Thomas: I am sitting in front of the keyboard, sore, exhausted, mulling over my feelings about the past weekend in Bend, Oregon with Under Armour Mountain Series, and sipping strong coffee. My brain has already started protecting me by hazing up some of the details. I have to get this recap out before the memory fades.
There are many reasons to love running; I love long distance running for the mental grind and physical punishment. The challenge resets my soul. The Under Armour event on Mt. Bachelor did that.
I recommend that if you want to do a trail 50k at 6,000 feet of elevation, you should train for it or at least do more than 11 miles of trail running before you toe the line. Maybe do some hill work too. I wasn’t that smart. I went from my regular training in the beautiful humid sea level Baltimore City along the flat bricks around the waterfront to the thin, dry air of central Oregon. Clearly, I like to punish myself.
The Under Armour Mountain series has several distances; there is something for everyone including a 1k vertical challenge, 5k, 10k, 13.1, 26.2, marathon relay, and the 50k. We thought if we were going to fly across the country we should go big and do the 50k. I am thankful there wasn’t a 50-mile option.
Arriving at Mt. Bachelor Saturday morning the sun was shining, and the music was playing, athletes were lazily getting ready to run. When it comes to running events, trail running is the least intimidating. Athletes are friendly, relaxed, and come in every shape and size. I also don’t weight the results the same as I do when road racing. It is hard to compare times in trail runs. Conditions and terrain make every trail run unique, so I usually throw expectations out the window.
At 8:25 AM, about forty 50k runners headed into the starting corral. One of my favorite moments of the event occurred as we filed in together. The MC explained that he likes to invite someone from the crowd to come up and sing the national anthem. After some cajoling, a brave soul stepped up and belted out the song as we held our hats over our hearts. It wasn’t the prettiest version I have ever heard, but I paid more attention to the performance than ever before impressed that the runner knew all the words.
The Under Armour Mountain Series runners were unleashed straight up the mountain face. I already knew that on the second loop of the course I would walk this portion, but for now, it was showtime. It was a steep air sucking trek. The altitude had my lungs heaving. We made it to the summit of the trail and ducked into the tree lined single track and tackled some rolling terrain. During the first loop, we were in the shade, and the temps were divine. The path was technical for this section, watching your feet was the best move if you wanted to stay upright. Every once in awhile I would pop my head up to peek at the other mountains that I could glimpse between the trees.
The runners started spreading out, and I found myself in a group of four to six other runners. The most memorable one was a State Trooper from Oregon. He helped tick off the miles. We talked about careers, other races, marathon PRs, the trouble with policing in the current climate, and other random topics. He was also there to witness three out of my four wipeouts during the 50k. Road running doesn’t teach you to lift your feet; I get it now. The theme of the day, I should have trained. I am not sure where we split up, but I missed having his company on the second loop.
The aid stations for the race were at perfect locations. There were stops when I didn’t even need one. Water, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Cliff bars, Cliff Bloks, Gels, Chia seed bars, and beef jerky was stocked at each site. The people manning the stops were fantastic. They regularly asked, “how you are you feeling?” “What can we get you?” I brought my gels but never got through them. The aid stations had enough calories.
Meaghan: I’ll chime in here. The volunteers may have been my favorite part of this course. I think trail running brings out some of the best humans. I stopped at every single station to fill up on water, coca cola and laugh with the volunteers about how I probably should have trained. Sure, this was an optimal excuse to stop running, but I was legitimately excited to see these people every few miles.
Thomas: The terrain on the back side of the mountain was some of the toughest I have faced, it was mostly comprised of sand and loose lava rocks. The first loop my feet felt the punishment, I tried not to think about coming back for another round. It was fun to start seeing the half marathoners on the course as we finished the backside, it was also good to get back on dirt trails. About a half mile from the finish there was a cruel feature for the 5ok runners to tackle. While the arrows pointed all the other runners to head towards the finish, the 50k runners had an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. We headed towards a nasty incline straight up a ski slope. Once you made it to the top, you had some fun obstacles to negotiate like a 4′ vertical descent and climb that was not runnable. Finally, I rambled down that section towards the turn-around. I met up with some friends that were running the half marathon, and I have to admit, I was a little jealous when they got to cross the finish line while I was starting the second loop. Man, a cold beer would have been great right then.
