04/20/2014 – Yakima Skyline Rim 50k – Yakima, Washington
What has 31 miles of distance, 9,500 vertical feet of elevation ascent, high fives, congratulations, and pizza and beer afterwards as a reward? That would not be me. Wait, what? What has 26.8 miles of distance, 8,450 vertical feet of elevation ascent, full body cramping, strangers and sweepers stopping to make sure you aren’t dead, an aided 2 hour rescue by truck, and a DNF? Oh right, now that would be me, other wise known to the Race Director and all the volunteers who helped get me off the mountain as Runner 411 or “did you see that guy who was laying on the ground in the fetal position?” or “I heard that runner was unconscious.”
That’s right. I DNF’d.
Destined to be a northwest classic, the race is a completely uncompromising, absolutely jaw dropping, quad busting 50k out and back scenic ridge run along the western hills, bank, and floodplain of the Yakima River Canyon. Two major climbs and descents on the out portion of the run will clue you in to pain you’re going to have to mentally and physically prepare for as you’re going to tackle those exact same “hills” on the back portion of the return trip.
For reference, here’s my version of the sourced and compiled 2014 Yakima Skyline Rim 50k race preview and the 2014 Yakima Skyline Rim 50k results – my name is nowhere near the top or the middle or the bottom. Nope, you won’t find my name anywhere on that results page. Why? Because I Did Not Finish. My first DNF and what a memorable one.
If you’re looking for the video, scroll all the way down to the bottom.
Second event of the year and 4 weeks removed from my last 50k, there’s only a little bit of training to be done. It’s mostly maintaining my base, although looking back on it now, maybe my base isn’t where it should be or maybe I really did need to train a bit more in between races. Essentially week 1 (the week after the first 50k) was a recovery week and probably a few too many missed training runs I was planning on doing. Week 2 was a bit more elevation and distance than I wanted to get and the week of was quite minimal with only one day of cross-training and a short easy family shake-out run. Never-the-less I went in feeling pretty decent about my training and mentally I was all there. And then the day of the race happened.
4:30am rolled around a little too soon, but the 4:31am alarm going off was enough to rouse me from bed. Pre-packed from the night before, I had only to spread some chocolate coconut peanut butter on my cheese bagel and lug my bags to the car. Yakima River Canyon is just south of Ellensburg, just north of Yakima, and about a 2 hour drive east from Seattle over the pass and to the sunny side of the state. Out the door by 4:50am meant a good hour of driving in the dark with the cool blue dawn haze slowly filling the color of everything up to Snoqualmie Pass punctuated by the pink glowing clouds parting for the imminent sunrise as we crested the pass signaling the start of what would be a beautiful sunny day on the eastside.
Rolling past the windfarm, their gigantic three blades slowly churning, the sky was the bluest of blues and I turned to the south entering the Yakima River Canyon with the full width of the river to the west of the ever enclosing canyon it had carved out many centuries before. The walls are steep, not vertical, but just steep enough to be menacing knowing that in a short hour we would be starting up the slightest of seams in the hillside and finding our way to the top of one of the ridges. The winding 15 minute drive through the canyon leads to the small Umtamum Recreation Area parking lot which is just large enough to accommodate most all the cars for all the runners and support.
Arriving on the early side of the check-in window must make it easier for everyone, runners and volunteers alike. Runners don’t have to wait in line as long and can use the extra time to get themselves ready and volunteers don’t have to deal with an onslaught of anxious runners trying to get their bibs. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Check-in was a breeze. One line this time meant not having to memorize my number for a second line. After telling the volunteers my name, they crossed me off the registration list and handed me my bib – number “411”. Picking four safety pins from the box I shuffled to the right and was handed my prepaid race shirt. It took me longer to walk to the check-in station than to actually check-in. (Not always the case.)
With 40 minute to spare, I walked back to my car and changed, put on my shoes, and checked, then double-checked to make sure I had everything I thought I’d need. Rain jacket – no. Gloves – no. Long sleeve shirt – no. (Although I probably should have taken this.) Plenty of fuel – yes. Camera, phone, car keys, license, and an extra zip-lock bag – yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
Four ‘hills’ is the race in a nutshell. Each hill is approximately a quarter of the race with well stocked aid stations appropriately located at the bottom of each one. Though these hills aren’t your everyday hills. The only way up is steep, direct, and punishing.
