My First Ultra – McKenzie River 50K Recap

An ultramarathoner, me? Get the fuck outta here!

That would have been my response  12 months ago if you said I would be able to run a 50K. I know some people don’t consider a 50k a “true” ultramarathon, and I understand the reasoning behind that, but I say screw that! It sure felt like an ultramarathon to me.

Going into the race I really wasn’t sure how my body and mind would hold up. It was the longest and most duration I have ever ran before. My training this fall had been hampered by my foot injury and various vacations and a lack of motivation at times. My longest training run was the week before; a 20 mile out and back on a fairly technical trail. I am thankful that trail was as hard as it was, it prepared me for the 50k both mentally and physically. It also provided me some practice with alternating between running and walking (something that was hard to get in the rhythm of).

Saturday started bright and early at 5AM. We had decided to drive to the start instead of getting a hotel or camping the night before. Once we dropped our son off at our friends at 5:45 AM (who else has awesome friends that would wake up that early to watch your kid!), my wife and I were off for the hour drive to Carmen Reservoir.

Arriving about 30 minutes before the start gave me plenty of time to check-in. After pinning the bib on and applying body glide in all the required areas, I walked with the fellow runners to the start. The RD drew a line in the sand, played a song on the PA system and said Go! The 180 or so runners were off.

I started DFL (Dead Fucking Last), which was fine by me. The one thing I didn’t want to do was start too fast then crash and burn.

Starting Area

Starting Area

1st Third

The initial mile or two consisted of mostly walking as the single track trail could only handle so many people at once. Two miles upriver brought you to Clear Lake (which is amazingly clear!). A gorgeous lake that didn’t have a ripple on the water. The trail around the lake was a mix of asphalt, lava rock and lots of tree roots. Several people fell as you had to really watch your step.

Clear Lake

Clear Lake

4 Miles in came the “bee gauntlet”. It’s a short section that is well known at this race for having lots of bees. You know you are approaching it because you can hear the runners ahead of you scream as they get stung. I ended up getting on right in the side. Unfortunately this is on an out and back section of the trail so you need to run it twice. The bees must have calmed by the time I came back through because no one got stung.

Sahalie Falls

Sahalie Falls

At the first aid station around mile 6, I hooked up with a few other runners that were all running a similar pace. It was nice to run with a small group, chit-chat and get to know each other. I think that is one of the attractions to an ultra compared to any other road race, the laid back atmosphere and friendliness among the runners.

Mile 11 brought us back to the start area with an aid station. I was feeling really good. I had a sip of coke, some pretzels and water and was off again.

2nd Third

After the 2nd aid station at mile 11, you begin the 20 mile downstream run to the finish. It’s almost all along the river, shaded with a few rolling hills. Overall it’s a net loss of about 1000 feet. I still hung with the pack until the third aid station (mile 16.7), at that point I think we just started running our own race.   At the third aid station I met up with my wife, ate some food, took in some fluids and caught my breath. I was starting to feel a little fatigued but overall felt strong. I started to shift my focus and goals to getting from one aid station to the next, that helped me focus on the smaller goals.

My own fan club! Thanks to Lisa, Glenn, Amy and Bonnie. (Photo by Lisa Smith)

My own fan club! Thanks to Lisa, Glenn, Amy and Bonnie. (Photo by Lisa Smith)

Miles 16 to 21 I don’t have any recollection of. I must have been in my happy place. I was definitely starting to feel tired and my left hip flexor was starting to bother me some. Mile 21 brought the fourth aid station, Both my wife and our friend Amy was there to cheer me on with her kids. That was a huge boost for me. I was mentally starting to tell myself that I couldn’t do the whole thing and I should tap out at the aid station. It was less than 4 miles between aid station 4 and 5. I knew I had at least 4 more miles in me. Fluids, food, kiss from my wife and was on my way.

3rd Third

The last third of any race (5k or ultra) is where the training and preparation will either carry or sink you. Right outside of the 4th aid station I tripped on a tree root. Luckily I was able to catch myself before I did a full faceplant, however, the save ended up doing something to my calves that made them cramp up on me. Any uphills from here on out had to be walked, every uphill would seize up my calves. As if they were punishing me, they would also both cramp up for no apparent reason without warning. I’m sure I made a few funny looking poses as I was trying not to fall over.

After mile 21 I also started to have some problems with becoming nauseous. I don’t know if it was what I ate, or drank or not enough fluids. All the aid stations were well stocked with a variety of items I had never consumed during a run (Potatoes, red vines, M&M’s, Oreos, Coke, Rice Krispy Treats, Pretzels, Hummus, Watermelon). The variety was great, but I had never trained for this, so I just ate a little bit of everything. That may have been my mistake, something I will need to work on for the future. I pretty much stuck to just water and a few shot blocks till the end after my stomach settled down.

Aid Station Food (Photo by Lisa Smith)

Aid Station Food (Photo by Lisa Smith)

The final aid station at Mile 25. I was unsure if I was going to continue or not. I was tired, not feeling great and moving at a pretty slow pace. My wife, Amy and another friend Glenn and his girlfriend were all there. Never underestimate was the power of some friendly faces and encouragement can do for your spirits. With 6 miles left to go, Glenn said it was “just a 10k”. I knew I would regret at least not trying to finish. I wasn’t injured, just tired. I decided to head out and give it a go, I could always walk out to the highway if it got that bad.

I won’t lie, the final 6 miles sucked. It was a lot of walking mixed with running, constantly looking at the garmin feeling like I had gone two miles only to realize its been a half mile. I was alternating positions with 3 other runners who were all encouraging each other to continue.

Wobbling to the finish (Photo by Lisa Smith)

Wobbling to the finish (Photo by Lisa Smith)

Right about the time I thought the finish should be coming; I kept hearing phantom cowbells and cheering, but no finish line..grrrrrr. The trail made one last turn towards the highway and I could finally hear the cowbells becoming louder and knew I was nearly finished.

The race director must have a cruel sense of humor, the last 100 feet requires you to run up a pretty steep incline (at least it felt steep to me). People were cheering me on and telling me to run it out, but my calves would only allow me a wobble up the hill. I crossed the finish line at the 6 hour and 25 minute mark. I WAS DONE!!!!

Tired but grateful finisher (Photo by Lisa Smith)

Tired but grateful finisher (Photo by Lisa Smith)

After catching my breath we drove down the road a few miles where there was hot food (Burritos) and showers.

Overall Race Impression

This was such a well organized race. This was the 26th year they have put it on. All the volunteers and people involved are supportive and will go out of your way to lend a hand. Would I run it again? I probably would, but I don’t see a ton of 50k’s in my future so I may opt to explore some different races just to get the variety. I picked Mckenzie to be my first because of the beauty and lack of elevation gain.

I enjoyed the more laid back atmosphere of the entire experience. The emphasis was on finishing and having a good time, not what your splits were or overall pace. This was also much easier on my body. It’s more miles and tiring, but you don’t have the “I got hit by a truck” feeling at the end. Recovery has been much easier compared to a hard effort in a half marathon or full marathon.

Thanks again to my wife, Jen (who watched our son), Amy, Glenn and Bonnie for the support!

Up next is the Portland Marathon on October 5th, then Silver Falls Half Marathon November 2nd, then I’m taking the rest of November off!!