I finished the Cle Elum Ridge 50k race yesterday. This was my first 50k and I’m super happy with the result. Super grateful for my amazing training partners and beautiful trails.
When I signed up for the race 5 months ago I had no concept that this was something I could do. At that point I’d taken some time off after completing my first road half marathon. Uphill Athlete’s intro-to-50k training plan was 20 weeks, which lined up perfectly with the race. It was inevitable.
I knew the training would be hard and time consuming. Simply reading the plan on paper didn’t prepare me for just how much work there would be: In those 20 weeks I traveled 640 miles, gained over 154000’, and spent 302 hours training. In doing that I ran my first 18, 20, and 26-mile days, and my first 30-mile weekend, and my first 200-mile month. I’m prouder of the training than I am of finishing the race.
Between the lack of exercise due to tapering and the impending race day I was really excited Friday. I went for a 2-mile run and felt strong for the first time in months. Turns out the constant fatigue of training is really fatiguing, and tapering is awesome. I was up early on race day and lazily got ready. Hot breakfast and hot coffee and I was ready to go.
The race started strong, and I was pretty good about realizing I was going too fast out of the gate. Within a quarter mile I watched the entire group run away from me. Not my favorite feeling, but it had to happen to keep my heart rate down. I was under cutoff times and my strategy was to try to skirt those times on the uphills, keep the heart low, and make up some time on the downhills. My watch buzzed at one mile and let me tell you – that realization of 1 mile down, *thirty* more to go, was … fascinating.
I gained some confidence in my strategy on the first uphill by passing a couple folks, and then passed another on the first long downhill. The downhill running I’d done in training paid off – I felt strong and sure footed on moderately steep terrain. This was the last time I’d see another runner for about 7 hours.
The Cle Elum ridge trail is pretty. It travels a variety of forested terrain. The first half climbs along to the top of the ridge and there are peekaboo views of Cle Elu lake and the mountains north. If it hadn’t been cloudy we would have had occasional expansive views of the Cascades.
On my long runs I had been hitting the 50k cutoff times, but only barely. By race day I felt confident that I had done all I could to prepare but was nervous about finishing. When I hit the first cutoff 35 minutes ahead of schedule I for the first time felt confident that I’d finish this thing. That confidence evaporated around mile 17 when began to slow down. The 23.6 mile cutoff point seemed to be getting farther away as time progressed.
After the first cutoff aid station, at 12.5 miles, the trail continues uphill for another two miles. In my race prep I had thought that these hills would be continuous long slogs. I was pleasantly mistaken and found more rolling hills than I imagined. Rolling hills are still hills, but the break in direction gave muscle groups a break. And my hamstrings really needed a break. At about mile 10 they started acting up and I stopped a few times to stretch them out.
Mile 15-ish brings you to the high point of the course, at about 5815’. A few steep switchbacks downhill and then you’re on nice gentle, well-groomed downhill trail. I picked up some speed through here and flew at 14-minute miles. This was a very welcome change of pace from 18 to 21-minute miles uphill.
The downhill brings you into a wetter, denser, Cle Elum ridge experience. By this point it had started to shower. Running through wet brush reminded me of my time deep on the Jungle Creek trail on my 20-mile training day.
This is also where I turned to my trusted AAA pump it ump playlist. 15 of my favorite songs that I know will get me going. I needed that extra jolt to make it to the 23.6 mile aid station that was forever away.
I rounded the corner at about mile 22 and saw an aid station. I don’t know if it was my watch that was shorting the distance, or if my mental model of where the aid stations were that was wrong, but I was so freaking happy to make the final cutoff with 3.5 hours left to get back to the start. I filled up my hydration pack with the last of my tailwind, scarfed down some potato chips and gummy bears, and made it on my way.
Seeing the last aid station was a huge morale boost. I was much lighter on my feet here and was happily jogging along. I met another runner a couple miles later and passed him. I felt good, and that was a mistake. I thought I was about an hour from the car so I turned up the effort and heart rate, bringing my effort near the top of zone 3. That lasted for a mile and a half and that was it. I was walking. It was this way until about a mile from the car, the last downhill, where I jogged it in.
Finishing was a surreal experience. This was the end of a 20 week journey. I like doing things that are big and scary. Without a goal like that I find I have a void that leaves me unfocused. I need to fill that void, and I already have a few ideas …