Everyone inches slightly forward to hear the brief pre-race briefing by James Varner, the Race Director. There’s the usual, “Be nice. Don’t litter. If you see litter, pick it up. Only 3 aid stations. Be sure to check in and out of each. Have fun.” And then there’s the not your usual, “Watch out for rattlesnakes. You might get ticks. If you’re using hiking poles, be mindful of where you stab then and watch out for others, we almost had a near death experience yesterday.” There’s a few laughs, an abbreviated countdown and then we’re off!
Mile 0 to 8.0
A super short not even a quarter mile spur to the end of the road before turning back allowed ever so slightly for runners to spread themselves and offered a glimpse of who the front (and back) (and middle) (and as it turns out those who would not be finishing) runners would be. No one flies off the start line – there are still 31 miles to go, but no one walks off the start line either. Although perhaps I should have.
There’s one bridge to cross and it’s immediate with the loaded length and suspension giving everyone a little taste of a trampoline. We duck under a little bridge then immediately hit an uphill. Within 0.5 miles everyone (in my eyesight) is power hiking. It’s a small seam of singletrack tucked in the hills and soon enough it spills into the open landscape, devoid of trees, and with one path – literally straight up. I’m pretty sure there was only one switchback, but that’s only because the hill was so steep it turned upside down.
I fall in line with some runners huffing and puffing about as hard as myself and we work our way up the 2.75 miles and 2000 vertical foot “hill”. No one talks. We’re all focused on breathing and hiking. It’s short, steep, sucks the wind out of you, shocks your heart rate to levels it shouldn’t be at this early into a race, but if you look around, the incredible view is sublime with the Stewart Mountain range and wind turbines to the north, the Yakima River below, and glimpses of what’s to come to the south.
Just as quickly as the first hill starts, it spit us out onto a rocky, rutted, rambling, rolling service road which we followed for a mile and half. Although super technical, I wanted to look up, look around, and take in the expansive surrounding landscape, but I knew better to do so when running, so I stopped. Looking to the west were views of Mt. Rainier in the distance and looking to the south was again the Yakima River Canyon. Amazing-amazing landscape is the first, only, and last word word to come to mind.
Miles 4.5 to 7.5 descends down the sweetest of ridge lines gracefully falling away at either side with views of both Mt Rainier to the west, Mt Adams directly to the south and the Yakima River to the east. It’s not gradual, but not too steep, at least not until the very last quarter mile which was so steep that even though the actual trail is straight, no one goes straight down for fear of falling and breaking themselves into thousands of pieces. Nope, everyone ski slalomed snaked sideways down from one side to the other sliding from shoe edge to shoe edge. Kind of fun, but I remembered halfway down that I’d have to come back up this and suddenly it became a little less fun.
Aid Station 1 – Roza Creek – Mile 8.0 to 15.8
After reaching the bottom, there was a short out and back to the first aid station where I had both bottles empty, open, and ready to be given to volunteers to refill while I picked over available food – I decided on a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a couple of potato chips. The aid station is accessible only to volunteers as the only way to reach it is to either run there or take a boat across the river.
Leaving the aid station, we crossed the prairie, which is the longest length of flatness on the whole entire course and it’s not very long. Maybe 0.75 miles at the most. There’s not so much of a dedicated trail across this floodplain, but adequate course flagging was spaced close enough to track us to the base of hill #2. What started as a gentle climb lead to a steeper climb which lead to an even steeper climb, hugging the side of an un-hikeable drop-off to our left.
After topping out the trail saddled down ever so briefly, then popped back upwards for a few more hundred feet. Around 12 miles into my run the race leader passed me in the opposite direction like a gazelle bounding and leaping down the hill with grace and determination. It would be a full 5 minutes before I would see the next runner behind him in second place.
Descending to aid station #2 was far more technical and steep than I had anticipated and with my quads starting to burn, at times I was reduced to something that resembled a slight jog/hop/walk – a johowalk. It felt as awkward as it does to try to pronounce. And yes it’s real. Go there and try it yourself. You’ll say, “Now I know what he’s talking about. I’m johowalking!” And you’ll feel awkward too. This is also where my troubles started. A slight bit of cramping led me to johowalking, then howalking, and finally to outright just walking. Mile 13 of 31 is not when you want cramping to start. But it did.
