was raining as I pulled into the parking lot at Bridle Trails State Park a
little after 2:00 PM last Saturday. It continued to rain as I checked in and
received my race number. My son Tyler showed up to run in the 10 miler, and it
rained as we listened to the Seahawks game in my car while waiting for the
races to start. The rain lessened, but did not stop while we warmed up for a
few minutes before the start of the five miler. It began to rain a bit harder
before the start of the 10 miler.
After watching Tyler sprint off into the gloom, I pondered if the course this year might be as muddy as the first year the race was held in 1996. This was to be the 9th time I have participated in this race (with no DNFs), but the only one I really remembered was the 1996 edition. That event featured drizzling rain, cold temperatures, long, narrow and cold stretches of water covering the trail for up to 20 yards at a stretch, downed trees, and innumerable stretches of shoe-shucking mud. I fell six times during that race, and was afflicted with a rash for weeks afterward, no doubt brought on by the fecund effluvia swirling about in the long, still puddles--a gift from the equine beasts who normally ply the trails throughout the park.
Over the past 10 years, much of the trail has been graded and filled in with gravel--with the exception of several stretches along the eastern boundary of the park. These sections are too narrow for the machinery needed to do the grading work. All of this trail work, plus some milder weather, has made the course more runnable over the years--and for some of the veterans of the first edition, "less fun".
By the time the 50K started at 3:10 PM, it was raining steadily once again. During the first loop, I was amazed at how good the trail actually was. Considering we were in the 25th straight day of rain, there was only a minimal amount of standing water, no downed trees, and just a few long patches of mud on the notorious east side. I completed the first lap in just over 48 minutes. That split gave me a nice cushion for a sub six-hour finish time.
Trail conditions started to deteriorate during the second lap. It was raining hard now. Long, wide puddles started to form as the runoff was sloughed off by the super-saturated soil to lay in natural and man-made declivities. With more than 100 runners on the course, stretches on the trail that had been wet soil on the first loop were now churned up, muddy and slippery. Nonetheless, the route was still "runnable", and my time at the end of two loops was 1:44, widening my sub-six cushion.
By lap three, all of the 5 and 10 milers were finished, but there were still enough 50K runners working like bipedal mixmasters to churn up the mud. Oh--did I mention it was still raining? I did a lot more wading and walking on this lap. My three-lap split was 2:45. It had taken me nearly 62 minutes to complete the circuit, but I still had a good margin for the sub-six goal.
Lap four introduced two new obstacles. The first was in the "trench", the long hill in the first mile of the route which has been carved over the years to resemble a half-pipe on a snowboard course. The bottom of the half-pipe was so churned up that it was like walking uphill in deep snow. I really felt the burn in my quads as I slogged up. The second obstacle was emergence of a knee-deep, 10-yard wide and 20-yard long "lake" that formed at the northeast corner of the route. There was no way around it, and going through it required great care. The footing beneath the water's surface was very treacherous--slippery mud, sloping ground, and exposed tree roots. It continued raining during this loop, and with dropping temperatures, snow was now mixed in with the rain. By now, my gloves were soaked, and inside those wet gloves, my hands were freezing. The trail along the eastern side had devolved into a series of long puddles and gooey mud. I started to have flashbacks to 1996. I had to stop during this loop to remove some debris from my shoe. It took a long time to get my mud-encrusted shoe laces loose, and even longer to loosen up my body to run again after a nearly 5 minute break. All of the twisting I was doing in the mud was playing hell with my spinal fusion. A 68 minute split for this lap reduced my sub-six cushion to only 6 minutes.
After jettisoning my sopping gloves and unwanted water bottle, I headed into the gloomy night for lap 5. Even though the rain had lessened, the conditions on the trail continued to deteriorate. The puddles and muddy sections grew wider and longer. My hamstrings started to get very tight, so that when I could run, I was running very slowly. Another 68 minute split put me at 5:02 on the clock. I still had a chance to break six hours, but I would have to do a lot more running on the final loop to make it.
I gulped down a Red Bull and plunged into the darkness and my last lap. It was raining hard again, and the snow flakes looked huge in the beam of my flashlight. I took a pretty hard fall, my only one of the night, just before reaching the trench. I slogged up it one last time, and continued walking long after topping out to let my legs recover. By now, the trail conditions had reached their nadir, and in my opinion, equal to those in 1996. I passed Stan Nakashima, another veteran of the 1996 race, who was on his fifth lap. He had finished last in the 1996 race with one shoe split apart and no flashlight. At least his shoes were intact and flashlight was working this year. As I continued along, I ticked off each of my own personal milestones on the course--the Trench, the first power line break, Horseshit Lake (new this year), Mount Stafford (the little climb after the first left-hand turn on the eastern side) the Eastern Front (the trail on the eastern side seems endless to me), the Big Dip (where the trail heads west once again, signaling an end to the Eastern Front), Dolphin's Turn (a right hand turn just past the uphill part of the Big Dip, where one year Bob Dolphin cheered on runners), and the second power line break. I call the part of the course from the second power line break to the final climb the "Backstretch". I like this part of the course, and I seem to be able to run it quickly. After running the Backstretch, I saw the glow stick marking the ascent of the final climb on the course. My legs were too shot to run any of the climb, so I walked all the way to the junction with single track trail, which by now so slippery that I walked most of that trail to the top of "The Knoll". In 1996, runners had been forced to climb over a large tree that had fallen over the trail at the top of the knoll. In other years, more downed trees had blocked the trail past the summit of "The Knoll". This year, there were no downed trees, just slimy mud and puddles. I made it thorough the single track section beyond the knoll, then down the road one last time to finish in 6 hours and 10 minutes. (I was listed as 6:15:40 in the official results--off by 5 minutes according to my watch.) I don't know if this year was worse than 1996, but it was certainly just as much "fun". Oh yeah, just this morning my legs and ankles broke out in a rash.
Steve "El Pinguino" Frederickson