My First Ultra—The Slippery Slope

Cronemiller Lake, near the start of the Mac 50K.

Running the McDonald Forest 50k, this past Saturday, taught me a lot.  About myself, the place I live, the forest, and about the people who are drawn to sign up for a 31-mile forest run.

In my “real” life, I’m an academic historian. I teach history of science and environmental history at Oregon State, and I write essays and books. It’s a fascinating job in which I get to help students debate subjects like the value of wilderness, the historical understandings of natural and human-built worlds, the pros and cons of scientific management, and the idea of an experimental forest next to a land grant university.

In my other real life, I run. I started running when we moved to Oregon, after some prodding from my wife to try out some new exercise regimen she’d heard of. That was five years and 35 pounds ago. It started with the Couch-to-5K running program, which had me gasping and wheezing from the first day of running sixty seconds straight (how do people sustain this, I wondered?). I can still remember the moment that I ran for thirty minutes straight, after that nine-week program.  It was one of the most transformative moments of my life. Seriously? You mean this is something that I can do?

I trained up from there — surprising myself by running our local half marathon, and then taking the plunge into the Portland marathon in 2011. Nothing is more shocking than realizing that you have a marathon in you.  Now I’ve done three.

After that first marathon, I discovered trail running.  I knew a couple of people who swore by the trails: my friend and fellow academic historian Bill Robbins, who has run these trails for many years, and Tia Gabalita, whom I’d first met because she sold her house to us (I remember seeing her running shoes outside the front door!).

They were right, of course.  Trails are fantastic.  The forest provides shade in the summer, and beauty all year round. I can run with my dog off-leash if I go somewhere far enough away from people.  And you can’t beat the summits, the occasional small wild animal, the bursts of sun, the satisfying penance of the long incline, and the glorious downhill freefall. The snow, occasionally. And the rain, the rain, the rain. It’s Oregon.

Because I run in the McDonald Forest, I had heard of the Mac 50k. Not only is it longer than a marathon, at 31 miles, it also has lots of hills, and more than a mile of elevation over the whole course. I dismissed it for a while as the province of people with an appetite for extremes. But then I thought, well… I have done a few marathons. And it is where I normally run. I only train three days a week but maybe if I get in some 20+ milers on the weekend…

If you’ve gotten this far, you probably recognize that there’s a double meaning in the title of this post, “the slippery slope.”

Let me cut to the chase. The Mac 50k is INSANE.

I realize that this is an impolite word, and that some will object to me using it. I mean no disrespect to those who have mental illness. I mention the word because I’m a historian and that’s an accurate depiction of one human being’s experience: I must have used the word “insane” about twenty-nine times during the run, out loud, directed at no one in particular, to describe the experience. I also found myself singing deliriously, alone in the woods, and at one point I realized I’d been chanting “potatoes potatoes potatoes potatoes potatoes” aloud all the way down to an aid station where I knew they would have… potatoes.

Quick side note: I never thought I’d say this but it must be said. A potato, dipped into a bowl of salt, is the food of the gods.

Let me back up, for those interested in a true after-action race report.

I planned to run conservatively. I’m usually pretty slow so I thought I’d finish at about 6:30. But anything after 26.2 miles was going to be a brave new world, so I really had no idea. I wanted to save something for the end. And I’m glad I did.

photoWe all started at Peavy Arboretum, and there is this great cabin there that the forestry club built a long time ago, when it was cool to talk about the connections between democracy and forestry. Yes, even at 7am on race day, my historians’ brain appreciated the instructions about appropriate cabin use, courtesy of forestry students circa 1950.

We all ran together for a while, and I surprised myself by not listening to my earbuds. In fact, I had an audiobook lined up for the full event, but I never really wanted it. It’s funny how some 6 milers are tough without music, and then you can go for an ultra in total silence.

Most of the first 8 miles was familiar to me… Peavy, the Powderhouse trail (where most of the people power-hiked faster than they could run, including me, though I wasn’t tired…. again, being conservative). Then we were on to familiar territory, and all still fresh: part of the Nettleton loop, the Old Growth Trail (mossy, beautiful, Tolkienesque), New Growth (creepy and dark at times), and then — boom — we were at the first aid station at the Lewisberg Saddle.

That’s where I learned about the potatoes. The happy potatoes. They were good but I didn’t dip them in salt. I learned that one later.

I did realize at that point that my conservative running strategy had me quite a bit behind most of the runners.  But that was ok.  I could make up for it, as I usually did when I hit my stride.

The problem with the Mac 50k, after days of rain, is that you don’t get to hit your stride.  Ever.  But I didn’t know that yet.

After a quick run/hike up the Ridge Trail, it was basically a fun run down the Horse Trail into the network of paths near where I used to live by Chip Ross Park, where some years ago I first started running off of pavement.  In fact the path up to Dimple Hill on Dan’s trail was where I first really pushed myself a few years ago… so it was familiar territory.

At the highest point of the race, Dimple Hill, my drop bag was waiting for me.  I dumped my camelback and jacket and switched them out for a hand-held water bottle — a good move!  It felt like we were halfway done but really it was just 14 or so miles in.  I heard someone sputter, “We’re not even HALFWAY?” It had been a tough climb to the top.  The next mile was an easy downhill over the same road I usually run on, so it had all the comfort of being a known quantity.

Then, at the true halfway point, there was a sign taking us off the road onto a path that I’d tried in vain to find during my training runs.  But there it was — the Baker Creek trail.

That’s when I learned what trail running can be after three days of rain. The mud. I don’t use “LOL” or “OMG” very liberally in my professional life, but LOL OMG the mud.