Aid Station 2 – Buffalo Road – Mile 15.8 to 23.3
Finally reaching Aid Station #2, I again had finished off both bottles (as planned) and had already poured in the Perpetuem and Heed and CocoHydro powders. Handing off the bottles to the volunteers, I searched for food to eat and again found a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a few potato chips and two slices of watermelon. I probably should have stayed a bit longer and drank and ate some more, but I didn’t, trying to minimize my down time. In retrospect, I’m not sure it would have completely made the difference, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Turning around 180 degrees and having to slog back up the exact same hill I had just descended was not fun. This would be hill #3, which is the same as hill #2, except in the opposite direction which doesn’t make it any easier. I’d say that out and backs are the hardest, because by this point you’ve seen everything there is to see as far as the landscape goes, so you know what to expect. It’s a blessing and a curse knowing what lies ahead. The one nice thing about knowing what’s coming up is you know when to pull your camera out for that perfect shot.
This is about the point in my run when multiple cramping started to occur. If you haven’t figured out by now, one cramp is bad, two cramps is worse. It throws off your gait, you start compromising and overcompensating and soon enough you start cramping in other parts of your legs and body. I’ve learned this the hard way, but apparently I’m hard headed and lessons don’t come easy to me. Turns out I’d have to experience this (yet) again.
I honestly don’t remember too much about the actual run/walk/hike/stumble portion. I do remember catching up to a woman I was running with earlier who was from Canada and had ran 70 miles of a 100 mile race last year and also finished an 80 mile race. I remember being passed by a guy who I’ve seen at a few other 50k races from last year. And I remember a guy telling me to, “get in the pain cave.” I heard someone say they were already in the pain cave and was looking for a way to get out, thought it was funny, then realized it was me. Turns out pain caves aren’t funny regardless of whether you’re in them or not.
Reaching the backside – downhill this time – portion of hill #3 there’s a brief moment where your muscles are so used to going uphill that it rejects the notion of any other kind of punishment even though your brain is over it and thankful, even looking forward to the downhill. Who doesn’t like running downhill? It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s fun. Yeah, that brief moment when you first start going downhill is none of those after 20 miles and 7000 feet of ascent. No, my muscles hated me and immediately started cramping. It was hard. It was slow. It was not fun.
Eventually the trail petered out enough to let me look up and see more than a few feet in front of me and my fear of tripping and instantly killing myself subsided to just a fear of tripping and cutting myself only badly on the many rocks of the technical trail. And I was relieved. I picked up my pace, my cramping went away, and to my surprise (and everyone I passed who had just moments ago passed me) I started running all the way to aid station #3.
Aid Station 3 – Roza Creek – Mile 23.3 to 26.8
Just like my stop at the previous aid station, I had drank the last of my bottles and had them ready to hand off to the volunteers while I foraged through the candy store for food to eat. I took precious little time again and was in and out as fast as I could be. (Again, probably a mistake.)
The base of hill #4 is that same ridiculous section that we slipped and slided down earlier many hours before and it was even more ridiculous going up. It’s so steep and with so much loose dirt that there were actually kicked steps in the hillside. My uphill progress was agonizingly slow. Almost as painful as the multiple constant pains of cramps moving from one leg muscle to the next. They never subsided, just moved to other muscles, but I only had 8 miles to the finish, so of course I had to push through them.
Unfortunately my inability to recognize when I should stop fighting the muscle cramping and my stubbornness to try to work through them was my downfall. These hills have no tolerance for pain and offer no relief to rest. Even when you’re just standing on these hillsides, you have to work, so if you’re going to hurt, you might as well keep moving forward. Or that was the plan at least.
Around mile 26.8, just 4.5 miles until the finish, I had just made the turn to the service road and was walking (shocking, I know), working through the hurt when my calf seized up and immediately I hopped off it onto my other leg which would have been fine except that my other calf also immediately seized up and I fell over in pain. This had come from completely out of nowhere. I had not felt even the slightest twinge in either calf and now all of sudden they had both cramped up at the same time. It’s the worst kind of cramps (really though are there any cramps which are the best kind?) in that my calves were flexed so hard that you could have bounced a golf ball off of them. Both my feet twisted inward and up and I couldn’t move them.
