As we've run and/or volunteered at more races across the state, our network of trail running friends has also grown. Two good friends, who we'd first met at the 2012 Orcas Island 50k, were getting married, and as part of their wedding festivities, chose to host a fatass on the summer solstice - SolstASS, they decided to aptly call it - with 15k, 25k, and 50k distance options.
As more and more people signed up, however, they decided, in a slight but distinctive departure from true fatass style, to offer limited aid at three locations on the course. They also flagged the course last-minute, and only after seeing how many people signed up, realizing it could be a liability issue if someone got lost. When someone asked about elevation gain, Joe and Ann guessed. “Maybe 5,000 feet of gain?” We figured it'd be a low-key weekend of running gorgeous trails.
We got there nice and early Friday morning and decided that since we were already there, we might as well take advantage of the early start option. We both figured it'd be a long-ish day, given that it was mostly self-supported, but probably not anything crazy. Maybe 6 hours for me and 8 for Kerri? In any case we figured we'd be done by mid-afternoon, giving us time to drink some beer and celebrate with Joe and Ann.
The first few miles on the Tarbell Trail did nothing to dissuade us from our initial impressions. We ran rolling single track past roaring waterfalls and through misty forest; after a few gentle climbs, we bombed down through a clear cut with huge views (even under the low-lying clouds), past another creek and on to a logging road and the day's first big turn, signed at 6.2 miles. (Kerr's GPS put it at 7.6; discrepancies in distance later became one of the day's themes. Trail miles, right?)
From the turn we started the first good climb, now on the Chinook Trail, switchbacking through meadow of beargrass blooms on lots and lots of loose shale. Once at the top, we bombed down another logging road and a bit of single track to another trailhead, down to the first aid station. Except...I beat the volunteers there. According to the course map, we were 10.3 in, in 1:48. Right on pace for a six-hour 50k. I wasn't worried about not getting water – I'd fill from streams as usual and, per usual, I had plenty of calories.
Into the clouds we climbed, a magical kingdom of mist. Visibility was down to 10-15 feet at times, but the trail was easy to follow. After a few remaining clumps of snow, we hit the first of three out-and-backs on the course, on the Starway Trail. I remembered the race organizers saying the trail wasn't in very good shape, and that it was hard to follow...and both of those statements were accurate. But they'd flagged it in enough spots that I could follow the trail just fine, at least until we ran into a group of hikers...who'd, as good samaritans, taken down all the flagging, thinking it was trash. Oh well – I figured that even if it was mostly a game trail at this point, I knew from the map roughly what the trail was supposed to do. We'd stay on the main ridge, through alternating forest and beargrass meadows, before eventually plummeting 2k+' down to the trailhead in the last 1.5 miles. Then we'd turn around and come back up. It didn't sound too difficult.
Except, apparently, it was, as after bombing down a sweet game trail, I found myself at the wrong creek confluence. After filling my bottles, I headed back up, a 2k' slog to top of the ridge...where I found the trail I'd lost earlier. Well, crap. At this point I started reminding myself: This is about having fun on the trails, this is about having fun on the trails, this is about having fun on the trails...
On the right trail now, I bombed down to the trailhead, where they'd stashed water at the turnaround. I wasn't as far behind as I should have been, not even close. I hiked hard. Real hard. Halfway up, I caught the first of the two. “I'm done, man,” he said. “This course is the suck.” It was, admittedly, much harder than I'd been expecting, too.
I caught the other runner at the top of the climb. He was heading back in, too. I was alone in the 50k, and I knew from the way the out-and-back worked I was at least an hour up on anyone else, including the regular starters – meaning I was legitimately in first. I definitely hadn't expected that.
At the turn-around, I refilled bottles, chatted a bit with local and devoted trail advocate Bob Baker (“You enjoy this? No one enjoys this trail, no matter how pretty it is,” he told me, right before advising a shot of whiskey for the return, which I seriously considered.), then headed back the way I'd come. The sun was out and the afternoon was getting warm, I was seriously underhydrated, and there was somehow now someone only twenty minutes behind me. (Maybe they'd shorted the first out-and-back?)
I got after it as best I could, given how rocky it was. Checked my watch – the second out-and-back (10 miles before the detour) had taken me just under two hours. I was doing alright. Up to the big peak of Silver Star, a final short out-and-back, then the steep descent to the finish. Sooo close.
And then I ran into the race director (and our good friend) Joe. Given how slow the day was going for most people, he understandably wanted updates on where people were on the course. I'd already helped turn around a few people ill-equipped for the technical nature of the course, and he was doing the same as he saw people. As we were chatting, a woman behind me caught up and blew by. Alright, I was in second – had been for a while, actually, as she'd started an hour behind me – but I wasn't thinking too clearly. I knew there were only a few miles left, and I was suddenly feeling very competitive.
I powered up the peak, where I caught her just as she was leaving. She kept a slight gap on me through the last out-and-back to Indian Pits, and then we'd started down. Kerri'd already finished her miles for the the day, battling through a tough 25k after the flagging on Starway'd been lost, and so she'd warned me via text: the last 2.6 were quite steep (nearly 2k' descent), and littered with loose shale. It felt like we were running down a dry waterfall bed. My knees kept buckling as my feet slid on the loose rock. I may have hiked more of the last 2.6 than run; my body was done. I was underfueled, underhydrated, and mentally completely underprepared. I was so far beyond the easy five to six hours I'd anticipated, and hit the finish a solid twenty minutes behind the winner, Andrea. It was another hour and a half or so, though, before anyone else came in, so I was top male and received an awesome and and unexpected hand-made wooden "medal" of sorts, made by Bob.
Doing the math afterward, my day ended up being in the neighborhood of 40+ miles and something like 11-12k' gain. I was out 8 1/2 hours, and worked hard for most of it.
Only six or eight people out of the 50+ who started it finished the full 50k course. Most of them estimated the course at more like 34 or 35 miles, and upward of 9k' gain. It was at least as hard as the Yakima Skyline 50k (which I'd swept in April), and given the limited aid and my super unrealistic expectations going in, quite possibly harder.
That said, it remains one of the prettiest runs Kerr and I have ever done in a non-wilderness area. Lots of tough trails, and some seriously fantastic views.
We'll for sure be back next year, and we're planning on getting to do plenty of trail work on these now-beloved trails before then. (Don't worry, though; we won't make it too easy.)