You’re probably all thinking it… ‘what on earth do those three things have to do with each other?’ Bear with me for a moment or two, and I’ll see if I can get there.
This past Saturday I raced (ran) the Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, WA in possibly the worst weather I think I have ever raced in. Given that it took me a solid 45+ minutes longer than I thought, I had some quality time with my newest pair of shoes to mull over my relationship with the synthetic marshmallow like pieces of foam that encased my feet. In case you missed the latest, I recently invested in (an incredibly on sale) pair of the space shoes I once ridiculed people for wearing. This comes from a beginning battle with calf and minor heel pain from too much running in the minimalist shoes and then the realization that I didn’t actually want to feel the ground after 25 miles, let alone one hundred. Followed by the much anticipated release of the Brooks Cascadia 7, with them falling short of standard, and me falling, quite literally, flat on the ground. I was running trails in tough conditions, in bad shoes and becoming quickly demoralized by twisting ankles and not finding a good running stride. I was willing try to anything, as I firmly believed I couldn’t be a trail runner again.
Jumping on the Hoka wagon wasn’t something I actually thought I would do, until I had already done it. I just simply wanted to try them on, but then before you know it I was doing a 15 mile snow run, just to see if I could possibly think about wearing them for Chuckanut. Then, I was in Bellingham on a cold and rainy Saturday morning in the middle of March lining up for one of the (if not the) fatest 50k trail races anywhere. I had one “real” long day on the shoes in snow, and let me tell you, these things are like skis! They tend to float on top and glissade pretty nicely, you can even do a nice stop by turning sideways on edge. Regardless of how much they float on snow, I was having my doubts about wearing them in the mud that theoretically had claimed the course in the prior week’s worth of rain. Jenny convinced me that I should at least start the race when I woke up to 35F after a full night of pouring rain resounding on the roof and scenery along the likes of this:
Despite the ridiculously fast line-up at the starting line Saturday morning, I had a few things going for me:
1) I was not, nor do I ever intend to be, going for a purse prize. Running in a race with the big kids is one thing, pretending I can hang with them, not likely
2) As I mentioned in my previous post, I have learned I can hack my way through (almost) anything
3) The race was at sea level, and amazingly flat
4) The rain in the Pacific Northwest is really more like a pleasant pitter/patter and drizzle; nothing like the rain in the midwest, where a rain was a full on downpour!
I had reluctantly walked my way from parking at the finish to the start, just shy of a mile away. I clung to my Gore-Tex shell until the last possible moment and commiserated with others about the weather and the question of snow to arrive on course that day. Walking around the start line was the ultra running equivalent of walking around Hollywood; the area was filled tons of “stars,” even ones who weren’t actually racing themselves. We watched the elite wave take off and then I realized that my hands were going through the biting pain of numbing fingers due to the cold and wet start. 10 minutes could not go by fast enough and when we finally got started I found myself wishing for the course to go straight uphill. The first, and last, 6.5 miles of the course are on a mostly flat, mostly mundane (but nice), interurban path — really just a mix of gravel/dirt footpath with a fairly packed surface (this comes back to bite me in the ass later). I picked up the pace a bit on this stretch out because, well I could, and in trail running, you generally make the best of running where you can. I kept it moving, felt good, and about 35 minutes in, I realized that my fingers, in fact, were not actually going to fall off and I should probably plan on actually running the race. At mile 6.7, we picked up single track and headed up into the Chuckanut Mountains for what would become a relatively long wet and muddy day.
We climbed and descended on beautiful PNW single track through a quiet forest; on the way up the rain quickly turned to snow making for a idyllic romp through the woods. The mud wasn’t too bad; fortunately, Washington mud is not like Utah (or SoCal) mud, it gets gross and slippery but doesn’t glop up and stick to your shoes like the clay back home. The shoes and I were doing fantastic! I was running up, over and through things that I hadn’t been in ages. If you haven’t noticed from the pictures, they have a pretty high sole around them which makes life wonderful when running through snow and little mud puddles, it takes something pretty deep before your feet get wet (…cold). You don’t have to waste too much energy running around things and can just bust right through them. Eventually we made our way up to the Ridge Trail, which is exactly as it sounds, a ridge trail. This ridge trail is nice, and although technical, rarely resembles the insane rocky ridge trails one finds in Utah, or say Bozeman. It was fairly runnable on a bad day, so I imagine under drier circumstances, you could fly down it. People kept asking me if the shoes were doing alright, as they seem to have a reputation for being terrible in the mud/traction department. To be honest, they were doing great and I don’t think I would have had much traction in anything else, even the Salomon super shoes, and from watching other people slide around I was probably right. I continued to run really well, no ankle twisting, not even the slightest feeling of instability in the shoes, and believe me I hit some stuff that I would have been on the ground crying with had I been wearing the Cascadia. We hit the “other side” of the mountain, as people were referring to it as and the mud, as promised, got worse; things got pretty slow for the next 5 miles here.
Mud like this, which is lacking a depth indicator in the photo, gives a new meaning to the term “slog”. Though I was able to run down a lot, there were brutal uphill battles through this stuff. I was so happy to see the mile 20 aid station before the infamous Chinscraper climb. Some salt and pepper krinkle cut potato chips, gingerale and gummy bears and I was up.
This was about a mile (?) of steep and very slippery mud, including a small 15-foot long section in the photo above, where you grab on to tree roots and rocks for fear of sliding back down and having to start all over again.
Getting over the hill, I bombed down about 3 miles of fire/logging road. This is where I knew the shoes and I were friends. Over 24 miles in with a substantial percentage on hardpack/road and in cold muddy conditions at a decently fast pace and I didn’t feel the ground. I was drinking the kool-aid, albeit a different color kool-aid, but it tasted good. Amy and Jon met me with about 6 to go, and ran with me for two miles before I sent them on their way to finish their run at a reasonable pace. The last four miles were a bit of a mental pain for me, it was mostly flat, boring, straight path… which makes for a fast course, or an annoying end. Annoying end aside, the sun came out for the finish and a St. Paddy’s day afternoon. We proceeded to grab fantastic beer and Irish themed grub at Boundary Bay Brewery and enjoy the cute coastal town.
…anyhow back to the shoes, that’s why you’re really here, right? Like I said, I’m drinking the kool-aid. It’s a nice pretty blue compared to the green kool-aid of the minimalist shoes I was wearing prior to that, but whatever works right? Over the more than six hours it took me to bust through that course I had a few epiphanies about the shoes. I need to credit awesome biker Allison Mann with the thought that these shoes are my Dumbo’s Feather (also whatever due credit to the Walt Disney enterprise). I was having terrible trail runs, bobbling everywhere in what I felt were unstable shoes, to the point where I could barely scramble a 9 mile run and would call it quits there on something that should have been 15. I was getting a little depressed, losing confidence and irritated, to the point where I would have tried ANYTHING. Enter the Hoka’s; these shoes are like the 29’er or Hummer equivalent to running shoes. Tired of wasting energy (or confidence) on going around rocky and unstable obstacles? Try these, they’re so big they will just bust right through anything and give you stability to boot. Placebo effect? Maybe. Regardless, on less than ideal training, I just ran a fantastic trail race, did not even wobble on ankle and bombed downhill like my former self. Maybe it was just what I needed to get myself going again, but I’ll take whatever I can get. And by the way, I’ve decided that if I want to ‘feel the earth’ on 30, or 50, or 100 miles, that I’ll grab a pile of dirt with my hand, otherwise I am happy being isolated and insulated from the ground.
In other news, it was 75F here last night at 7 pm on my recovery run… I think we skipped spring and went straight to summer!