05/10/2014 – Sunflower Trail Marathon – Mazama, Washington
If you like fields full of sunflowers, blue skies, sun, and miles of trails, then you won’t like the Sunflower Trail Marathon in the Methow Valley of Washington State. Nope – you will LOVE it. With 2400 feet of easy vertical gain this typical Methow Valley race, much like others in the area, is slightly longer than posted. Bounding from the Methow Community Trailhead in Mazama, traversing across the valley floor and traipsing through glorious fields of sunflowers, the trail skirted long serene lakes, roamed the silhouette of Sun Mountain and finished 27 miles away in Twisp.
For reference, here’s my version of the sourced and compiled 2014 Sunflower Trail Marathon race preview, the 2014 Sunflower Trail Marathon overall results and the 2014 Sunflower Trail Marathon solo runner results. The race was combined with both relay teams and solo runners with 600+ runners on the trail at one point or another.
If you’re looking for the video, scroll all the way down to the bottom.
The third event of the year and 3 weeks from my last 50k, the “training” can be broken down into three parts. Part one (week 1 post 50k) was recover. Basically the first couple days post race was spent trying to figure out how to walk again without an incredible soreness. Part 2 (week 2 post 50k) was putting my running shoes back on and getting back on the trails again. It was slow, but it was necessary, and it actually made me feel better. Part 3 (week 3 post 50k and coincidentally what should have been my taper week) was a full return to the trails. I didn’t taper at all actually. I logged many more miles that week than I have in a while, but most of it was easier and slower than my normal runs.
The Methow Valley is a quick 3 hour drive from Seattle coming over the North Cascade Pass and a beautiful one at that, but it’s still 3 hours so we left on Friday after work to make race morning not so painful. The drive up north on I-5 is nothing to write home about (except apparently I am doing just that), driving an hour through Everett and Tulalip, then turning east onto Highway 20 as you reach Mt. Vernon. From here the transition from fields of tulips to the low rumblings of foothills leads past the sleepy towns on the banks of the Skagit River and past the three dams – Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam, all built in the 1920’s-50’s – that make up the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Power generated from these power plants accounts for nearly 20 percent of all electricity used in Seattle, 140 miles away. Squarely in mountain territory now, it’s a constant up to Rainy and Washington Pass where the snow accumulated from the past winter has been plowed to the side of the road. Every mile we drive, the snow inches higher until we’re driving through a two-lane bumper bowling alley with snow reaching up past the top of the car, orange snow wands barely poking through and signs completely buried. Cresting a notch in the pass, the view east splays open, the road descends, and just as quickly the snow recedes, the temperature rises, and we’re clipping along to a clear black night sky speckled with stars seen only in the tranquil beauty of the Methow Valley.
Having pre-packed and sorted fuel and liquids the night before race morning was early, but not so early that we’re nudging the birds awake or pulling the sun up from it’s slumber. Breakfast was a banana and a bagel with a generous smear of almond butter washed down with some black coffee is usually quite more than I have for breakfast, but I’m not always gearing up to run a marathon everyday (but wouldn’t that be fun!) From where we stayed, it was a quick 5 minute drive to the Mazama Store and to pick up our bibs and race packet. As I’ve found from past experiences, I’d rather get there early than get there right on time as it give me ample time to get everything together and to mentally put myself in the right frame of mind. MVSTA likes to drop goodies in random race packets and today was my lucky day with a pair of new neon yellow Smartwool PhD lightweight socks! I wasn’t going to win the race, but new running socks is a close second.
The Mazama Corral Trailhead is on the other side of the dirt parking area and everyone gathered around inching closer to hear the last pre-race instructions – please close gates behind you, they keep cattle from escaping and the private owners will thank us and continue to graciously let us use their land. With that we were off.
Exchange 1 – Mile 0 to 2.7
It’s a wide open start with runners both on and off the trail running 10 wide for the first half mile. It’s a refreshing mix of entrants with both runners in it for the long haul and runners of all ages as some of the younger runners take this first, easiest, flattest leg for their relay teams.
We roll on a trail adjacent to Goat Creek Road, past hay fields and horses in corrals who must be wondering what we’re all doing. The weather is pleasant, the sun out, and the temperature in the upper 50’s. There’s a few rolling hills, but nothing that will break you, at least not this early in the race. Exchange 1 comes quickly and is announced with the loudest crowd as runners pass their imaginary baton to the next team member.
