Yakima Skyline 50k
This past Saturday marked my fifth time completing an ultra. Three prior distances being 50ks (2 self supported), and one of them a 50 mile event. In terms of elevation, the SOB 50 miler had the most with about 7300 feet of ascent and descent over the course; the Yakima Skyline 50k boasts roughly 9500 feet of ascent and descent. Going into the event I had no concept of what that much climbing and downhilling would or could feel like, especially over such a relatively short distance. I had never even racked up that much climbing in a month of training, let alone a day. Yakima is even boasted as great training race for the Hardrock 100.
Another first for this event is actually getting to toe the line with someone else I know. My friend Shalini, whom I logged plenty of trail miles with back in St. Louis, decided to fly out and use the race as a training run for Western States in June. It had also been almost a year to the day since we had last hung out, so it would be a great shared memory and a way to reconnect after making the move out to Oregon.
The morning of the event arrived after an uncharacteristically poor nights sleep for me. I even slept better even before my first 50 miler. We camped out the night before that though, and this time we stayed in a hotel room. I’m sure pre-race nerves played a part as well. This was the longest distance I had run, but it was definitely the most difficult course. The temp was a cool 34 degrees, but the high was expected to reach well into the 70s. If there are two factors I’m weak at it’s climbing and running in the heat. I sweat so much that I was even nicknamed “Puddles” by my running family back in IL. I had done my best to train for sustained climbs and downhilling, but being only April in the cool and damp Northwest, I hadn’t exactly given myself any opportunities to acclimate to running in the warmer temps that the high desert of Central Washington would offer. Oh, and all of the trails I’ve been running on have these things we call trees, providing lots of shade from the sun. There would be none of that out here. Totally exposed.
I had never been to a Rainshadow event before, but I had always heard good things. When we pulled in, the very first person we were greeted by was none other than the race director himself. James obviously takes pride in his events and the people that choose to participate in them. Driving along to park I noticed we were behind a vehicle with British Columbia plates, a lot of running sticker, and the words “Barkley” and “Good Luck” finger-written in dust. Gary Robbins? Nah, couldn’t be. Yup, it was. He was there supporting his wife for her return to ultrarunning since their child was born. My wife always comes along to support me, and I hope someday that I get to return the favor when she runs her first ultra. After a friendly exchange with Gary it was time to get checked in, and get to the start line where there would be another surprise, Gunhild Swanson!!! Talk about the embodiment of inspiration. 71 and still living life to the fullest. After a wonderful conversation with Gunhild, James Varner gave us a parting announcement to watch out for rattlesnakes, and then to the sound of cheers and cowbells, roughly 200 runners headed out to tackle the Yakima Skyline Rim trail.
We got maybe 1/2-3/4 of a mile of flat to let people stretch their legs and fall into their places before hitting the single track and the first climb of about 2500 feet over 2 miles. Going into the race I had two different strategies in mind. Be really conservative for the first half for, hopefully, a strong trip back, or take advantage of the cold temps while they lasted and push early since the heat was going to indefinitely slow me down. I hadn’t decided on which tactic I was going to use until that first climb. Most of the surrounding runners seemed content with whatever pace was being set, but I wasn’t patient enough to stay in a conga line for the next 2 miles so I started chipping away at the first of the 4 significant climbs of the day, passing clusters of power hikers along the way until I finally made it to the top when things became runnable again. The first aid station was about 5.5 miles in and water only. I was running with a hydration vest so I didn’t even need to stop. Just called off my number as I passed through and kept going on towards about 3 miles of steep downhill. So steep that my feet almost slid out from under me just as I was getting to the bottom where race photographers were cleverly waiting for others to do that all day long. They haven’t posted the photos yet, but I’m sure they got a good one there. Not long after was the 8 mile aid station, a fully stocked one this time. This aid station is so remote that the volunteers are brought in by raft. I only stayed long enough to check in my bib number and then I was back off. One of the requirements of the race is that you carry at least 40oz of water on you since it is so warm and remote so I didn’t plan on stopping until the 15.5 mile turn around, when my 2 liter bladder should be running fairly low. During my 50 miler I practically ignored most of the nutrition that I brought with my in favor of aid station fare, but this time I was sticking to the nutrition I brought with me. I was alternating between Gus, Stinger Waffles, and Picky Bars every 45 minutes depending on how much solid food I thought my stomach wanted. I also had Tailwind in my bladder for electrolytes and a steady trickle of calories. After leaving the aid station there was a pretty good flat stretch of canyon that gave me a chance to stretch things out a bit before arriving at the second major climb. I was still feeling good so I took the opportunity to pass as many people as I could power hiking in the hopes that it wouldn’t come back to royally bite me in the ass later. This climb seemed to go by quicker than the first in my mind, and then it was another long downhill to the halfway point. This downhill was far more technical. Softball sized rocks littered the trail that felt more like I was following a narrow stream bed. Around mile 14 I was moving along at a pretty good pace when all of a sudden I was flying face first downhill. I either clipped the edge of the trail with my shoe and then got tripped up, or clipped a large rock? I’m not really sure, but I was going down. Thankfully, I managed to react well enough roll into the fall the best I could, popping back up with only a bruised left palm, and a scraped right leg and elbow. I walked a few steps to make sure everything was in working order, and then it was back to business. There was a runner making his return climb maybe 30 feet ahead of me so enveloped in the task at hand that he didn’t even notice me diving head first on the trail. Soon after, I was pulling into another full aid station at the turn around about 3.5 hours into the race. One aid station worker remarked at how salt washed my face was, and another asked if I wanted to sit down. “Beware the chair,” thanks but no thanks. I pulled my bladder out to have it refilled and discovered that I had only drank about half of my fluids. I should have been close to empty by now. Note to self, start drinking more. I made it a point to drink so straight water at this aid station, and also eat some watermelon and grapes. Anything that had its own moisture content. The volunteers were fantastic. So good, that when I got my bladder back all the air bubbles were already taken out so it wouldn’t slosh. It’s the little things in life, really. I thanked everyone for being out there and then headed back out for the return trip.