And then the worst of the worst kind of cramps came and my quads cramped up while trying to stretch my calves. I had lost control of my lower body. I yelled and screamed and cursed. It was the most pain I’ve ever felt all at once. And then it got worse. Epic full body cramping. Everything in my body cramped at once. You name it, it was cramped and all at once, together, like an army – that wants to kill me: both arches of my feet, calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, groin, hip flexor, obliques, lats, even my biceps and triceps. I struggled to breathe. There was no crying. I was in too much pain to muster the strength to cry. I tried to stand and fell over. I tried again and fell over again.
A few runners caught up to me laying on the ground not even able to writhe in pain and tried to stretch some portion of my leg and I yelled and screamed and cursed again, at them, but not at them. They pushed salt pills into my mouth and made me drink their precious water that was still to propel them to the finish line. They gave me an extra shirt, an emergency blanket, and two guys basket carried me 50 feet up the trail to behind a bush for a windbreak. They called the race director and said that someone should come and pick me up, because there was no way I was going to be able to make it to the finish line. The race director said that the sweepers would be coming through shortly and they would be bringing extra water for me.
Eventually every single runner passed me, some stopping to make sure I was ok, offering me salt pills, any extra food they had and even the last little bits of water that they had. Two hours passed and the cramping finally subsided enough to let me lay down down flat with my legs out. What better place to be incapacitated than at the top of a ridge with the sun shining down on my face with a supreme 270 degree view. If only I could walk. So I tried again. And I fell over again. I finally realized I wasn’t going to be able to get myself down off the ‘hill’ under my own power. I waited some more and a sweeper, Christopher, came by, and graciously gave me his last half a bottle of water. He called the race director again and after a brief conversation, turned to me, watched as I again tried to stand and again fell over and said, “30% maybe. 70% no.” I think he was being generous. More like 30% – maybe in a day from now. 70% never. He left saying a second sweeper was on her way and eventually a truck would be by to haul me down.
The second sweeper, Tonya, came a half hour afterwards as I was laying there, afraid if I moved that the cramping would come back. She brought water and we waited for another 1.5 hours in the fading sunlight for the truck to come. Brandon was the volunteer who came with his truck and picked us up and drove us the 2 hours down to the start line where the ever so few gracious volunteers and my gracious concerned family awaited for me.
It probably goes without saying that if you have to be physically aided and ‘rescued’ off the course, then you’re probably officially disqualified from the race. My first DNF.
I hear there was tasty wood fired pizza, live music from the Olympia based Pine Hearts and delicious cold beer, but that wasn’t my finish. Nope. My finish was on a dirt service road, 4.5 miles away from the actual finish, laying on the ground with an emergency blanket over me waiting to be ‘rescued’ off the course. A humbling finish.
Thankfully my family was there (unexpectedly. Thanks for coming! Sorry, you had to see me like that!) And thankfully one of them knew how to drive a manual car, because there was no way I would have been able to drive myself home. After finally returning to Seattle, 9 hours after the initial epic full-body cramping started, I got out of the car and my legs were still cramping trying to walk from the car to my building. I even stayed home from work the day after, not being able to walk.
Lessons (Re)-Learned. What went well? What could be better?
- Vaseline worked great as a lubricant.
- Be efficient through aid stations, but stop and make sure you’re completely fueled and capable to make it to the next aid station or finish line.
- Know the race day conditions. Even though it’s 65 degrees and sunny outside, doesn’t mean you won’t dehydrate with a constant prevailing wind, in a higher altitude and drier heat.
- Bring extra layers and an emergency blanket even if you don’t think you’ll need them and even if it’s going to be 65 degrees outside. You never know who might need them.
- Stay on top of fueling and hydration early and often.
- Bring your phone in case you need to call for help. It could mean the difference between being stuck on the mountain or being able to be ‘rescued’ down to safety.
- Going into a race undertrained is better than going into a race overtrained, but make sure your base is sufficient for the elevation or distance you’re racing.
- Check your pride at the starting line. No one wins the race in the first mile of a 50k. Your muscles will thank you from mile 26.8 to the finish line and even several days afterwards.
Final Race Goals Recap and What’s Next?
I had four main goals for this race…
- Make it to the Start Line.