Exchange 2 – Aid Station 1 – Mile 2.7 to 7.5
Leaving exchange 1 the trail narrows down from the wide berth to a slightly more rolling generous single track, hugging the north side of the Methow River before crossing south across a pedestrian bridge back to more single track.
We ran behind a guy and a boy for a little bit who I thought were parent and child before realizing that they didn’t know each other. After listening briefly to their conversation, “Ok, let’s try running for a bit now.” “ok, I think I can.” Did your parent’s convince you to run?” “Yeah.” “Do you have any brothers or sisters running?” “Yeah, my brother is running.” “How old are you?” “12.” “I have a son who’s 12.” And then we were off, out of earshot. I’m used to running in events with a slightly older crowd, some who are so focused on their race that they have a hard time even stopping to make sure another runner is ok, so to see random adults stopping and sacrificing their race to help random teenagers get through a tough spot in a race seemed special.
We crossed Highway 20 at the iconic (but controversial) Rolling Huts and continued south on a short dirt road past a farm and into more single track snaking our way over temporary boards placed over minute flows of water that would appear to be large enough to even be considered a stream – maybe spring melt overflow? We were firmly in the latter half of runners coming through, but by no means dead last so when we hit the ‘aid station’ we were a bit surprised to hear, “This electrolyte is all we have.” I looked around on the table and saw a pitcher of neon yellow liquid assuming they meant they had no water, just electrolyte left and said, ”Perfect!” “Are there any other runners behind you?” “Yes, but not many.” “OK, well don’t take all of, because this is all we have.” It dawns on me that it wasn’t that they only had electrolyte spiced water left – no, they literally had only a pitcher of any liquid left at all. I took a small 4oz cup full, forced a smile, and said probably not quite convincingly enough, “thank you.” The next aid station was 5.6 miles away, not enough to break me, but less than ideal.
Exchange 3 – Aid Station 2 – Mile 7.5 to 13.1
From here for the next 15 miles or so the trail gradually changed, gaining elevation and the landscape and plants appropriately changed as well. The encompassing canopy of tree groves opened up to magnificent vistas of the mountains beyond and fields of hay turned into meadows of sunflowers. It wasn’t all at once, but gradual – one minute sweeping the trail directly in front, stealing a glance from the watch and the next second (finally) looking up and seeing the grandeur of the surrounding vista taken directly from a photo out of a coffee table book delicately intentionally placed and replaced to look just right.
Our family met us as we both plowed the last little downhill into the aid station. I refilled, thankfully, with two full bottles this time, turned up the hill and left by myself to finish out the race slightly picking up the pace.
Exchange 4 – Aid Station 3 – Mile 13.1 to 19.7
Immediately uphill, the trail pushed another 700 feet uphill covering the next 8 miles to mile 22, never ridiculously steep and actually pretty runnable for the most part. Filing past the bottom reaches of Sun Mountain, we skirted the long serene Patterson Lake with a sizeable drop off the trail directly into the water. The trail was wide enough that the chances of actually falling in wasn’t a concern, but if one were to fall in, I’m not entirely sure how they would get out without having to walk the bank for a quarter mile or so until the slope shallowed out enough to return to the trail.
There’s not much to talk about for this portion of the trail as it’s something you really need to see and experience. I was by myself, the sky is immense, across the little valley tucked in the foothills of the larger valley were full out meadows of wild sunflowers devouring the hillside, birds are chirping, and I’m 18 miles into a trail run – what’s not to like?
Dropping down into yet another little fold in the landscape was the last relay team exchange 5 and Aid Station 4. I really like when you come into an aid station on a downhill. This gives you just a bit of time to catch your breath, finish out your water bottles and prep them to give to aid volunteers and figure out what you need. Of course you look and feel strong too coming in, buoyed by the hoots and hollers of spectators and of course the downhill.
Exchange 5 – Aid Station 4 – 19.7 to 24.0
I grabbed four pieces of a banana and my water bottles, now completely full with electrolytes (thank you again volunteers!) and headed yet again uphill. It never fails that immediately after leaving an aid station it’s uphill, but that’s ok as I’m usually trying to get everything situated, trying to shovel fuel into my face (I usually try to aim for my mouth.) and making sure I’m good to go physically and mentally. Aid stations are a whirlwind of activity, excitement, and encouragement all rolled into 60 seconds. It’s like the Indianapolis 500 pit stop without the noise of the cars and with about 200,000 less people – so, actually, I guess, not really like it at all except for the whole replenish part.
