I knew lots of people doing this race as a relay or an ultra and was thinking about running it myself for a couple months. I figured it would be a last minute decision like Defiance and Steilacoom last year so I wasn’t really stressing over it or training very hard for it. Then about a month ago I injured my calf running a 5k and the first thought that went through my head was “I’ll never be able to run 50 miles like this”. Sadly, that was when I realized that I really wanted to do this race and now I wasn’t sure I could. I stayed optimistic and took a few days off and limited my mileage for a week or so. Then Kelli announced that the Stephensons were coming to Washington to run the R2R. All it took after that was one little run with no pain and I convinced myself that I could do this thing and at least finish even if it wasn’t very fast. So for the next few weeks I ran off and on trying to balance letting my calf recover and maintaining some level of fitness.
Kym and I met Scott and Kelli Friday morning at Point Defiance for a healthy breakfast in the park (we brought cappuccino crunch donuts from Lakewood House of Donuts) and then drove out to Fleet Feet for early race packet pick-up. From there we decided to do a little sight-seeing that included some fish throwing at Pikes Place Market, a visit to the Gum Wall, the Freemont Troll and lunch at Serious Pie where the seed was planted for Vegas Ragnar! We ended up spending the whole day together and finished with Dinner at Joseppi’s. It was a fantastic day, and totally made up for all the pain I was about to suffer through on Saturday.
We met again at the bus in the Lobster Shop parking lot Saturday morning for the long ride to Mount Rainier for our 7:00am start. Our bus driver had no idea where the starting area was and intended to drive us to Paradise on the wrong side of the mountain. Luckily a very outspoken runner sitting behind us had done this before and helped navigate the bus. The runners on the next bus for the 8:00am start were not so lucky. They went all the way to paradise before anyone realized where they were and didn’t get to the starting area until after 10am. Those poor souls got an extra 2 hours in the heat!
All 3 of us had different goals for the day so we got some pics at the start line and then took off to do our own thing when the race started at 7am. I was totally fooled by the elevation profile for this course. I expected an easy 20 coming down the mountain followed by a slightly more challenging 30 miles of mostly flat paved course. What I got wasn’t even close.
The elevation loss in the first 20 was there, but not without a healthy portion of mud, roots, ruts, rocks and stinging nettles. I stepped on a root and tweaked my recently injured calf during the first section of trail around mile 5. It hurt bad enough within a few miles that I considered dropping out at the next aid station in Carbonado. I ended up running with Scott and another guy named Jeff from California for quite a while on the trails. Jeff gave me some Tylenol for my calf and I tried to favor it as much as possible until I got to the next aid station. Before I got there, even though it was still hurting bad, it didn't feel like it was getting any worse so I decided to just keep going at least until we got out of the trails. I was hoping it would feel better on the pavement. Most of the trails on the next leg were very scenic and some parts were even easy to run, but the uneven ground still made it hard to relax my calf. Between the scenery and the stinging nettles that I got all over my arm and leg trying to avoid a mudhole, I was able to shift my focus off my calf and find a decent rhythm for a while. Once I got back on pavement the pain was a little more tolerable and I was excited to be almost at South Prairie. At the South Prairie stop I sat down for a few minutes, changed my muddy shoes and socks, grabbed a bite to eat and refilled my water bottle. Kym was right there making sure I had everything I needed and then some. I was happy to see her and to know that most of the course would be smooth from here on out, or so I thought. Kym also told me that Kelli was having a very bad day and had decided to drop out and join the support crew for Scott and me. That was sad news, but at least she was safe and uninjured.
The next 15 miles were pretty much what I expected on the Foothills Trail; flat and hot with very little shade and the heat really took its toll. I have to admit this is a very nice paved rail trail that runs along a river and over some old bridges. On any other day it would have been a very nice place to be running. Today I was too hot, my calf was still throbbing, my quads were getting sore and my stomach was so upset that I stopped eating because I was sure I'd just throw up. Looking back, I think this sounds like the first signs of heatstroke.
Miles 35-40 had some more trails, but most were along a shady bike path next to the Puyallup River. This is where my quads and my good calf joined the party and started cramping up. I tried my best to drink more and stay hydrated, but my stomach was still queezy. I didn't want to risk drinking too much and throwing up what liquid I had in me. Definitely not thinking clearly at this point. I jogged very slowly through this section and tried to enjoy the shady break.
Miles 40-44 were along the other side of the Puyallup River between the water and Levee Road on a sandy service road lined with thick bushes on one side and 45 degree angle paved hillside on the other. I’ve driven by this section on Levee Road a thousand times over the years and had no idea just how close to hell it was. There was no escaping this evil, barren, beachy, sand trap. It was scorching hot with no shade or even a breeze to cool me off. Every time I tried to run the ground would give way just enough when I pushed off to cause both calves to cramp up so badly I would lose my balance. If I was lucky enough to find a few solid steps where there was a little grass binding the sand together it never lasted long enough to actually run. The cramps were so intense that walking was even a challenge and I had to walk almost every inch of this pit. There was an aid station down there and the volunteer said to me “don’t worry, it’s only about 1000 more feet and you’ll be back up on the road”. It was still over a mile from there... I guess false hope was better than none at all.
At mile 44 when I got back to the paved road, Preston was waiting for me on the shoulder with sport drinks and a cold towel. What a life saver! I think I was really getting sick from the heat by now. Preston kept me company all the way to Downtown Tacoma in spite of my less than sunny disposition, encouraging me to run as much as I could. My legs were so sore that even walking hurt so bad that I couldn't or wouldn't talk much at all. I really appreciated the company and was sad to see him go after the last aid station. On the bright side, I got a nice little boost from the fresh watermelon I inhaled at that last aid station not to mention all the friendly faces I saw there. What an amazing crew!
I was on my own for the last couple miles down Ruston Way. By now I didn't really care how much it hurt or how slow I was going, I was going to do this even if I had to crawl over the finish line! I was mostly walking and nearly all of my goals for the day had already slipped away, but my family was still there waiting for me at the end and I wasn't going to disappoint them by giving up. I kept moving forward until I could see the last bell tower. I did my best to run/shuffle through the finish chute and was greeted by my wife, daughter, 2 grandkids, and lots of friends. Looking back at the Mountain from the finish area was totally surreal. Maybe that had something to do with my condition or maybe it was just a long freaking way to go on foot.
I have nothing but respect for the guys that think this is fun, but ultra-running is definitely not for me. I’m just thankful I was able to finish in spite of how far over my head I was. I will probably volunteer for this race next year and I might even think about a relay team someday after the memories fade a little.
I think Kelli summed it up best saying "It was like the nightmare you have before an ultra" :)