Back on July 5th, registration for the Blue Mountain 30k opened at 8AM. I happened to hop on Facebook while I was on a break at work and saw some people had posted about being able to register. I knew if I didn’t register Bryan and myself that moment, we weren’t going to be able to run it this year. The race is capped at 100 participants, and it usually fills up within the first few hours. I was able to get both of us registered. My initial excitement was brief; this was still a few days before the Missoula Marathon – my biggest race ever. I didn’t really have time to think about what I had just gotten myself signed up for.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. We had just finished running the Sweathouse Half and a friend of ours mentioned that Blue Mountain was just two weeks away. In that moment, it still hadn’t sunk in that a 30k was 18.6 miles… I was registered for an almost 20-mile trail race! My foot still wasn’t feeling great, and I was starting to have other minor aches and pains in my left knee. Was I really going to be able to run this thing?
Bryan and I arrived at the race start with plenty of time to spare. If you know us at all, we are both very punctual people. We sat in the car for a bit, keeping warm; it was only 37 degrees outside. Eventually, we made our way out of the car and talked with a few other runners. Some of them had run this before, and others were first-timers like us. I always think I’m better off not really knowing what I’m getting myself into, and this was definitely the case today.
They called the runners to line up, and we all gathered in the shoot; Bryan much farther up than me. I quickly said hi to my friend, Megan, and the countdown to race start began. We were off running on the paved road, and then quickly began into the Blue Mountain Recreation Area.
There was a group of 8 women, with me at the tail end, all running together. We were supposed to follow the yellow flags that marked the course. Our little group was doing well, until the first five women went running right when they should have gone left. The sixth women yelled out that they missed the flags, and they quickly rejoined us on the correct trail. From then on, I was very vigilant in checking for yellow flags.
By the time I reached the first aid station just before mile 6, I was still feeling ok. We had already ascended the first major climb, and we were finally making our way down. The next 7 miles were pretty uneventful. Climbing up a lot, and then there was a little reprieve with some downhills. The highest point of the race was at mile 11ish. It was beautiful up there; roughly 4,800ft.
Then came the cascading downhills. We were running on motorcycle tracks, so there were a lot of S-curves. Everything was going well enough, I didn’t want to quit or anything. Then we crossed a dribble of a creek and continued downhill running along it for a short period of time. This is where my race had a little hiccup… I was feeling great, running at a descent pace, and my toe hooked a rock in the ground. I went face first straight to the trail! Luckily, my softball instincts are still pretty good and I laid out as flat as possible with my arms in front of me. As soon as I knew my whole body was on the ground, I quickly tucked and rolled to a stop. I laid on the ground and stared at the blue sky for a few seconds. I was clearly alive, but was anything sprained/broken/bleeding? Nope. Perfect. I got on my knees and started to stand up when another runner behind me hollered out to make sure I was ok. I got up and got moving. The adrenaline was flowing enough that nothing hurt, yet.
The last few miles were rough. I really just wanted to be done, and we were finally back on trails that I recognized, so I knew we were getting close to the end. My quads were really tired, and for the first time ever, my calves were burning.
I made it to the bottom of the rec area. I just had to run a little over a half a mile on pavement, and then I would be at the end! I jogged for a bit, and then took a moment to walk. I wanted to be able to run across the finish line, and I knew I needed to slow down. I began running again, rounded the final corner on the paved road, and could see the finish arch. I was so close. I could see Bryan up ahead waiting for me to finish. I saw the clock and knew I would be able to break four hours. In order to push myself, I tried to beat the clock to 3:58:00. Picking up speed, I could hear a couple people starting to cheer louder, it was exactly what I needed. Coming in at 3:57:42 was a great finish to my trail racing season.
I was nervous for the Blue Mountain 30K this morning. I lined up near the front but I didn’t anticipate that I would stay up there for long. As the starting gun pierced the early morning air, we all took off and settled in to a solid pace. I found myself in the top 20 as we cruised along the first half mile of asphalt and funneled into the Blue Mountain recreational area. From here, the trail quickly turned to a dirt track and then into a single track and we settled into a single file group and pushed along at just over 8-minute mile pace. I settled into the tail end of the pack and tried to control my breathing. The trail began to switchback up a steep hillside. At this point, I continued my pace and passed several people as the trail ascended the hill. I was looking for someone to pace with, but many seemed to have started too quickly and I was feeling strong, so I went off on my own and pushed my own pace.
