I rounded a bend and at last, after some 50 miles, the trail was close enough that I could simply slide into the Northern Umpqua River. There I soaked, up to my thighs in the swift current, when a woman with trekking poles came around the bend and uttered a cursory “nice job” as she shuffled by me.
The NUT 100k trail race is a point-to-point uphill trail race along a contagious single track in the Umpqua National Forest east of Roseberg, Oregon. The terrain is rugged, heavily forested, and terribly beautiful.
Everything pointed to me having a spectacular day: I already had two 50-milers under my belt for the season; I finally had a handle on the medical challenges that dogged me for several months; I had a (mostly) relaxing road trip with the kids the days before the race; and, amazingly, I was able to sleep a full 8 hours the night before the race.
Coach Peter’s plan for me was to hit the first half hard because it has much less elevation gain and I would get more payback there for my effort than in the steeper back half.
As the race directors corralled the small field (maybe 75 runners) to the start line, I boldly stood right in front. Running in front was completely new territory for me. In the races where I have pulled off a 3rd-place finish, that has been by steady forward progress and catching the competition in the final miles of the course. I felt good and stayed finely tuned to the runners around me. I was the first woman.
The course headed down the first rocky, wet section around mile 5 and in one regrettable instant, I rolled my right ankle. I didn’t allow myself to look at it. I simply decided that a rolled ankle would not be the story of my day. I walked it off for a few steps, then continued to run down the hill.
Then, around mile 10, I felt a sharp sting on the inside of my left ankle. I instinctively reached down and pulled a dead bee out of the cuff of my sock. I kept stopping to look for a stinger, but the creature left behind no body parts. This would not be the story of my day.
I was with a small pack of men on the trail above the first crew aid station (mile 30) when I caught a filtered view of Javier and the kids. I yelled out “UNAFRAID” to them and hauled into the aid station. It was 15 minutes ahead of my most optimistic time projection and I was still the first woman.
As expected, the climbs became steeper and longer in the second half of the race. My ankle was fine on the uphill, but smarted on the downhills, especially on switchbacks or anything slightly technical. Every couple of hours it seemed to spontaneously roll again, just to remind me it was still there. That gave me a reason to appreciate the net-uphill nature of the course.
I came into the second crew aid station (about mile 47) still feeling good and enjoyed seeing the family. I spent a little longer there – perhaps 3 or 4 minutes – before hitting the trail again. Once on the trail, I remember putzing around with my shoes for some reason, but can’t recall why. The trail was easy there, but I lacked a sense of urgency.
Then came my river soak and the woman with the trekking poles. I didn’t see her bib, so I was confused for a few seconds… was she the second woman, or just someone out for a day adventure? She picked up her shuffle after she saw me, and then it clicked that I had just lost my lead in the ladies’ race.
I wasn’t mad or even annoyed. I just thought, “Huh, that’s not the story of my day… guess I’d better get moving.” I pulled myself up the river bank and the running came with ease on my rejuvenated legs. I quickly caught up and then the single track popped out onto one of the very few road sections of the course.
The tree-lined gravel road slightly climbed and offered a longish line of sight. I intently ran in a “light and springy” manner and allowed myself only one look back to see F2 diminishing in the distance. The course turned back onto single track after a mile and a half. The entire effort provided the mental and physical reset that I needed.
13.1 miles and about 3000′ of climbing to finish. Like running the Fain Animal Half Marathon, just with tired legs (and a sprained ankle) (and a bee sting) (but we are choosing to ignore those superficial inconveniences). It felt steeper, longer, harder than I expected. I was moving slowly, but staying just ahead of the small pack of men behind me. Where was F2 with the trekking poles? Or had another overtaken her, hunting me at this very moment?
These thoughts faded as the day cooled and the sun lowered in the sky, but even better, around every corner was a new water feature to delight the eyes and ears. Rapids and water falls of every sort decorated the trail-side. I soaked it in (mentally, not physically this time) and focused on my breathing.
My breathing had become labored, but it was manageable. Then, about 4 miles before the finish, my right ankle protested one final time. This time hurt as bad as the first. I yelled. I wondered if I’d be walking 4 miles to the finish. But I pulled it together and put on a huge smile for the remote water station just ahead.
The sweet girls there told me I looked fabulous and that my stride looked strong. Ha! They knew just what to say as they sent me up the final climb. I could not allow any more ankle rolls.
Finally, the course crossed a dam road at Lemolo Lake, where the evening view of Mt. Thielsen and the promise of finishing kept me going another 1/2 mile around the lake. Our son Alex greeted me just before a very short final climb to the finish.
“I’m going to run up behind you,” he said, with cow-bell in hand. Javier and Clara greeted me at the finish to celebrate my first-ever ultramarathon win, some 65 miles and 13 hours, 27 minutes later. Their presence made it perfect.
We texted my remote crew with the update. Their support, friendship, inspiration and camaraderie every training day made it possible: Peter (Run on Dirt Coaching), Jenelle, Pete B, and Betsy.
The Northern Umpqua Trail is a special place and the race management team did a great job providing a top-notch event. I highly recommend the NUT 100k and think the 50k distance would also be great, owing to the spectacular scenery and generous cut-off times.