeous view, I rounded a corner and was nearly wiped off the trail by an unexpected impact. There was a bit of foliage hanging into the path as nature is wont to do, however it was hiding a nasty surprise. Now, I’m no unstoppable force, but that sure as hell was an immovable object and I took the full force of the impact in my left bicep. I let out a loud “WTF” and then shook it off and continued on. I wasn’t the only person to come into contact with that snag, and I think I faired better than most who did. I would later find during a sunscreen reapplication that I acquired a wicked bruise. Cool!

I found myself meandering through the woods as the course switched between single track and dirt road. I was able to run along and chat with my fellow (as I like to put it) crazy muthaf**kers. One thing I do enjoy about running longer distances is it’s a lower intensity effort and I’m able to hold conversations. I ran a bit with a gal named Kelsey who was also attempting her first 50 miler – I found that there were a lot of us doing this for the first time. We chatted a bit about shoes and trail running and the Methow. At mile 11.5 (ish, I’m not sure where my Strava started adding miles but I know it ended up being off) I pulled into the Chickadee Aid Station.

At Chickadee, I downed a 1/2L flask of Nuun and then refilled it and stuffed it into my vest. My 1.5L hydrobladder wasn’t quite empty and it was only 7 miles to the next aid station so I opted not to bother refilling it. I grabbed a PB&J and started off up the road. I cycled between walking and jogging along the road and just enjoyed being out on an adventure.

Eventually we peeled off the road and entered some single track mountain bike trails. This was such a fun section for me. I love technical downhill running and I couldn’t contain my glee as I opened up my stride. I bounced down the trail, throwing my arms wide like a plane as I flew around the banked corners and jumped berms and boulders. I’m pretty sure at one point I shouted, “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” like a little kid. I passed a lot of runners on this section knowing full well they would regain their positions in front of me on the next climb. Totally didn’t care, I was having a blast!

I did a lot of smiling

At 18.5 miles, I pulled into the Thompson Aid Station to hoots from the volunteers which brought a smile to my face. I did a lot of smiling. Since I wasn’t super concerned with time at this point, I dilly-dallied for about 10 minutes while munching on a couple PB&Js before deciding to head down the road.

From Thompson, the route followed a downhill section of dirt road. I ran along with a couple of gentlemen who were talking about that damn snag earlier in the race. Both of them had smashed body parts into it as well, and one of the guys had smacked his arm pretty bad. I wonder how many runners hit that thing …

For a brief moment, the world shrank down to just me and this herd of deer bounding down the mountainside in a golden sea of balsam root

Around mile 26 (22? 24? 20? Technology! 🤬), I was on single track and popped out of a woodsy section onto a downhill portion of hillside. The flowers were in full force and I once again had to open it up. I took off down the hill and heard a crashing to my left. A herd of mule deer decided they wanted to join the fun and sprang up out of nowhere. For a brief moment, the world shrank down to just me and this herd of deer bounding down the mountainside in a golden sea of balsam root. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have been privy to and that alone was well worth the price of admission. The deer were gone as quickly as they appeared, bouncing lightly into the cover of the trees and leaving me to continue on my journey with a huge smile on my face.

I rolled into Meadowlark Aid Station at mile 25.8 (according to the race data, not my Strava) and got my first sight of the struggle of others. I quietly gulped down my flask of Nuun before refilling it and my hydrobladder for the next leg. I snagged a slice of watermelon – I normally am not a fan but holy hell was that good – and a couple pickles before saying goodbye to Meadowlark.

I walked along grateful to have reached the halfway mark of the race. I was feeling pretty good about time and, even though my legs had already started their angry protest, I was confident I would finish. A mile or so later, I was on the road to Elbow Coulee and my outlook had drastically changed. Nobody was around and I was on flat road. I wanted to run but my legs had escalated their silent protest into a full on riot. “Hell no, we won’t go! Hell no, we won’t go!” I wasn’t even at the 50K mark and I had fully boarded the Struggle Bus. I took solace in the fact I was only a mile or so from the Elbow Coulee Aid Station where I had some treats waiting for me in my drop bag.

I eyed it lasciviously like a sea-ravaged pirate eyes a bawdy, rum-filled port town

It was about this time that I looked up and saw a guy running toward me. And I saw he was wearing a bib. Damn. The race leader approached and we exchanged words of encouragement as we crossed paths. What a fucking inspiration! I laughed as I realized that guy had less than 4 miles to go to the finish and I still had about 20. I love the wide range of people who run ultras and I’ve made peace with never being one of the elites – it’s way more fun for me to watch them and follow their races.

Elbow Coulee Aid Station appeared in the distance and I eyed it lasciviously like a sea-ravaged pirate eyes a bawdy, rum-filled port town. I rolled in about 7 hours and 25 minutes since beginning this trek to more cheers and yells. Tony’s wife, Ting, was there and I chatted with her a bit as I took a break. Tony was about an hour ahead of me and doing well. I knew he was running on a broken toe but Ting assured me he was doing well. I spent about 25 minutes at Elbow Coulee and threw on a fresh pair of socks as a reward for getting that far. That was pure heaven – I love new socks and would wear a brand new pair every day if I could. I also had a 48oz Nalgene in my drop bag with a robust Nuun Sport mixture, half of which I proceded to inhale.

While sitting and putting myself together, a spectator nearby chatted me up. People are so friendly and encouraging and I was grateful for the conversation. I joked about how I was only 19.5 miles from the beer and he reached into his bag, pulled out an ice cold Coors and gave me a swig. I’m definitely more of a craft brew guy but that was a Top 5 Ever taste of beer.

