(June 27, 2018)
There are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of legitimate, challenging races in the Pacific Northwest to choose from. And yet, some need more. A local ultrarunner, George Orozco, used the fact that the Issaquah/North Bend region had multiple mountain climbs to design a series of races that linked these climbs in brutally difficult efforts. Runners could choose from 50k (4 summits), 100k (6 summits) or 100 miles (10 summits). It has become a bit of a “rites of passage” for locals to tackle one or more of these challenges. Attempts and results are logged on a Facebook page. Maps are stored on a WordPress site, but exact details of the trails are not explained. Runners are encouraged to tackle the course in a solo, unsupported fashion which means carrying all the required food, clothing and accessories in a pack. In addition, as there are no formal aid stations as in a race, water must be captured as you go using the streams from the mountain tops. It certainly creates pause for those who want the glory of crowds and all the support that formal races offer. But once conquered, it prepares you for another level of racing.
I had watched the Facebook page for over a year, marveling at the uniqueness and accomplishments. As I made progress in my climbing efforts I decided to make a go at the 50k distance and began scouting the trails. The climbs themselves were pretty standard – Mailbox (up and down old trail), Teneriffe (up Kamikaze, down longer way, Mt. Si, and Little Si. The mystery was in the connectors. I used my Wednesday runs to explore these, carrying the CalTopo maps with me. It took 3 different scouting missions but I figured out how the course was laid out. Knowing that I would need as much light as possible, I selected late June as the target date. Given the race starts at Mailbox and ends at the trailhead for Little Si, I asked Lynne to meet me at the “finish line” and drive me back to the start where I would park my car.
I woke about 3:30am and couldn’t get back to sleep so took my time preparing all my gear and headed off to Mailbox as the sun was rising. It was about a 45 minute drive and I arrived at the trailhead around 5:40. There were a couple of women heading out with their dogs. The good part about a solo run is you can start whenever you want 🙂 so at 5:48am I began the trek up Mailbox.
The first half mile is reasonable and I was able to jog most of it before the climbing began in earnest. Mailbox is notorious for its steepness and after 20 minutes or so, I was already beginning to sweat. It was cool out – I had selected an ideal day for the run with temps in the 50s and 60s. Plodding along, I made it to the join with the newer, gentler trail right at 2.7 miles as advertised. Soon I was bounding up a field of boulders and then one last section of vertical before reaching the iconic mailbox itself. This is a popular destination for hikers in the Seattle area, but I was all by myself early on this Wednesday and enjoyed the stunning view of Mt. Rainier in the distance (see the top of this post).
I carefully made my way down – it’s real easy to miss a step here and turn an ankle or even worse, faceplant. I jumped across the boulders running into the women and their dogs, who also had taken the old trail up. I veered off to return down on the old trail – something I had not done before as it is much harder and not as fun as flying down the new trail. It was punishing and slow going as I had expected but because it’s much shorter I was able to make it down to the start in 2:45, well ahead of the time I had allotted for this section. It was a good start to the day.
The next section started a 1/4 mile away at the Granite Creek Trail. It meandered along mostly uphill for 2-3 miles. The first section had been cut back on both sides but after a mile or so, the sides were growing into each other and you could not see the trail. With some decent training (Mountain Conditioning class, lots of trail time) I was able to run this whole section to the connection out to Granite Lakes – where I would not be going. Instead I veered downhill for a mile, encountering a dozen or so people along the way. I hit the trail head parking lot and continued onto the road, taking the right over to the bridge and the “secret” Sitka Spruce trail hidden just below the far side of the bridge on the other side. There was a fisherman coming back up to the car, asking where the mystery trail headed. I explained the best I could, educated him on salmon berries and then headed off. I quickly came to a running stream and pulled out my BeFree filter and refilled my large water bottle. Sitka Spruce is pretty isolated and I had an encounter with a raccoon during my scouting run so I erupted into making noise to make sure I didn’t surprise any wild beasts. This, of course, meant singing songs (loudly and poorly) from “West Side Story” which the birds seemed to love. There is some elevation gain here but it’s only a mile and a half and then you are released to a long stretch of fire roads, which are my favorite, as they imply width and normally not too much vertical one way or the other. Sure enough this was a 4 mile stretch where I could actually run, uninterrupted, while also enjoying the scenery around. There were a few huge puddles to avoid and one truck somehow made his way onto the road but soon I hit the gate and went down a bit further along the residential road to the base of Teneriffe, where I checked in just under 5 hours, nearly one hour ahead of my schedule.