Aid Station 5 – 24.0 to 27.0
More of a mini check-in station more than anything, it was the least spectated, but still well stocked (thanks again volunteers!) aid station. It’s also the last place to refuel before the last 200 foot little sucker hill before the steep 600 foot descent in the last mile down to the finish. I rolled right through without stopping for anything, entirely enjoying the run, but starting to tire (though not cramping!) and ready to be done. Slogging through a run-walk cycle, I yo-yoed with a few women wearing sunflower hats, skirts, and tops, clearly 10-20 years older than me and clearly more in shape than I was, chatting away as if they just started out for a little stroll in the park.
The last mile to the finish is a screamer down to Twisp – all downhill and all runnable. I opened up, bombed the downhill and flew past hikers and runners alike as if they were standing still. Being nowhere near the front of finishers, there were still many people at the finish line to cheer everyone in. Marathon (or longer) #10 completed.
The downside of where we finished was that it was littered with horse poop both fresh and dried, but when you’re tired, you’re tired and you’ll sit almost (almost) anywhere. I picked up my “free” post-race burrito and tasty cold beverage and waited for my ride while watching the awards ceremony. The second place open relay team was a team of kids (literally) no older than 12 or 13 with the third place team being their parents!
Lessons (Re)-Learned. What went well? What could be better?
- A short 15-30 minute drive to the start line is far better for me than a 2-3 hour drive in the morning to get to the start line. I get more sleep and my legs aren’t as tight at the start of the race.
- Going out slowly for the first part of the race is hard, but not cramping anytime during the 27 miles is awesome.
- Don’t assume aid stations will always have fluids to replenish your bottles if you’re one of the last to an aid station. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink your fluids.
- Running through fields of wild sunflowers in the mountains makes you feel like you’re in The Sound of Music, except without Julie Andrews twirling around and singing. Also minus the whole WWII thing.
- I’m still thankful for vaseline, although looking for alternative petroleum based lubricants.
- Methow Valley runners are fast! (The kids and their parents!)
- I can run in moderate heat. (Jury is still up in the air for hot hot heat.) (Same with humidity.)
- Even though Hoka’s have a super wide base, I find because the stack height is so high, it’s still a bit precarious bombing downhills or cornering at high speeds. Or maybe it’s just my footwork that needs practice.
Final Race Goals Recap and What’s Next?
I had four main goals for this race…
1. Make it to the Start Line.
2. Even(ish) splits.
3. Make it to the Finish Line.
4. Embrace. Breathe. Smile. Look around. Experience. Remember.
Goal #1 – Accomplished with an hour to spare.
Goal #2 – Negative splits!
Goal #3 – Accomplished pretty much spot on the time I wanted to finish in.
Goal #4 – My favorite goal to accomplish. It’s not hard when you’re having fun.
Next up is to continue training as we’re back to the Methow Valley this coming weekend for the Sun Mountain 25k!
- Arcteryx Morphic Zip Neck Long Sleeve
- Arcteryx Motus Crew Shirt short sleeve
- The North Face Long Haul shorts
- Nike Stability Low-Cut Running Socks
- Hoka One One Stinson Trail shoes with quicklaces
- UltraSpire Kinetic vest with two 26 oz bottles
- Suunto Ambit 2S
- Garmin ANT+ Heartrate belt
- Sony HDR-AS15 Action Cam with waterproof housing
- 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, 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)
- Asiago cheese bagel with a generous spread of almond butter – ~500 calories
- Coffee – 8 oz black coffee – ~5 calories
- Banana – 105 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
- 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
- Aid station electrolyte – 110 oz – ~525 calories
- Hammer Nutrition Energy Gel – single serving – two squeeze packets of apple cinnamon – 90 calories each – total 180 calories
- VFuel Gel – single serving – one each of peach cobbler, maple bacon, cool citrus, vanilla, and fudge brownie – 100 calories each – total 500 calories
- (Honey Stinger Energy Waffle – one lemon and one strawberry)
- (Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter – 11.5oz squeeze pack)
- Banana – 105 calories
- SaltStick Plus Electrolyte Salt Capsules – consumed 2 – 0 calories
- Burrito – ~ 350 calories
- Calories burned ~2,218
- Calories consumed pre-race – 620
- Calories consumed during race ~1665
- Calories consumed post race ~350
- Average heartrate – 140
- Max heartrate – 168
- Time in heartrate zone 1 and 2 – 1:07
- Time in heartrate zone 3 – 2:16
- Time in heartrate zone 4 – 1:37
- Time in heartrate zone 5 – 0:00