I won’t try to describe it.  I’ve tried over the past several days to explain to friends and family what it was like, but I feel like they are just coming away with “yeah, it was muddy, that’s too bad.”  No.  You don’t understand.  Because it is incomprehensible.  I have no words.  I’ll just include a selection of phrases:

“Wow, I’m going to fall anytime now, just like that guy did.”  “Wow, she fell too.”  “I’m not really running, I’m just trying to find a foothold.”  “Is that straight up? How is it possible?”  “Grab a root and pull yourself up.”  “Hold on to a tree.”  “I’m sliding!”  “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”  “Keep it together!”  “Why am I stopped? Am I strategizing?” ” How am I supposed to climb up this trail, on all fours?”  “That’s a lot of water!” “How many Baker creeks are there, and why are we crossing them so many times?” “Just go for it, jump!”

These are all phrases that I said.  Mostly to myself.  Because by that time, I was usually either completely alone, or with the same freaked-out handful of runners that were periodically ahead of me or behind me the entire race.  We were focused on staying upright, not talking.  I stayed near a man whose few words hinted at a strange accent (Australia? Ireland?), lending him just the kind of on-the-fly authority I needed at that moment.  This guy.  He must know what he’s doing. He’s not even from here.

We emerged from the mud a few miles later, and I’ve never been so happy to see a rocky uphill road — which I ran, because holy crap I just wanted to RUN again rather than slide and totter.

Soon I found the entrance to Extendo trail, from which a bunch of people were emerging going the other direction, way farther along the Mac than I was.  They looked on me with that mix of pity and encouragement that I knew all too well.  They shouted that the aid station wasn’t too far from me.  I had irreparably fallen behind my target pace.  But no big deal — I was still upright!

Extendo’s downhill was easy, just pure-love running.  That’s when I started to chant “potato.”  At the aid station at the bottom, I confessed my fantasies for potato and salt to the volunteers.  They laughed nervously.

I don’t remember much of the leg of the Mac between the Extendo aid station (mile 20 or so) and the Lewisberg Saddle (26.4 — I remember the .4 because I thought, woo hoo I’m officially past marathon distance, which is 26.2).  That’s because it was mostly uphill and I zoned out.  I could have listened to music or my audiobook then, I thought.  But I didn’t.  Couldn’t be bothered to get it going.  I just went blank, I think.  Or maybe not.  I just don’t remember.  I was glad to be out of the mud, frankly, so I didn’t mind the climbs.  I reconnected with some people I’d seen before and chatted with them, but by that point in the run, we were all so spread out that mostly it was just putting one foot in front of the other.  Alpha trail was tough, but I forgot that it connects to the Ridge trail so I was pleasantly surprised to find I was closer to the Saddle aid station than I had realized.  So that was nice.

At the Saddle, a woman in front of me was having knee problems.  She dropped out at that point.  I wanted to call to her, “but we are so close!  it’s only five more miles!” but I knew better.

Fortunately (!) I did have something left in the tank.  This final five miles was hard, but it was only unknown territory in the psychological sense.  The course went mostly through my usual running route on the right-hand side of the Nettleton loop, though I usually hit it on much fresher legs!  The race organizers did stick in a couple of climbs off of the main road, you know, just to turn the knife a bit.

I had already blown my goal of 6:30, or even beating seven hours.  I was worried about the cutoff of 8 hours!  So I ran, and it did hurt but it was that “this is it!” kind of hurt, so I kept on.  I texted my wife around mile 28 to let her know I was 3 miles away.  I don’t want to sound sappy but at that point I was running to her.

I have to say something about the runner’s high.  I don’t know if I’ve ever truly felt it, except maybe twice.  I remember doing a 15k trail run once in this forest, and I had permagrin while running down the final stretch.  And that feeling came back to me during the Mac.  What a blessing to have a rush of endorphins on the final mile of a 31 mile trail run!  It was a downhill finish, and my speed picked up, and I was a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ — seriously, no exaggeration, like a person quite a bit off-kilter, making loud noises and barreling to the end.  I did not scream “I’m a professor in my day job” though.  I was happy to be an anonymous howler.  There was a bit more mud but it didn’t slow me down this time.  I was basically falling forward to the finish.

When I came down the “chute,” and they banged the gong for me, I have to say it was an emotional moment.  My wife and father-in-law were there, and there were many hugs and photos. It was amazing.

What they don’t tell you about a 50k is that it’s not like other runs.  It’s a journey.  Man, I was out there for over seven hours.  We were all over the landscape.  We took in gorgeous views and ascended high peaks, then slogged through miles of mud.  That’s not a run!  That’s an adventure, with other people who are on their own adventures, yet suddenly thrown together, after months of training.  It was just an extraordinary experience.  My father-in-law asked me if I thought it was better or worse than a road marathon.  All I can say is, apples and oranges.  You just can’t compare two different fruits.

I was extremely sore the next day (Mother’s Day), and was happy to run into some “Mac friends” while out and about on Sunday and Monday, for some debriefing.  That’s the benefit of living in a small community.  My two-hour lecture yesterday was tough to get through, but I think my legs are recovering.   I can scratch this off the bucket list.  … Just as soon as I finish looking up other 50Ks in my area.

2 responses to “My First Ultra—The Slippery Slope”

  1. Jacob,
    Wonderful post! Your running journey parallels my and my sister’s journy almost exactly, though we started almost 4 years ago. This was our second Mac 50 and it was so different than last year! The course was different and the mud! Thank you for this! I was laughing so hard I was crying. I believe it is because you put into words what I have been trying to describe! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Shannon! I had fun writing it, and of course I had fun running it too. What I left out was that a friend texted me at mile 27 or so to ask “how’d it go?” Ha! Terrible timing. I saw it when I texted my wife at mile 28. He didn’t realize how cruel he was… but I managed to write “still in it”


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