The Olympic Peninsula had always been high on my list of my places to visit-and has held a special place in my heart-ever since my uncle worked as a forest ranger there around 1966 and wrote how beautiful it was. Growing up and learning who my father was as a person, and, in turn, who his father was as a person, I learned to appreciate every positive influence out there in the world that managed to sway things to a more healthy balance.
Like most homes, ours was filled with many tears-and hurrahs-and most of the former had their source in my grandfather and the person he molded my father into. My uncle, the baby of his family, was gifted with remarkable size, athletic skills, and intelligence, which made it all the more difficult for him to grow up in a house with a prison guard as a father. He did what many people before him have also done: he tried to break out. Step one was finding this job at the opposite end of the country, far away from anything or anyone he knew. He read Kerouac, I still have the book he bought in Quinault with the receipt from the General Store there. The incredible scenery and the freedom to become himself enabled him to enjoy some of the happiest moments of his short life.
Step two, unfortunately, was to sign up for Officer’s Candidate School and go off to do his duty in Vietnam. Perhaps he saw this as a continuation of his plan to become his own man. Perhaps he saw this as well as taking a step for himself that the old man would approve of-a kind of added bonus. What was neglected in these clever plans was the reality of bullets.
At any rate, the Peninsula was always THE place for me where a person could go to really bring out the best in himself. A Ying to the Yang in Vietnam, or any other insane place or condition in this world. Circumstances fell into place this year and we were finally able to visit the area. Almost immediately I began looking for Ultra Marathons. What better way to experience these wonderful forests than doing what you love to do there.
I’ll admit I wasn’t sold on the Olympic Marathon 50K right away. Other races up and down the western side of Washington seemed more impressive-you should see the pictures! There was one in particular-the Backcountry Rise- that allowed you to see Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood over the course of 50K that really called to me. The homepage for the The Olympic 50K barely had any pictures at all. Then fate interceded and deemed the Backcountry Race as unapproachable-it was sold out-and the Olympic was cheapest, closest to us, and closest to Lake Quinault, where the Ranger Station was located at which my uncle worked.
One of the first things I did after signing up, like most trail runners do, was to check the elevation profile of the race. At first glance I thought 2700 meters of elevation gain was a lot for 50K, but since I was trying to work my way up to 100K, I figured I may as well get used to it. My next perusal showed me that there were really only two huge inclines in the entire race. One immense climb up to the top of Mt. Townsend, and a smaller one up to Mount Zion.
Two “hills”! That’s it! I figured I could suck it up for those two and basically knock out a 50K Ultra Marathon as a fun little side activity. When you consider that the ascent and descent of Mt. Townsend stretched for almost fourteen kilometers, there’s a huge portion of the race put behind you ‘right away’, and the approach there is mostly flat or downhill. That’s almost half the race we’re talking about now! Dare I consider it an ‘easy’ run?
The second ‘hill’, Mt. Zion, like the first, consisted of a relatively short, steep ascent, followed by a little downhill stretch, then a longer, steeper, more difficult, proper ascent. After conquering Mt. Townsend, I told myself in perhaps a maddened, alcohol-induced stupor, Mt. Zion would seem like child’s play. Snort.
September 12th rolled around and we immediately got lost on the highway heading up there because the construction sites there led us in every direction possible except the one we wanted to head in, and our GPS threw its little bit-hands in the air and booted itself into a trance. You should have seen these construction sites-I would have done the same. We found our way back towards Quilcene thanks to pure and absolute luck and even made it to the meeting point with plenty of time to spare before the briefing, but not to, like, stretch.
The day was overcast and hinted at rain, the air was cool-ish, fresh and invigorating-it was perfect runner’s weather.
Coming in from Quilcene, we rambled over one less-traveled forest road after another, and the marks of civilization were put behind us swiftly, until the only sign of human presence on this Earth was the road under our rental car. Towering, flourishing, lush green Nature swallowed us whole. Cedars and pine trees that provided shade and umbrellas grew tall and plentiful everywhere. Everything smelled alive and…healthy! We felt we were in the right place, doing something we really should be doing-something that made sense. Except for the car, maybe.
But for one thing this little jaunt would have been a perfect bonding experience with the world of nature around us-leave mankind to muck things up. For, as we watched this road twist and roll ahead of us, we also couldn’t help noticing the occasional turnoffs that led to these dead ends with towering mounds in them. It was impossible not to notice these turnoffs because most of them were filled with a car or two, and most of those had disgorged its cargo, which consisted of two to five rednecks eager to get out in the woods on the weekend and shoot at cans. Or, depending on the level of alcohol in their bloodstream, hopefully not passing airplanes.
Well, we made it to the middle of nowhere where the “starting line” was located. There was a long slice of non-lush landscape on the left where the racers could park their cars in the mud and, on the right, there was another smaller slice of flat-ish land where some of the runners and organizers had camped, a scorer’s table, an aid station filled with yum-yums, and, at the back, another of these infamous mounds that would become a source of frustration in the near future.
