Angel’s Staircase: 50 Mile Race Report

excerpted from Donald Zoch’s blog

I signed up for this training program in May on a whim after running the Eugene marathon. I had grown tired of running road marathons and finding them slightly less fulfilling with each one that I ran or raced. The Boston qualifying time that I had been targeting had been somewhat close but increasingly out of reach. I was burnt out on always obsessing over what pace I’m running and trying to balance being a sleep deprived father to two young children, one born last November, and being a fairly overworked systems engineer at my company.  I needed something new, as I wouldn’t be able to take training through another hot summer for another marathon out on the roads.

I had been experimenting with running trails off and on, mainly on the greenbelt and as I did it more and more , realized that I run primarily because I need to be outdoors and trails really fit that need.

I was looking at the Rogue web site and casually browsing the trail training programs and came across Angels Staircase and decided to register a few days later.  I figured running on the trails , spending hours of my time, not caring much about my pace and just enjoying the dirt, rocks, and trees would be a nice change for me.   I wanted something beyond 26.2 miles that would be a challenge just to finish.  I figure I might as well go all out and shoot for 50 miles. Is it crazy?  Yes, given all of the warnings on the Angels Staircase web site about how difficult it was and that you had to be ‘qualified’ to run it.  I could always downgrade to 50k if I needed to but knowing myself, I would not do that unless something catastrophic happened .  I would push myself as hard as I needed to, being smart of course about listening to my body.  The trails and slower pace allowed me to run further than I normally do on the roads.

It took me a while to let go of constantly looking at my Garmin to see what pace I was running, and a nasty fall or two to learn how to traverse the rockier trails of the greenbelt .  With time, I found myself almost never running on the roads.   I’ve trained with Rogue off and on for marathons since 2004. I’ve had various coaches all of which have been good. Let me tell you though, Erik Stanley is the best.  This guy is one of the most kind hearted, encouraging coaches that you will ever have.  He cares about the group and it is more than just something he does on the side of being an elite runner.   The training turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined, in part due to the heat and the intensity of hill training involved in getting ready for this race.

Most Tuesday evenings of the summer at 6pm, we were out at the Hill of Life, doing lots of brutal hill repeats in 100+ degree temperatures.  I was doing as many as 16 miles in these  conditions , consuming several liters of water sometimes per run and salt tablets every half hour.  I figured these conditions would somewhat mimic the difficulty of running in the mountains.
We also traveled to Colorado and I did a run of 30 miles with about 8500 feet of elevation gain at peak altitudes of over 12000 feet.  That was an eye opener and a  very humbling experience, but was key in getting me ready for Angels Staircase.  Erik planned out our run for us, made sure we had water and food, filtering water from mountain streams to fill our hydration packs.  He really went above and beyond to ensure that we had a good experience.

So, we get to Washington, some of us having some flight difficulties but make it to Winthrop just fine. When Erik gets in we take a group trip out to the trailhead which is about 30 miles from Winthrop in Carlton. We find James the race director there, introduce ourselves, and have him take a group picture of us. Later, we all have a wonderful dinner of grilled meat, veggies and pasta and Erik gives us encouragement. He tells us that when we are feeling down during the race to stop, take a look around at the mountains, think about what we are grateful for and enjoy the experience.  Running in the mountains is a completely different experience.

After a large dinner , I set my alarm for 2:45am and headed to bed . I slept surprisingly well but awoke around 2am, ready to go.  I had to get to the start by 4:30am, to check in for an early start . The 50 milers were allowed to start an hour early to ensure that we finished before dark . Given that I had never run 50 miles before and from my experience in Colorado, I decided to get out there as early as possible.
I ate a bagel with peanut butter, Clif bar , and had some coffee and drove out to the Foggy Dew trailhead.  It was dark. I was thankful that I brought my headlamp with me because I would be running in the dark for a little while before the sun came up. I checked in at the table after using the porta potties a couple of times.  It was pleasantly cool outside.  The rest of the group was going to arrive around 5am as they weren’t starting the race till 6am.  There were 3 50 milers that were starting early.  James the race director, counted down from 10 and told us ‘go’.   My fellow Rogues wished me luck and I was off.