Meaghan: Those “fun” obstacles Thomas mentioned were crevasse stream crossings. WTF.
Thomas: So back up the hill for the final loop. Usually, I like a loop course, at least you know what you are getting into later. The sun had crested the mountain at this point, and now the temps were starting to climb. The air was very dry, so dry that the sweat evaporated quickly leaving salt lines on my singlet where the sweat had been. I found myself a lot thirstier on the second loop.
A couple of things got my head in wrong places during the second loop. First, when I was running an out and back, I saw a runner that I had passed in the first loop that never passed me on the course, and now here he was in front of me at the out and back. I thought to myself “wtf, I want to see his Garmin.” I sorta let it go, but then I found myself on the backside of the mountain again, this time it was dustier and hotter. Not wanting to take another spill, I was careful with my footing through the rolling beaches of lava rocks. The sun was beaming down, and the air was arid. I made my way to the wooded area of high desert and then pins of panic started to chime in and interrupt the run. This section following the course markings was a challenge. The runners have spread out at this point no one is around. There was no clear path, and you have to keep a look out for ribbons to guide you. Sometimes you would see the markers, but it still wasn’t enough to show you the way. I was trying to run and not go too fast that I would lose the trail. I was unsuccessful.
25 miles in and I am lost.
SHIT! WHERE ARE THE F*CKING RIBBONS?! I start scrambling ten feet this way, ten feet that way, trying to see a ribbon or any markings, I don’t see any. Maybe this is a good time to mention, I wear glasses, but not when I run. I wasn’t wearing any glasses. I also don’t have a phone with me. After some unsuccessful searching, I do what one does when lost in the woods. I started yelling “HELLO!” “Hello ANYBODY?” After a little, I heard someone else lost crying out. They were too far away and behind me, but it was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one going to die out there. Walking around I finally saw a ribbon; I was back on course. When I made it to the aid station, the other lost runner made her way up, and we had a good chuckle about being lost. More like cursing than chuckling actually. We were both relieved.
Meaghan: I also found myself alone on the backside of the mountain. I did not get lost.
Thomas: Back on the trails, the terrain was still terrible, but at least it was easier to navigate. I could not wait to get on dirt trails. I made it just in time for my fourth belly flop. Mile 26, perfect timing. I looked up to see if I could catch a glimpse of what sounded like a drone hovering above and hooked my toe on a root. What a dumbass. Even though the trails were easier to run, I was tired and hot. At mile 29 I started using a mental trick where I tell myself to run 100 paces and then you can take a little walk break. It got me through the next two and a half miles. I made it to the spot where all the other runners are directed to the right, and the 50k runners are pointed left to climb the mountain. There wasn’t anyone there; I also know that there aren’t any timing mats on the three-quarters of a mile section. Just a real shitty uphill. If I didn’t give a shit about fair play, this would be the perfect spot to take a little shortcut. I signed up for a 50k; I am going to run the whole course. I headed to the last grind before the finish line. After that, there is just a little half mile to the finish, and it is on a fire road. Smooth sailing.
I crossed the finish line with the high of achieving something tough. That sense of accomplishment is my favorite aspect about Ultras. You feel tougher when you finish, and that emotion stays with you. I run road races to push the pace; trails are for pushing my head. You experience everything a brain can come up with on the trails during an ultra. During my normal life, I concentrate on various tasks, jump from focus to focus. During the Ultra I open all the doors and have time to discover what is going on in my head. I can observe my thoughts, sort out important ones from fantasies.
There are two more of the Under Armour Mountain Series, Killington, VT August 18-20 and Copper Mountain, CO September 8-10. Use the code ULTRA40 to get a nice discount on registration. I hope you enjoy the event as much as we did.