- Stay humble. Work on pacing and fueling strategies.
- Make it to the Finish Line.
- Embrace the moment. Breathe the air. Smile at everyone. Remember the experience.
Goal #1 – Check.
Goal #2 – Definitely rediscovered the meaning of humble. Pacing and fueling still need work.
Goal #3 – Would it still count if I try again next year and make it?
Goal #4 – Embraced the moment, by trying to breath. Sometimes my grimacing looked like smiles to others. And I’ll most definitely remember the experience.
Next up is to recover. Then the Sunflower Trail Marathon in Winthrop, Washington!
There’s a super slight slim negligible fraction of a chance that I’ll ever be able to thank everyone who helped me, but I am so completely absolutely overcome with gratitude, appreciation, and praise at the graciousness, kindness, unselfishness, and compassion each volunteer, friend and family member extended to help get me down off the course, back home, and to make sure I was ok the next day. I am so lucky to have each and everyone of them in my life.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
- Arcteryx Motus Crew Shirt short sleeve
- The North Face Long Haul shorts
- XCCU Unisex Experia Multi-Activity micro mini crew with COOLMAX fiber
- Hoka One One Stinson Trail shoes with quicklaces
- UltraSpire Kinetic vest with two 26 oz bottles
- Suunto Ambit 2S
- Garmin ANT+ Heartrate belt
- Vaseline lubricant for legs, armpits, and under heart rate monitor
- Athletic tape – two 1″ pieces – one for each nipple – and one 3″ piece – where back vest rubs
- (Phone, car key, ring and license in a zip lock bag – in case I get hurt, can’t talk and need to be identified)
Fuel used – (not consumed in parenthesis)
- Cheese bagel with chocolate coconut peanut butter – 450 calories
- Coffee – 12 oz gas station coffee with half a packet of raw sugar and a splash of half and half – ~ 40 calories
- NUUN Active Hydration Tablets – 20 oz – ~10 calories
- Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem Drink Mix – one single serving mixed before and drank during race – 26 oz – 260 calories and one single serving mixed at aid station – 26 oz – 260 calories – total 520 calories
- Bell Plantation PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter – Chocolate – single serving mixed before and drank during race – 45 calories – 26 oz – mixed with CocoHydro Coconut Water Electrolyte Drink – Original – single serving – 40 calories – total 95 calories
- Hammer Nutrition HEED Sport Drink Mix – mixed at aid station – 26 oz – 100 calories
- CocoHydro Coconut Water Electrolyte Drink – Original – single serving – 26 oz – 40 calories
- Aid station electrolyte – 104 oz – ~500 calories
- Honey Stinger Energy Waffle – one lemon and one strawberry – 320 calories
- Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter – 11.5oz squeeze pack – 180 calories
- Hammer Nutrition Energy Gel – single serving – two squeeze packets of apple cinnamon – 90 calories each – and two squeeze packets of raspberry – 80 calories each – total 340 calories
- SaltStick Plus Electrolyte Salt Capsules – consumed 15 (brought 7 and other runners gave me 8 more as I was sitting on the ground) – 0 calories
- Potato chips – one small hand-full – ~100 calories
- Coke – two small dixie cups – ~40 calories
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich – quarter of a sandwich at two aid stations and a quarter at another aid station – ~175 calories
- Watermelon – two slices at an aid station – ~50 calories
- Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews – Pink Lemonade – 160 calories (while sitting on the ground after I stopped running.)
- Cliff Shot Bloks – Cran-Razz – 200 calories (while sitting on the ground after I stopped running.)
- One small fingerling potato – ~100 calories (while sitting on the ground after I stopped running.)
- Succeed S! Caps – 5 pills.
- Apple juice – ~4 cups – ~ 475 calories
Calories/Heartrate – (including the 2 hours and 21 minutes I sat on the ground until the sweeper passed me and I was officially out of the race.)
- Calories burned ~2,533
- Calories consumed pre-race – 500
- Calories consumed during race ~2,460
- Calories consumed post race ~475
- Average heartrate – 125
- Max heartrate – 172
- Time in heartrate zone 1 and 2 – 5:12 (2:21 while sitting on the ground)
- Time in heartrate zone 3 – 1:13
- Time in heartrate zone 4 – 2:46
- Time in heartrate zone 5 – 0:06