The McKenzie River 50K is usually a pretty easy run, at least as far as thirty-one mile trail races go. Yes, there are a few miles of “technical” rocky trail where you have to pay attention to every footstep. And, yes, there is a bit of climb in the first few miles. But most of the last two-thirds is downhill and you cruise to the finish on miles of soft, gently downhill trail. Usually.
This year, the Shadow Creek forest fire changed all that, closing the upper portions of the route and forcing the organizers to stay away from the ranger station that normally serves as the finish area. The race organizers did a great job coming up with a workable plan at the last moment, and communicating the changes with the runners. The new route was basically an out-and-back, down the river and then back up. There was also a separate 2.5 mile out-and-back at the very start, along the waterfall trail just upstream of Carmen Reservoir.
With the changes, here is what the elevation profile of the course looked like. (Elevation is in feet.)
Hard-core trail runners are looking at this and chuckling a bit — a thousand feet of climb over the last fourteen miles: big deal. Compared to the normal course for this race, though, this was a big change in the “harder” direction. I’d wanted to break five hours but with the new course I knew that would be unlikely.
Now, did I mention that the race turned out to be on the hottest day of the year? And that the whole area was a little smoky from those forest fires? Not that I’m making excuses. At least the bees (or wasps, or whatever they are) along the course decided to ignore me again. A lot of people do get stung every year and 2011 didn’t seem like it was an exception. (So much for my theory that the smoke would calm down the bees :-)
I don’t mean to be negative though. This is a beautiful, gorgeous, incredible trail and it was great just to be out there running it. I love this race.
We had no problems getting to the 7:30 start from our motel room 25 miles away. It wasn’t hot yet — probably in the mid 50s — but it was the first time I can remember not actually getting cold at one of these early-morning race starts. Earlier, I had a cup of coffee in the motel room, and that helped gear up my digestive system to properly do what it was supposed to pre-race, if you get my meaning.
I went a bit faster off the starting line than I usually would, because I didn’t want to get caught too far back when we reached the tight single-track trail a few hundred meters farther along. Of course, this meant I was up with people who were probably in better shape than me, and the first uphill mile proved challenging. I felt like I was having trouble getting enough air, and no doubt I was — probably not because anything was wrong, just because I was running hard to keep my place in line.
Fitness-wise, I was a mixed bag coming into the race. My weekly mileage and long runs had been adequate but nothing spectacular. My taper was too long. I had tweaked my back doing nothing at all on Wednesday, and that still bothered me a bit. My left foot hurt.
After a bit more than a mile of uphills and steps along the spectacular waterfall section of the McKenzie headwaters, we crossed a little bridge to the north/east side of the river and headed back downhill through the first tricky steep section. I had no problem keeping up with the people around me here. I enjoyed all the downhills, including the rocky, volcanic boulder strewn “cheese grater” sections. I got through the race without any falls, and only twisted my ankle once, which is still one time to many, but is a lot better than I did last year.
Soon, we passed a little water-only aid station and could look down the hill through the trees to our left and see where we started. From here on out it was an out-and-back course, and every nice downhill plunge plagued me with thoughts of having to run back up it so many miles later.
Sweetie was going to see me at the aid stations again this year, and this time we decided that as long as she was “crewing” me, she should really crew me. With that in mind, we brought two handheld water bottles, so we could swap out. We also brought a cooler, which we filled with ice that morning at the motel, so that when we did swap out, I’d be getting ice water. Without even having discussed it, Sweetie started putting gels and pretzels into the handle pockets on the water bottles, which cut my aid station stopped time to literally zero seconds. The trickiest part of getting through the aid stations was waving off the official volunteers who wanted to take my bottle to refill it. They were doing exactly what they should — great volunteers.
After five or ten miles, I stopped noticing my aching back, which was good. My foot, though, stayed painful through the entire run. It never became a sharp pain, though, and after a while it stopped getting worse, so it wasn’t a major concern.
Predictably, I ran strongly for about 25 miles, then we hit the technical section below the famous Blue Pool, this time in the uphill direction. Soon, I was sucking wind. My legs felt OK but my heart rate was too high and I was breathing too hard. The heat probably was having some effect on me too, but it was hard to tell while running — I just felt bad.
The aid stations that had seemed so close together on the way down now seemed about three times further apart on the way up. They said it was five miles to the finish after the last one; it took forever. I started walking a lot. I wondered why I did this to myself. Eventually I made it.
Official results: 5:09:48 (Which is an average pace of 9:58/mile, if the course was an accurate 50K). 37th out of 151 finishers.