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Mt. Hood 50

"Going to the mountains is going home." - John Muir

Though I didn't realize it then, the 2013 Mt. Hood 50 was one of the best races I have ever run.  At the time it was simply another race in a series of races in which I felt very confident and more or less invincible.  In hind sight, after analyzing the data on Strava I've come to realize that the reason things went so well is that I didn't allow myself to get caught up in a fast first half and stuck to a heart rate and nutrition plan so that I was able to make up a deep deficit over the second half. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mt. Hood 50 was also the last race I ran before debilitating back and hip pain began limiting my training and racing. (My previous post discusses my road to recovery).

Finishing the 2013 Mt. Hood 50 in a personal best and course record time with my son.
Photo by Katie Hendrickson
Since that time, I've longed to return to a place in my life where things click like that again. Naturally, I recognize that we can't always feel great at every race and that some days simply go better than others, but it has been a long time since I felt like I was in a groove. I've finished plenty of races in the two years since I last felt that sort of mind/body synergy and hoped that by returning to a familiar course with familiar faces - the Oregon trail running community is like family to me - I'd be able to find that flow once again.

Last year an uncharacteristic heat wave led to slower finishing times and it appeared as though this year might be even worse. With record high temps in late June throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, I figured managing the heat would pose the greatest challenge.  I bumped into last year's winner, Ryan Kaiser, at Western States a few weeks ago just after he placed 11th and he asked me if I'd be aiming for the course record at Mt. Hood.  I explained to him that after seeing so many capable people drop at Western due to the heat, keeping myself cool would be my primary goal at the Mt. Hood 50

After witnessing so many gutsy performances and spending time with so many inspiring people at Western States, I really wanted to race again.  I wanted to find out if I was back to my former fitness and could exceed what I had once done, but I knew that the weather and competition would be the limiting factors.  Like 2013, there were a couple of familiar names on the entrants list - some I knew and had raced before and others I had never met.  I was looking forward to the opportunity to meet new people, share the trails, and push one another to our best performances.

I awoke around 5:30 AM and did my usual 5 minute morning yoga routine from the back of my truck to get things aligned correctly.  Then I changed into my race kit and grabbed my Nathan Hydration Pack and a drop bag and made my way to the start line. 

Trying to decompress before the start of the race.  Photo by Paul Nelson.

My plan for the race was to consume as many calories and electrolytes as possible as efficiently as possible without upsetting my stomach. For breakfast, I ate a couple of Larabars with TrailButter and washed them down with some EFS Pro Lemon Water as I walked to the start.

Hydrating before the start of the race. Photo by Paul Nelson.

Like most mountain ultras, the start of this year's Mt. Hood 50 was pretty low-key. Unlike 2013, where I worked my way up for most of the race, I led from the gun and just tried to run within myself. For the first few miles, Jeff Ruhl and I ran together, but I eventually pulled away as we went through the first aid station.  He was carrying a bottle and I had all of my liquids in a pack so he had to stop a bit more than I.

On the way out to the first Out-and-Back. Photo by Paul Nelson.

I wore a Nathan Hydration Pack for the first 28 miles with 70 oz of EFS Lemon Water in it and sipped it at least every 5 minutes.  I also nursed flasks of EFS Liquid Shot and the new Trail Butter single serving squeeze pouches, aiming to consume at least 400 calories per hour. When I went through aid stations I usually grabbed a handful of gummy bears and potato chips to mix things up.  Thanks to the volunteers who patiently tolerated my ravenous reach for simple sugars, salts, and starches. Sorry Ken, for spilling the gummy bears. 

We ran by a couple of mountain lakes under the shadows of Mt. Hood and a pretty dense fog on the Pacific Crest Trail so I didn't really know where I was in relation to any of the other runners until we reached the end of the first out-and-back at mile 14. When I got to the aid station I was in the lead, but the next runner, Rob Russell, was right there when I turned around.  He had to stop for a second and fill up his bottle while I grabbed some chips and gummy bears and was on my way. 

Returning from the first turnaround. Photo by Paul Nelson.
I tried to take the climbs easy and stride out on the flats and descents.  I'm about a foot taller than Rob so I was able to put a bit of a gap on him on the long downhills and through the aid stations.  My 70 oz bladder of EFS Lemon Water went dry at about mile 27 with a mile to go before I'd switch out the packs at the Start/Finish area.

