Two years ago I ran the PCT Mt. Hood 50 miler as my first ultra. It was grueling and I finished just over 12 hours after moaning through my last 9 miles. Of course the whole experience just whetted my appetite and I'm a true junkie now. Last year I was recovering from an ankle injury so I just ran as a trail sweep. This year was my chance to try PCT again after 2 years of trail running. Will is seem easier? Have I improved much? This year's PCT marked my 7th ultra in 2007 and I was ready! The course starts at Timothy Lake, 25 miles from Mt. Hood. We cross a few passes and end up right at the Timberline Lodge area and mingle with incoming and outgoing skiers at the top aid station. Then it's back down to the lake to finish. I wanted to run strong but smart. I want to save myself for the Where's Waldo 100K in three weeks.
I took the early start, a great decision considering the cooler temps and the chance to run near more people, more often. I've really grown to hate the back-of-the pack almost DFL feeling. The only down side to the early start here was that the RD mis-marked the entrance to the PCT off of the short road section and sent us early starters down who knows where. Luckily, after less than half a mile, the other runners figured it out and we all retraced our footsteps and got back on track. There's about 5 minutes lost.
Not to worry, the beauty of the trail makes up for it and soon we're flying up the hills towards Mt. Hood which can eventually be seen through the trees, off in the distance. Another advantage of the early start is that the bears are still out and we see one! A little baby bear is standing in our way on the trail and won't move. Where's mom? Are we standing between mom and her baby?! How do we know? The infant looks harmless but I'm sure that his mother won't be if she finds us surrounding her offspring. Eventually we collect 5-6 runners waiting for the tyke to move on and move on he does...up a tree. We make a mad dash for it and never do see mom. Though, now come to think about it, the guy who stayed behind to take pictures...did I ever see him again? I'm just not sure.
The first of the regular starters passes (blazes by) me after I've been out 2.5 hours. The first woman in 3.5 hours. I seem to be able to run more and hike faster than my last time here. All the aid stations seem to come sooner than I think they should. Eventually I make my way up the steepest part of the trail, above the timberline and through a sand field towards the turn-around point and I'm still feeling strong. I've learned how to hike well up sand. Here's a secret: always find someone else's foot step to step into. They have already compressed the sand for you. I hardly slipped backwards at all. The lupines were in bloom - fields of them and they wafted a pleasant sweet scent as I ran by. Eventually sand becomes pumice and the trail drops down into the top aid station. It's 6500 feet elevation and the view is spectacular, both up the mountain and out into the distance. I see the peak of the next mountain southwards.
After the turn-around it's all mostly downhill and I had managed my food and liquid intake well enough to feel good and I made good time coming back down. There are long, long sections of downhill running and I thank the Western States training camp for getting me started on toughening up my quads this year. Up and down the passes I go, still keeping up a steady pace. I change shoes at 41 miles to alleviate my only major discomfort (one toenail lost this year - down by two from my first time on this run). I refill my water bladder and I'm ready to tackle the last 9 mile section feeling tired by OK. I know I'll easily beat my time from 2 years ago, but not by a huge margin. That's somewhat disappointing.
Then who catches up to me at this point but my friend Pete who had taken the regular start! This the the second time I see him today. When last we met I was already coming down from Timberline and he was on his way up. We meet, we greet and then we're both ready to leave at the same time. I lead out of the aid station, then step aside to let him pass, since he's obviously going faster than I am. I try to keep up so we can talk for a while and he slows a bit to allow me to keep up. I'm pushing it more than I would have if I was alone, that's for sure. But I don't really feel that bad after all. We have a nice distracting conversation and make some really great time to the last aid station. Maybe I can keep up with Pete some more. And I do.
So before I know it, Pete has become my pacer! How could I get any luckier? We keep up a pretty good clip through the last 6 miles, too. I wouldn't have thought it possible to push steady that hard for that long. He, of course was taking it easy, but I was really getting the most out of my self that I think I could. What a joyful exhaustion knowing I was "making good time" in the truest sense!
We finally hit the last road section and run in the last 1/4 mile side by side and under the finish line with final times exactly 1 hour apart. And mine was under 11 hours, making me eligible for a WS lottery application next year. I took 1:20 off my previous PCT time and felt much better doing it than 2 years ago.
I owe many thanks to Pete, the best pacer I could ever have had!