My Mt Baker Ultra Experience

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Veni, vidi…I did not conquer. That’s the gist of my year long goal of flying to Washington last week to run and complete the Mt. Baker Ultra, a 56 mile race that had runners summit Mt. Baker’s Sherman’s Peak and then run back. It was a hard race…point in fact, it was the toughest race I’ve ever gone after. I’ve done a lot of ultras and, have dnf’d many but, this has been one of the very few races that has thoroughly kicked my ass. I was unable to finish it simply because I could not meet the 11:00 am cutoff to make it to the summit. I pushed myself hard on this one but still could not beat the clock. I’ve never been as exhausted on a race as I was during this one, especially when I hit the snow section. With every step I sunk several inches into snow…every several feet I would sink in the snow to my knees. There was four miles of this nonsense until you reached the glacier, which I never made it to, sadly. If I had made it to the glacier that would of entailed 1933′ feet of elevation gain in 3/4’s of a mile to reach the summit.

I went to Washington as mentally and physically prepared as I could. This race was a very important race to me. It combines two of my great loves – ultra running and mountaineering. Actually, as far as I know, it is the only race that combines ultra running and mountaineering…two very tough to do sports. So, to make a long story longer, I signed up for the Mt. Baker Ultra last year after being given a second chance at life. You see, I had a pretty bad case of pericarditis last summer. It was so bad that it almost killed me. Doctors had to perform an emergency operation and in doing so removed over a liter of fluid from around my heart. My heart was so swollen with fluid that my left lung was pinched and not functional. Add to it that I’m now over 50 years old and my body just doesn’t recover as well as it used to. So, my recovery has been very slow and frustrating. I have been fraught with injury after injury. At the beginning of this year I injured my back. Two weeks after that, I suffered a knee injury that prevented me from running literally from Feb 6th to mid-April. By the time I began my taper my longest training run before Mt Baker was 14.5 miles. That just wasn’t ample running time for a race of this caliber. In retrospect, it was probably not a wise decision for me to sign up for a race of this difficulty and intensity without at least a half year of heavy running. I wanted this race, though. I wanted it badly. So, I trained hard with what I could which was lots of rowing on a concept two rower, lots of stationary bike riding and, topped that with some serious stair master training. If I couldn’t pound the asphalt with my feet I was going to do my best with other types of endurance training. And, that did help but it still wasn’t enough.

By signing up for the Mt Baker Ultra I was hoping to reclaim all that I have lost since the pericarditis I experienced last summer. I thought, one year of training would be enough. Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the injuries I suffered. They took me out of training for too long. I needed more training in running. I needed a faster pace. I had strength for the climbs but I didn’t have the speed needed to cover the first 21 miles at a faster pace. The first 21 miles of of this race was on forest roads with what appeared on map to be gradual elevation gain of 3200′. What I did not anticipate was that some of the elevation gains came rapidly and steeply. The course would then even out and, at times, even drop down a several hundred feet only to climb steeply again. My plan was to run the first 21 miles at a 12-13 minute per mile pace. By the time I reached aid station three (the 21 mile mark and start of the trail running section) my knee was throbbing and my overall pace was 17-18 minute per mile.

By the time the trail cleared to open mountain I was way behind my projected schedule. On the snow, I knew that I would be slowed significantly but again, I misjudged how slow I would be. I tried to move faster on the snow but just couldn’t. Slipping, sliding and punching through deep snow made progress very slow. My trekking poles were a huge benefit on the snow! Sadly, by the time I reached aid station 4 I knew that my race was over. The volunteers at that station were amazing but honest. They melted snow and gave me enough water to fill up my two water bottles but they said that I could push on but I would be turned away when I reach aid station 6. The 11:00 am cutoff for the summit is pretty strict. It has to be. It was very warm that Saturday and the snow was melting fast, making for an unstable glacier climb. The safety precautions that the race management put in place were impressive and extreme. The 11:00 am cutoff was put in place and enforced for the safety of the runners and the race crews. You have to respect that on a mountain like Mt Baker. The summit conditions had deteriorated significantly. The size of the summit had decreased from six feet across to two feet across. I stared hard at the summit from my vantage point which was still two miles away. I said to no one in general, “that’s that” and, sat down on a large rock outcrop and dug out a bagel from my backpack. I ate it and started my trek back down.

One of the more important things I’ve learned from mountaineering is that the mountain sets the rules and you have to respect it if you want to be around for another shot at it. At the rate I was moving I would of reached Aid station 6, which is just shy of the summit, by at least 12:30 pm.

As I worked my way back down I pulled out my camera and took some pictures. I had tried to stay away from my camera while I was still in the race as I did not want any distractions. Now that the race was over for me I took time to take in the beautiful vistas of Washington state. I worked my way back down to Aid station 2 where Kerry was waiting for me.

At Aid station 2, the volunteers greeted me warmly with m&m’s, fresh watermelon and hot espresso coffee. The volunteers throughout the race were simply amazing. They all made me feel so welcomed and appreciated. They gave me five star treatment. I hope they know how much I appreciated them!

Kerry and I drove down to the finish line from Aid station 2 and had a great conversation with the RD, Dan Probst. Dan is one heck of a guy! His passion for this race is so obvious. And, the safety of his runners and crews was not second by any stretch. For the past three years he has pulled off an incredibly difficult race to hold. There are so many parts to this race and, safety is the biggest concern. Dan Probst and crew laid out 9300 feet of rope for this race! They marked a course on the open mountain by probing with long rods to ensure the runners and crew would not inadvertently walk over a crevasse that was hidden by snow. The aid stations had everything a runner needed to fuel and go. I am thoroughly impressed.

The 2020 Mt Baker Ultra race opens for registration tomorrow and, I’m signing up for it again.

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