It was very slow going in the dark. I went slow, headlamp on, knowing that in the first few miles I’d be climbing 5000 feet. It really didn’t seem too difficult.  It was much easier to breathe than in Colorado, being at a lower altitude. The sun came up and I put my headlamp away .  I was constantly sipping water, taking my SI caps at 30 minute intervals , and took one gel before I made it to the first aid station at mile 5.  I was the first one to the aid station.  I wasn’t too hungry or anything but made it a point to eat as much as I could handle since there weren’t all that many aid stations on the course and I knew my body would need it.  I don’t normally eat chocolate candy or much candy at all normally but I was stuffing my face with Snickers bars , Twix, M&Ms.

After the aid station the sun was completely up and I started climbing again.   The sun was up and I slowly made it two and a half miles further to the top of Angels Staircase . I was blown away by the amazing scenery. I was up there by myself. Nobody was in sight.  I stopped, looked around, took it all in, and had this euphoric feeling that I can’t describe. I don’t know if it was the candy kicking in or what. I got a little emotional , as I would quite often during the day. I had to take a couple of pictures before I headed back down.

After about a couple miles of downhill and flat running, I made it to the next aid station at mile 10 . I was the first person there also.  I ate as much candy as I could, took some gel and candy with me and filled up with water. There was another small climb after that, then there was some pretty good downhill until the aid station at mile 17.  I fell around mile 15 or so while hitting some of the rugged downhill and right as that happened the leader passed me after asking if I was ok. The fall wasn’t too bad, but it reminded me that I needed to be more careful.  So finally made it to the aid station at 17 and had a good amount  of food there.  I had some coke, some of a turkey sandwich, some of a peanut butter sandwich and I think some M&Ms. The leader of the 50 mile race had just gone through there .

The next almost 3 miles were on a dirt road before going back onto the trail. I was able to run those miles faster than I had been going as well as the next couple of miles on the trail before the climbing started again.  I was struggling pretty good on the next climb and started getting pretty tired. This was I believe around mile 21.  There was a water only aid station before the climbing started, plus I stopped to lube up my feet because I had a pretty bad blister while running in Colorado and didn’t need that today. I had concerns about my feet swelling late in the race because I have experienced that running in the Austin heat while being dehydrated and not replenishing my electrolytes.  So I went up a half size in shoes for this race, and to prevent blisters wore double socks and greased the hell out of my feet a couple of times.  This strategy seemed to work well as my feet were in pretty good shape after I finished.   There was about 1500 feet of climbing followed by a couple of smaller hills, then another 1000.  That would complete the first loop and I  returned to the same aid station that I’d been to at mile 10. I was starting to get tired, but I was pretty good spirits during this time .  At this point it wasn’t any harder than what we had done in Colorado.

There was a ton of downhill after mile 31 to the next aid station at 37.   I felt pretty good, but this was new territory for me.  30 was the furthest that I’d ever run before. I knew there was 2000 feet of climbing after that aid station.  So the aid station came and went. I ate more candy and talked a little bit with the volunteers there.  The next few miles were very tough.  My calf muscles were so shot at this point. I knew though that at this point I’d surely finish this thing and I knew also that the last 5 miles would be downhill after I got to the next and final aid station , so that was what kept me going.  Relentless Progress Forward.

I was starting to forget to drink water and wasn’t clear on when I was taking my SI caps at this point.  These miles went by really slow.  But I made it eventually to the aid station. It was slightly further than what it was supposed to be or at least my Garmin said it was.  The last final miles were downhill. The downhill didn’t hurt too badly as my  uphill muscles were the ones that hurt.

I was trying to be really careful at this point not to get going too fast and fall.  I don’t think I could have gotten back up if I would have fallen.  The miles went by pretty fast. Very similar to the last miles of a marathon.  Finally I saw the flags at the finish line and I heard cheering. All the Rogue people were still there after finishing long before me.  All of the attention was on me finishing and it felt incredible. I high fived the race director and then made my way to a chair, a beer, and some food.  I was done.  Not much emotion due to mainly just being tired.
50.15 miles, my Garmin told me. I’ll remember this experience forever and I have proven to myself that I am pretty tough and that when I am determined to do something,  there is not much that can stop me.   Thanks to my wonderful wife , Amy and my two awesome children, Jeremy and Aubrey for putting up with my long hours on the trails.  Thanks to Erik Stanley and all of my fellow Angels Staircase finishers who are all amazing people and of course Rogue.   On to the next challenge, whatever that may be.

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