I hit up the aid tent and refilled my Nuun flask and hydrobladder and grabbed a couple of cream cheese and bacon wraps before departing. The next section would be a 12 mile loop back to Elbow Coulee and held a 1000 foot climb at about mile 40. Because of this, I opted to grab my poles from my drop bag and bring them along.

Now I had two cows engaged in sexy-time fully in my path

The course from here traded shady woodland for open ranch country and the sun was out in full force. Runners were randomly crossing my path as they made their way back to Elbow as they finished the loop I was just embarking on. I envied their distance covered and knew it would be hours until I was back in that spot.

I wandered into a field of cows who cast sidelong glances at us as they lazily chewed their cud. At one point, a woman was running toward me while a cow stood next to the wagon track. Just then, another cow mounted the first, mooing with delight as it pushed the first cow into our paths. The woman had to dodge the aroused pair of bovine as I laughed. Now I had two cows engaged in sexy-time fully in my path and I had to decide which way to avoid them. I lucked out and they disengaged before I got to their location and was able to pass without incident. I did notice that the mounting cow was not a bull – it had udders. Hey, the heart wants what the heart wants!

The next 7 miles would lead me through rolling hills and grass country. I was walking a lot at this point and just taking it all in while ignoring the complaints from my legs. I was mostly in solitude as the field of runners had spread out quite a bit and, although I was definitely tired, I was in good spirits.

I caught up with another gal on the hill above Frost Lake and she had taken my seat on the Struggle Bus. I could tell before I reached her that she was having a rough go of it. I walked with her for a minute to make sure she was ok – she had run out of water and was looking for info on how far the next aid station was. I apologized since my distance tracking was totally off and I had literally no idea where we were on the course. I offered her some of my water, gave some words of encouragement, and then wandered ahead. I knew there were runners behind me who would be able to help if something happened.

Descending into the Frost Lake Aid Station, I was happy I had my poles. My quads began their long protest on that descent and I was able to alleviate my braking by leaning into my poles. I reached the aid station and quickly downed another flask of Nuun, refilled it and my hydrobladder once again, and joked with the runners and crew there for a minute. “We’re what, like halfway done now?” Some laughed. Some did not. I think they knew what was ahead. I did too.

By this point, I had actually began to look forward to uphill sections of the course; they were an excuse to walk, and walk slowly.

The much whispered about mile 40 climb up the ridge loomed in front of me and I buckled down and began the ascent. It was a pretty grueling climb on exhausted legs and I took it nice and slow. My mind was already repeating “You’ve come this far, you’ve only got 10 miles left. Get to the top and it’s all downhill from there. Shit.” By this point, I had actually began to look forward to uphill sections of the course; they were an excuse to walk, and walk slowly. Downhill portions were now exercises in pain management as the day’s earlier downhill sprints finally caught up. I’ll keep that in mind in the future.

Runners making the ascent were a mix of slow plodders, quick steppers, and sick vomiters. We were all tired, but I was determined to get to the top. And I finally did. What a view! Filled with elation, I harnessed that energy and once again, a smile crossed my face as I basked in the glory of the surrounding vista. I got into a rhythm with my poles and began the descent back down to Elbow Coulee.

I rolled into Elbow Coulee for the second time, this time only spending about 7 minutes to drop off my poles, slam my flask of Nuun and refill it. I didn’t bother refilling my hydrobladder again since the next leg was a short 2 mile out-and-back. Beer guy (I would later find his name was Scott, what a gem!) was there to say hello once again and we joked a bit before I scampered up the dusty Elbow Coulee Road. The road was relatively flat and I jogged slowly where I could. I got to the turnaround and began running/walking a bit with another guy, Justin, and we re-entered Elbow Coulee for the last time.

At this point, I could taste the finish line. We were only 4 miles away. 4 miles to the end. 4 miles to the elation of success. I barely paused at Elbow that time, just long enough to again slam my flask and refill it before jogging off. Justin caught up with me and we walk/jogged together for a bit.

I was in a euphoric state of mind with a goofy grin on my face as I used sheer will to fuel my run.

Even though I was exhausted and my legs had raised the white flag miles ago, I somehow felt a rush of energy pulse through me. Justin decided to walk it in the rest of the way so I bade him good luck and started running again.

And then I went fishing. The competitor in me woke up to say hi and I started to slowly reel in runners in front of me. I apologize to everyone I passed in those last miles; there really was no reason for it other than to satisfy that deep need of competition. I was in a euphoric state of mind with a goofy grin on my face as I used sheer will to fuel my run.

The trail skirted along Patterson Lake and I knew I only had a mile to go. I was in no danger of missing the 14 hour cut off time and, barring a catastrophic body explosion, I knew I would cross that finish line soon. The sounds of celebration floated lightly through the air as the sun lazily hung low in the western sky, casting shadows across the still surface of Patterson Lake. The music and yells bolstered my growing elation and I eventually rolled around a corner to see the finish. And then it was over.

I crossed the finish in a mere 12 hours and 45 minutes with a triumphant “Woooooooooooooo!” and smiled at everyone cheering. Such an awesome experience. I ran into Scott the Beer Guy again and chatted with him for a bit before wandering off to snag a beer and some pizza. Sitting for a bit, I watched others roll through the finish line, marking the end of their own journey and accomplishment and then looked around at everyone else who had just put themselves through the ups and downs of that run and thought to myself, “We’re all a little crazy down here.”

Big thanks to Rainshadow Running for putting on such a great event and to Nuun for helping with hydration. I’m proud to have been able to participate and finish that race. Now that I know I can go that long, I suppose I’ll have to try one for time!


One comment

  1. That was awesome Jason. Made me more appreciative, and loved, that you showed up for Mother’s Day.


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