I decided not to stop at the first aid station and continued down the road. Then I almost missed the turn to go back into the trees and onto single track. The course monitor shouted at me and pointed me in the right direction and I was off on a long gradual downhill. From my position, I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I knew I was somewhere near the front, but I didn’t know what place nor did I really care. The long downhill turned into a shallow uphill and I tried to keep my body moving forward. At this point, I spotted a runner ahead of me and slowly caught up to him on the next long downhill. He seemed to be running at a steady pace and I decided to stay behind him and use him to help me pace up the next climb.
The downhills were great on my legs, but the next climb was going to be a pain. The runner in front of me kept up a decent place and slowly pulled away from me. I decided to start power hiking to conserve me energy on the hill. Just before the top, the trail became extremely steep and I had to just put my head down and keep moving. I crested the hill and headed down a motorcycle track to the next aid station around mile 8. I stopped for some water and grabbed a gel, said thanks to the volunteers and headed back up the road looking for the next trail marker.
From here the trail just kept going up and up and up, seemingly forever. I spotted the runner in front of me for a brief moment and that was it. The trail turned off the road and onto another single track and was steep enough to induce another bout of power hiking that lasted a while. At the top of the single track, the race director, his girlfriend and the course monitor were nice enough to point me along the trail which continued to ascend and turned to a super technical, rocky slope that ended in the third aid station. I joked with the volunteers for a second and then headed back down the trail. This section was an out and back so I saw some runners going up and I saw plenty of runners behind me on the way out. The volunteers at the top told me I was in 7th place. I didn’t know if that meant 7th overall or 7th male, so I took it with a grain of salt and continued downhill.
The course traveled along a four-wheeler track that was more like a roller coaster with several ups and downs. Then the trail serpentined through some trees and I was running quick enough that my eyes weren’t focusing well. I thought I might get motion sickness, but the section quickly passed and I headed down another steep, technical descent to the fourth aid station where I grabbed some water and tossed it down my back and again headed back uphill. By this time in the race, around mile 14, my legs were getting heavy so I power hiked all the way to the top of the hill. I was close to the runner in front of me and as we descended the downhill, I continued to use him to keep me moving forward.
Mile 16 passed and the runner in front of me pulled off the side of the trail and stopped. Again, I was on my own and flying downhill on switchbacks. I didn’t know what place I was in, or who might still be in front of me. My intent at the beginning of this race was to enjoy the course and maybe win my age group, but with only a few miles left, I began to push a little harder. Coming out of the trees, I saw another runner that I hadn’t been in contact with since the beginning of the race. I was in chase mode and I slowly closed the distance before we headed up and across a field. The runner began punching his leg which I thought wasn’t normal, but at this stage of the race, most things don’t feel normal anyway. He was cramping so I offered him some water even though he was wearing a hydration pack. He said he was cramping but he would be fine.
There was a long downhill stretch before heading back onto the pavement and the finish. The runner might have been cramping, but I wasn’t going to let him keep in contact with me this close to the end. I pushed downhill and back onto the asphalt. A few months back, I bonked terribly when a steep up and down half marathon hit the flat section before the finish. My mind was racing and I was insecure about what would happen when I hit the flat. I love mountain running because of all the ups and downs. Flats scare the hell out of me.
I hit the flat and pushed myself knowing that someone was behind me. I wanted to finish strong and prove that I could keep a solid pace along a flat stretch of road near the end of a race. My legs were toast but there was going to be a downhill finish if I could get to the 90 degree turn up ahead. I hit the corner, crossed the road and pushed hard to the finish. The clock was slowly counting up and I saw that I was going to finish well below my 3-hour goal. Crossing the line, a complete sense of relief flowed through my body. I was tired. I had impressed myself and as I looked around, there did not seem to be that many people wearing race bibs. Maybe I had finished in the top ten. Awards were a couple hours later and not only did I win my age division, but I was 3rd male overall in a time of 2:44:46. For my efforts, I received two bags of caramel popcorn. Not a bad take for a Sunday morning run.