I kept plowing up Teneriffe, as I knew the first mile or so was very runnable. Eventually, I reached the rock section and slowed to a walk, almost the entire way out to the falls which are about 2 miles in. I was getting a bit woozy so decided to stop and eat a bit. I had consumed 2 gels but was now nearly 6 hours in and needed some solid food. I munched on a chocolate bar and watched as others hung out down by the falls. I decided it was a bit too sketchy and time consuming to go down and get water, plus I had a good supply for the hike up. I pounced up to the Kamikaze trail and began the hard climb up to the summit. There are a few rock scrambles which have you on all fours trying to get up a section. As the name implies. there are very few places where you are not going straight up. I had done this climb twice before but not with 15+ miles running already on my legs. It was slow going and I began losing my breath at times, requiring a 30 second rest. About halfway up I encountered a young women who was also taking a rest. After a brief chat, I moved ahead quite slowly. Eventually, I saw the clearing and made it to the summit where a couple of guys were just leaving. I sat alone on a rock and had the best PBJ lunch known to man. The 360 degree view lets you see miles in any direction and I was pointing out to Rattlesnake Lake and the 100k section of the course. Another day. I had made it up to the top in about 7:20 and left around 7:35 into the run, still fine on time. The hard part was behind me – or so I thought.
I decided to hook up my Zune and try some tunes for this next section. The first section down is still in the forest, level and up over to the other side of the mountain as you begin a series of switchbacks which eventually take you to a wide, open trail. Just as I reached the trail, I found a stream and grabbed some more water which turned out to be all I would need for the day. I also elected to switch Garmins at this point as my first was right at 8 hours and likely about to lose charge. The run down the normal trail is nice in sections but also strewn with rocks in other parts. It’s about 4 miles total and I hit the Talus connector to Si right at 8:45. That’s about 15 min/mile going downhill which likely can be improved upon if I ever have a desire to run faster across the rocks.
As I hit the intersection just after the Talus (3 miles to the Mt. Si summit), my right quad seized up and then my left! Withholding screams, my normal reaction, I stretched them out and with a slow walk they seemed to both recover. I ventured into the connector up to Si, a section I had never run before. I wasn’t sure whether it was reasonably level over to the Si climb, or whether we would start climbing right away. It turned out to be the latter and despite the PBJ, I was still a bit low on energy so walked my way over. It’s reasonably steep so not sure I would have gone much faster with a trot. It’s only a mile or so to the main Si trail which was populated with day hikers. I looked a mess but worked my way up. Si is a reasonably hard climb even without the steep grades of the other summits. There are relatively few places to catch your breath, lots of switchbacks and some more rock climbing. I made it to the top around 10:10 into my day and plopped down on a rock cache at the Snoqualmie View Lookout. I called Lynne to give her my ETA for finishing and checked some World Cup scores. These 5-10 minute breaks sure did help regain control. I left with sore legs but ready for what was next.
I had found the Old Little Si trail a few weeks before and was quickly working my way down. Lots of ultra runners bask in this type of contour – straight down on pine needle. For me, it was too steep and way too many rocks. The trail nearly spills into the main Si trail and fortunately there were some hikers coming up which forced me to veer right and stay on the less travelled path. It kept going down and down. I eventually found the loop which goes both ways and headed over towards Little Si, immediately encountering a woman and her dog. I asked her how far Little Si was, as I had never done this stretch. She said about 20 minutes, steep down. Joy. I figured with some running it would be more like 10 and I was right as I suddenly escaped the wilderness and joined the throng of folks heading up Little Si on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. It was about 11:25 into my run and I knew I wasn’t going to break 12 hours at this point with 1.5 miles or so up the more gentle Little Si trail.
The first half mile or so was mostly runnable but after crossing over a clearing I was forced to walk more as the rocks became an impediment. Over to the side you could hear the serious rock climbers working their way up the side of a major edifice. The moss on the rocks was picturesque. I was back to breathing heavily – I’m sure people were questioning my athletic prowess, 1 mile into the hike and this guy is bending over? It turns into more rock climbing and switch backs for the last half mile but I hit the summit and texted Lynne my anticipated return time, slightly off the estimates I had given her before.
I was in the last stretch down and was counting off the tenths of a mile. With a half mile to go I climbed up to where the loop intersection meets Little Si – where I had come from – and winked as I headed the other way to the trail head. It’s a nice way to end the long struggle of the day. I clocked in at 12:53 which was within the range I had set for my day. I can’t imagine every beating 12 hours – many do it in 10 or 11. The climbs are tough but you get a huge reward with the views, a hiker’s delight. The runs downhill are too steep for my liking and at my advanced age dodging rocks is not a favorite activity. So, this looks to be a once a year thing at most. I would pack a bit differently and as always need to take in more calories during the day. I lucked out with an overcast but reasonably warm, but in no ways hot, day. It was easily the hardest 50k I will likely every do but no doubt prepared me well for the BigFoot 100k later in the summer where I will have more boulder jumping and long stretches of self-managed periods to challenge me.