This 3rd climb felt the easiest in terms of steepness, and even had some runnable patches to break things up a bit. It was getting close to midday at this point though so things were really starting to heat up with the overhead sun. I made it a point to hydrate more often, and took an S-Cap to hopefully play catchup on my electrolytes. A ways up the climb I ran into Shalini making her way down, and a bit after that I ran into Gunhild still smiling and plugging along. Neither of them would have to worry about the first cutoff, but but runners too much further behind were going to have to worry about getting pulled from the course at the turn around. Once I crested the 3rd climb and started the descent I could feel that the breeze had now become hot and dry. The lower I got the less breeze there was, and eventually I was back in the flat canyon that was so nice to run earlier, but now it felt like an oven. At one stream crossing I even stopped to soak my hat, and splash water on my face and the back of my neck. I could see the trail running out, and what lay before me was the long, windy dirt road that lead up the start of final climb with struggling runners littering the ascent. Thankfully, there was one more full aid station before I had to tackle it. I drank some more clean water, and even grabbed a handful of grapes to eat as I power hiked. I wasn’t going anywhere fast so I might as well have something refreshing to snack on to take my mind off of things right? The final climb was the worst. All in all it was about 5 miles from the bottom to the top. There were sections of this climb so steep that the only way you could move forward was on your tip-toes. It was brutal, relentless, and slow going. The heat started to take it’s toll, and I could feel my stomach becoming slightly unsettled. You could also see which runners were having a better day as some eventually caught up and passed, or the ones that had been in the distance eventually pulled further. I eventually made it to the final water only aid station and poured more cold water over my head than went in my mouth. I grabbed some ginger ale to settle the stomach too. There was a bit of a runnable stretch before resuming the steep climbing so I took advantage of it, but was eventually back to power hiking. I only experienced one episode of severe cramping the entire day, and that was surprising considering how much I’ve dealt with cramping at both Mary’s Peak, and at the SOB 50but during one stretch of climbing, my hamstrings just locked up. I tried standing up straight and that only made things worse. I kind of found a perfect squat angle where the pain was minimal. After about 30 seconds standing like that they eventually released, and I was able to start hiking again, and not long after that there was a runnable stretch, and even a slight downhill before the summit of the final climb and the journey into sweet glorious downhilling to the finish line would begin!!!! Scratch that. False summit. More climbing. And this is about the point where I discover that I’ve been drinking quite a bit more and suck the last of the liquid out of my bladder. I went ahead and shot one final Gu since I new that this would be the most fluid I’d have in my stomach to process it, and hoped it would be enough to keep me strong until the finish. I only had about 5 miles to go, and almost 3ish of it was downhill. After hitting the actual summit I was very excited to know it was literally all down hill from here. My legs were far from fresh, but I was able to sustain a pretty consistent downhill pace the entire way down. I was still cautious to do so in a controlled manner because the last thing I needed was to fall again because I tripped up, or worse, cramped mid stride. 30 minutes of downhill running after everything was far from easy, but it felt a hell of a lot better than climbing. This descent took you back to the river valley as well, so the breeze was cool again, and temperatures dropped a little the further you went. Eventually things flattened out for the final flat stretch to the finish. It seemed like an eternity from the trail head to the suspension bridge and back to the campground parking lots though. I even got passed along the way, but while I was running, I’m pretty sure my legs didn’t have anything in reserve to make chase. I finally rounded the corner to the final stretch. Gary Robbins was walking the opposite direction and greeted me with a smile, some encouraging words, and a high five. A tenth of a mile later I was across the finish with a greeting and high five from James Varner. El Fin. No more climbing, and no more running. Time to the enjoy the other things Rainshadow was known for besides beautiful and challenging courses, beer, fresh brick oven pizza, and live music.
My finish time was 7:57:03, which put me 68th out of the 123 that finished. Ultra Signup projected my finish time would be roughly 8:10:00 so I wanted to try and beat that, and I really wanted to come in under 8 hours. It wasn’t much under, but I’ll take it. The course was beautiful and rugged, and easily the most challenging terrain I’d run on. Amazing things happen when you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. I recommend doing it regularly.