Coming through the Start/Finish area after the first turnaround at mile 28.
Switching out my hydration pack for a new one filled with more fuel.
Photo by Paul Nelson. 
My family had a second pair of Altra Running shoes and plenty of ice and gear awaiting me at the Clackamas Ranger Station aid station at mile 28, but I also had some very capable runners right behind me and I was feeling pretty good so I just rolled through the aid station and tried to save as much time as possible in transition.  I swapped out the hydration pack I was wearing and picked up another one fully stocked with 70 oz of EFS Lemon Water in the bladder, two bottles of iced Coke up front, and enough salt and sugar to get me through the next 22 miles.  

I quickly downed the two bottles of Coke before the next aid station to both reduce the weight of the pack and get in some quick calories.  I ditched the empty bottles at the aid station and then continued with chilled EFS Lemon Water for the next 10 miles.  

As I made my way through the halfway point and started to do the math, it looked like I might be able to beat my previous best of 6:12 for both the course and the distance.  For a while it looked like I might even be able to break 6:00, but about the instant that thought entered my mind, I tripped on a root and ate it pretty hard.  Fortunately, I was carrying a water bottle at the time and the PCT is pretty cushioned compared to the trails I train and race on in Arizona so I was happy I didn't tear up my hands like I usually do.  

Almost there.  Just a couple of miles to go before reaching the finish.  Photo by Paul Nelson.
Despite the fact that my watch wasn't picking up all of the satellites, I estimated that our first 50K was under 3:40.  Right about that point, the weight of the effort began to hit me. The last 22 mile stretch is a bit more exposed and also a bit more challenging than the first 28.  I took confidence in knowing that if I was hurting at that point, most others who had been running a similar pace would likely be hurting as well. I also made up a lot of ground in the second half in 2013, so I was hoping I could get through it without entirely blowing up. 

The way to the final turnaround with 11 miles to go seemed a lot further away than it really was, but I finally reached it without succumbing to the desire to hike. I ate two slices of watermelon, doused my head with water, and grabbed a few handfuls of gummy bears and potato chips for the road. As I made my way back toward the finish I saw the next runners, Rob Russell and Tyler Green, about 5 and 8 minutes back.  This gave me momentary comfort knowing that I had a cushion. I knew that there would be a few more climbs followed by a long gradual descent into the finish. I was cramping by that point and wasn't sure how much longer I could stay upright.  I ended up hiking a couple of the final climbs so that I could catch my breath and regroup. 

Not the most flattering photo, but this is what I look like when I'm ready to be done.  Photo by Paul Nelson
It was heating up, so I ditched my pack and picked up my water bottles at the last aid station.  It felt good to have an extra layer off of me and holding the bottles on the descent allowed me to stretch out my arms and ride whatever momentum I had going into the finish. Fortunately, the last few miles were non-technical downhill so I was able to hold off the challengers.

Going into the race, my overall goal was to run smart and finish strong.  I was really hoping to be able to race the entire 50 miles.  Fortunately, things came together enabling me to stack my training and nutrition together for a solid effort.

Finishing with my son.  He obviously had a lot more energy than I. Photo Terry Johnsen.
Finishing with my son.  Photo by Paul Nelson.

Relieved to finally reach the line.  Photo Terry Johnsen.
Exhausted and satisfied. Photo by Jennifer Love.
Finishing on Empty. Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.
When we finally reached the finish a little more than three minutes faster than the previous course record, I was completely exhausted yet overcome with satisfaction that these last two years of trials and toil had not been in vain.  Maybe I still have a little left in the basement after all.  

After finishing, we enjoyed visiting with friends and fellow finishers for a few hours before we had to pack up and return to the other side of the state so that our son could participate in his first glow stick run, the Neon Nights 5K.  He was excited about having his little sister ride alongside him in the stroller.  He was also excited to be staying up even later than usual. 

Many thanks to each of the participants and volunteers who cheered, encouraged, and supported me out on the course.  Thank you to my family and sponsors for supporting me over the last few years even when I wasn't doing as well as we all had hoped.  Thank you for enabling me to get back on the horse and do what I love.  Thank you Renee, Todd, and Trevor for putting on great races and creating such a familial feel at each of your events.  Thank you, Paul and Brandon, for being out there and capturing so much of the race on film.

Next Up: Trans Rockies Run 6 with my brother, Tommy Rivers Puzey

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer to the documentary Paul Nelson Film and Photography is doing about our journey.  

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