Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Angels Staircase Ultra Marathon

The following is a race report from a run on dirt in the Chelan Sawtooths:

We started on single track somewhere outside Carlton, WA in the Chelan Sawtooths. There were about 120 people milling around the crowded parking lot waiting to use the plastic restroom, register, and slam down the last sip of coffee.

Because the venue is remote and trail exposed, the gun must go off early; 25k, 50k, 50M all starting on single track at 6:00 AM.

With all the emails and updates on the Rainshadow website regarding the challenge of the terrain and distance from the nearest hospital it seemed that James wanted people to have a good race but at the same time acknowledge the location makes it Class IV. If you get hurt out there--human power or helicopter is the only evac. option--and even then it's a long way to urgent care.

Hard to tell who was there to race and who was there to finish but I recognized several fast people from the old Seattle Running Company crew. Ultra runners are tough to read, not as abrasive as most triathletes but no less intense when they race.

"Fuck it, I'll start near the front, escape the bottle neck, and slow down once the pack thins." Easier said than done.

I took a trip down memory lane and did some lackluster circa 8th-grade-basketball box outs, but alas, still ended up with a slow moving ass in my face as we worked up the hill strait out of the gates.

The race is not flat. It is up, then down. 5,000ft of climbing to a ridge-top with a stake in the ground that says "turn-a-round."

It's not every day we get to run at 8,000ft in Washington. It's even more rare that we get on trails as scenic as Angels Staircase, beautiful in a Colorado meets North Cascades type of way.


My breathing was uncomfortable and fast, smashing my legs up and down waiting for my feet to find good rhythm. Stayed efficient and worked through a couple groups, tail of lead pack still in sight. Turns out it's hip and trendy to wear your number on your leg if you run ultra's. No ink on the calf to see who you're chasing. But think about it, when you are about to pass a person, are you so hyper-focused on the fact that they are in your age-group that you forget to acknowledge how fresh or torn up they might look?

In trail running races I approach much more primal. I sit in and study for a minute. Are they slouching due to exhaustion? Is their rib cage inflating and deflating as fast as a scared chipmunk or as calm and collected dopey puffer fish? When numbers aren't visible a person is forced to pay attention to more important things; are they totally composed or totally out of control?

Very soon after the start I snuck by a couple folks forming a chase pack. The lead pack looked like about 5-8 people. The trail kicked up, sweat started to rain, and I backed off and watched the assholes glide effortlessly out of sight.

Someone had jumped on my heels from the last group I'd worked through; already too tired to turn around, looking at my watch instead, I was slapped in the face by the total time elapsed; it's only been 20 minutes!?


I think a lot of this racing stuff is part physical and a lot mental. Is a person competing with their ego or people around them or the clock?


The shadow and I popped out of the treeline and caught a glimpse of the future, probably at around 6,000 feet now and opening up into a huge meadow. We were both working hard. It was here that we spoke to for the first time. I'd been running in front of this complete stranger for over an hour and seen no one else. I had no idea how he looked like, whether or know he was carrying a load (mandatory for 50km and 50 milers on this course). His presence had been nothing but the sound of breathing. It'd been fast and loud on the hills and dead silent when I tried to drop him on the flat tetchy section littered with roots before the last climb.

We broke treeline into a huge meadow about the length of I-90, in the distance was a condescending ridge wearing a cornis for a top-hat. It looked ages away but was probably only another 2,000ft or so up. I turned looking at his feet first.

He was wearing Brooks racing flats. FUCK!

"Going long?" I asked.
"25km, you?" He sounded fine.
"Oh, 50km but we'll see." Yes, I lied. I registered for the 25km (my first attempt at the distance actually) and had no intention of going a step further.

A couple 5am early starter diesel engines popped up in the distance. I fixed my eyes on a orange shirt motoring up to the scree field at the base of the ridge.

The front runners weren't bluffing and were nowhere to be seen. The drain/trail in the meadow was sunken and narrow, if you stay on trail your in a mini knee high ditch with occasional big rocks, forcing you to skip as if on a balance beam. If you run beside the trail it's tall alpine grass with land mine marmot holes.

I tested my luck off trail, my feet started to land properly. I dropped Shadow and slipped into a wheezing pain cave, putting in max effort before the turn-a-round which had been described as being at the top of the ridge.

Looking up the final 2,000ft of Angle's Staircase the trail makes a big "Z" through scree and grass; two tight switchbacks and a lot of climbing strait up a head-wall; hence the name Staircase. I reached the final turn, more or less running on the ridge now, when a tall bearded man zipped up: "turn arounds' just over there." The asshole wasn't even breathing hard.

I came out of my pain cave, smiled--"cheers, buddy." Then he was gone. Descending down the same 5,000ft we'd just worked up.

I turned and realized I was in 2nd place.


The Descent:

No falls down through the meadow. A lot of gravity, hooting, and high fives. A lot of people heading up hill, "You're 4 minutes back" "Your 3 minutes back"

Reached tree line, nice looking woman, "you're just 2 minutes down, pick it up!"

The descent was pure joy. A tightrope walk between going primal falling flat on your face.

The tall bearded man in 1st was an elite ultra runner from Austin, TX who'd brought out a group of athletes he coaches. He fully deserved the win.

2nd Overall and a great day in the hills.

Put this on the calendar for next year or do the route on your own--it's not everyday we get to run at 8,000ft in Washington--

Good luck to those doing Canada.

Your pal,

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