A few months ago, totally crazy friends of mine convinced me to sign up for a brand new, invite-only “fatass” style race being held in the Cascade mountains. “Let’s road trip!”, they said. “It’ll mostly be a camping trip with a (50km) side of running thrown in!”, they said. “Who doesn’t love a good fun run?!”, they said.
They were right on all counts, and then some. What they didn’t mention was the fact that there was approximately 10,000 feet of climbing crammed into this slightly-over-50km distance, or that the route would cover some of the most challenging sections of the renowned Cascade Crest 100 miler route (I suppose in hindsight, the fact that it was being organized by that very same race director, Rich White, should have been my first clue).
Side note: for those who don’t know, a fatass style event generally means that you are mostly on your own out there, aside from an informal group start and just enough flagging and aid on the course to keep it from being a self supported adventure. Personally, I love fatass events. All the fun of a race minus the race. Everyone wins. If they don’t get lost, that is.
I packed my bags for the weekend in a flurry of last minute panic, not sure exactly what the aid stations would offer at this minimal style event, and headed towards Easton, WA, with Tara Barry and Alicia Woodside, two of the members of the “Canadian contingent” that was proportionally well represented. We left Vancouver quite late, as we all had that minor issue of jobs (aka paycheque that funds adventures) to deal with, but eventually found the farm we were camping on and wandered through a field or two (or was that the airfield? Kind of looked the same..) in the pitch black before spotting Tory’s epic new Van/Portable home and setting up camp noisily (sorry, everyone else who thought a group of teenage hooligans was passing through!).
I had originally planned on taking the early start option at 6am, since I’d heard rumours that this course was a slow one and I really didn’t want to run for any longer than I had to (can you sense how enthusiastic I was about the running part? Mostly I was just excited to sit in a camp chair and drink). Due to the late arrival, however, we all opted to sleep in and take the regular 8am-ish start…which we took a little too literally, showing up to register just as the race (I mean fun but long run) was about to start.
The Americans humoured our disorganized selves and let us get checked in and organized (my story was it was jet lag that made us late, not the wine we drank from the bottle in Tory’s van after our arrival). I was impressed by the detailed map and step by step directions we were all given and required to carry, and started to feel a bit more optimistic about the prospect of not ending up lost, which I had more or less considered inevitable.
With a cheerful 3-2-1, Rich and his co-conspirator Adam Hewey shooed us out of the gates, and so the inaugural Needles 50km began. I loosely stuck with our group, and soon settled into a comfortable pace with Tara and Alexa. Well, comfortable for them at least. I quickly realized that my whole “not really feeling this whole running all day thing” was translating in a whole lot of unmotivated movement, which is really quite counterproductive. I tried giving myself an attitude adjustment, which didn’t work all that well, and then resigned myself to keeping Tara and Alexa in sight as they floated up the ridges
Ah yes. UP. That part is key. There is lots of up in this course. It doesn’t get the name “Needles” for nothing. In fact, the course profile is basically one big climb followed by about 6 steep, vertical and switchback-less summits (and equally steep descents), followed by a long descent into Aid Station #1, and then repeat that entire formula again.
Second very exciting thing: a cameo from perennial favourite race photographer Glenn Tachiyama, who was perched on one of the many ridge climbs capturing our suffering as we stumbled towards him. For the first time ever, I didn’t even have the energy to even fake a run as I went past him. It was one of those days.
Thirdly, both the flagging and the Aid Stations were bigger and better than advertised and expected. There still wasn’t much “comfort” flagging to assure you that you were on the course, but every time it counted (intersections or other potentially confusing areas), it was well flagged and I never once felt the need to pull out my mandatory map to figure out where I was. The Aid Stations were like two little oasis for me, stocked with all the delicious comforts ultra runners love to inhale (Coke! Pickles! Chips! Watermelon! …and the piece de resistance at AS #2, Popsicles!!!). In general, I was really blown away by how well run this “barebones” event was. Not to mention all entrants received a cool topography buff – definitely a nice touch. Kudos to all involved in making this event such a great success.
Climbing out of the first aid station, I maintained my tenuous connection to Tara and Alexa, and the time passed by as we chatted with other runners and enjoyed the beautiful single track (as it disappeared above us, heading ever upwards). I had found a solid climbing rhythm by this point, and the “needles” on the second half didn’t seem quite so pointy as they did on the first half. All good things must come to an end, however, and my little bubble came crashing down as I toe-picked on a rock heading down from Thorp Mountain (too busy staring at the view and not my feet!?), and went down hard in a blaze of flailing windmill-arms. More devastatingly, I landed exactly on my knees, which I had unfortunately smashed only 4 days earlier, and was already nervous about aggravating. After a few moments of lying in the dirt having a pity party and wishing for an Undo button on the last 30 seconds of the day, I picked myself up and did a little once over. Bloody knees, check. Funny sensation in my right knee like my kneecap was moving around in its socket, check. Consensus: not great, but still mobile. Alexa and Tara kindly slowed down for me as I walked for a few minutes and performed some minor self-assessments on my knees before deciding to keep going at a more conservative pace. Big shoutout to Tara and Alexa for being so unwilling to drop me, despite my adamant insistence they go ahead without me (I was secretly sooo glad they didn’t, tho!). ❤
As we trucked along, I suddenly felt a sharp needle-like sensation on my left quad that felt suspiciously like something just bit me. The almost immediate swelling of the area confirmed my suspicion quickly, although it had been years since I was last bit or stung by anything more than a mosquito. However, I do love a good science experiment, and I watched in morbid fascination as my leg ballooned as I ran.
Luckily we weren’t that far from the finish (about 10km out at that point), but we were still far enough away to allow time for my camelback bladder to somehow become undone, and subsequently dump the contents of my almost full 1.5 litre bladder down my back. By this point I had already acknowledged that this just wasn’t my day, despite it being a rather beautiful one amidst some rather spectacular scenery, and I resigned myself to finishing the day looking like I had done a very thorough job of peeing my pants. You win some, you lose some. Let’s just call this race great mental training.
The finish line lay at the end of the long, grass airfield that bordered our campsite, and I staggered across, feeling rather grateful to stop moving. Massive love to Tara and Alexa for the fantastic company and incentive to keep moving out there all day. The relaxed atmosphere at the finish was pretty awesome, as were the massive bins of pasta and salad that someone had prepared for everyone to share post-race. Amazing! We lounged on the grass on the field, basking in the glow of the warm July sun and stuffed full of good food, cheering until the very last racers came in. (Building a human “bridge” for the husband and wife duo that made up our last finishers was a total highlight. I love this community!)
As I looked around, I was reminded of (some of the reasons) why I love this sport so much. It may not have been my easiest day out there, but I really can’t argue with the feeling of immense contentment that I still feel after I finish each race and curl up somewhere comfortable with a bag of potato chips and some good friends. It really can’t be beat.
While official results show that we tied three-ways for 3rd place female in a time of 8:13, Tara and Alexa were definitely the stronger ones out there on that day, and I’m just glad I could hang on for the ride and spend some time with these badass girls <3. And results completely aside, the beauty of a fatass event is that it really isn’t about racing or who placed where – it’s about spending time in incredible places, exploring new terrain, and spending time with friends. The inaugural Needles 50km accomplished this in spades.