I collected my bib from a helpful helper and had enough time to affix it before the race briefing began, and I noticed that I was surrounded by a small horde of very likable persons. Too often at these things-probably the more well-known, competitive races- I find myself bumping into god-wannabes (yes that’s a thing because I just invented it) who have no time for you because they are ‘in the zone’ and are aiming to make their mark.
I would like to say there was a noble feeling of espirit-de-corps flowing around and through us all, but more likely it was just an urge to get together with like minded folks and goof around for a while. Still, it made a hell of a lot more sense than shooting at cans.
Then Bud (not his real name) showed up. After the race briefing, which was, true to the atmosphere and audience, laid back, humorous and in no way tedious, our friendly neighborhood race director who might be Colin or maybe the other guy whose name I can’t seem to remember informed us that not only was Bud turning 50 in 2019 and celebrating by running in 50 Ultra Marathons throughout the year (this was to be the cause of my Disappointment Second Most Huge), he had also spent the entire ferry ride over from Seattle throwing up, and not from sea sickness, if you know what I mean.
We were then moved, or pointed, to the left, where the starting line was not located. It was more of an unmarked starting ‘area’ and, if you think about it, do you really need an inflatable, “official” starting line at all, much less 50 miles into nowhere? We’re adults, we’ll make it work.
A countdown was fabricated and Colin or the other guy yelled go.
There were enough guns in the woods already.
I love to start last, especially to remind myself that the place I’m in really does not matter at all, but also to survey the field as it heads out. Our course took us downhill back down the road we came in on, and I was afforded a great view of the field stretching out into the infant stages of the 50K race. It was hard not to notice the person I’m guessing later won the race-Chris Reed- who had no desire to waste the downhill and flat beginning portion of the race by pacing himself. He was so far ahead after two minutes or so I think I snorted. Like, “Well, I guess I won’t be seeing him again!”
The first leg of the race was equally balanced out by the joy of being immersed in such beautiful, lush scenery, and the horror of hearing the first objects thud softly to the forest floor after falling out of what had become an irreparable situation at the bottom of my rucksack. Where once had been bottom was now only air, which meant I would have to carry my necessities for about 15 kilometers to the aid station at Rhodies, where my drop bag was.
At least I was traveling light!
After 7,5 miles and only slight elevation gain the path turned upwards and we began our ascent up Mt. Townsend. As I said, it had been raining, which kept the temperatures comfortable but, as we headed up ever higher, what could have been magnificent views were blocked by fog and low hanging clouds. Should’ve asked for a refund…
It’s just over two miles of relatively steep ascent to a flattening of the trail and the first Aid Station at Silver Creek. I found it to be well-stocked, and even though it was basically a tableful of fruit, some sweets and chips, maybe something for the carnivores-I didn’t notice-and some drinks, it looked like a endless buffet line of goodies in my eyes, and the only thing I enjoyed more than the two pieces of banana and one slice of apple I ate was leaving the rest of the food for the people behind me.
It was time to tackle the meat of the race. The path from Silver Creek up to the peak of Mt. Townsend is just about three miles of straight up. I spent most of that time power walking and chatting with Zoe Marzluff, a 26 year old experienced Ultra runner from Vashon Island, and Jose Ramirez, a 35 year old from Olympia who was running his first Ultra Marathon. It was a great experience with them exchanging stories and advice, and keeping our minds off the difficulty of the task at hand. Jose even offered to take one of my “extra” water bottles in his rucksack to Rhodies, which made it a lot easier to transport my shit for another ten K or so.
After a few kilometers we spread out a little; Jose fell back and I pushed on ahead of Zoe. Not long thereafter I reached an intersection where I knew the path to the right headed up to the peak and back, and the path to the left headed back down towards Rhodies. I got to the top of Mt. Townsend and passed a sign there which was illegible thanks to me not having my glasses on, and I zoomed right on past it, because I had not been paying 100% attention to the part of the race briefing where we were told the sign was the turnaround point at the top of the mountain. In my defense visibility was very low, and it was impossible to tell if we were at the top of something or, like, the middle.
Somewhere around this peak I ran over a ridge and got to a point where the clouds and fog broke a little, and I found myself staring down into the abyss over both sides of the trail. That was something I had always wanted to experience during a race and it was breathtaking. The run up to the peak had been far less taxing than I had anticipated, and I truly felt on top of the world. It was easy to enjoy each every precious moment and step.
After two hundred meters or so I was called back by a fellow runner who convinced me I had gone too far, and I gladly turned around. The run back down the mountain was pure joy, and I rolled into Rhodies feeling great and looked forward to dumping my load(!) and changing into fresh shorts, underwear, and socks.
Yes, the race was only 50K and I usually don’t need to change for something like this, but I’m gearing up for longer runs and wanted to practice. So, despite the handicap of having no changing room and kids running around everywhere, I moved kind of behind a parked car and slid into something more comfortable. Yes, I also sacrificed precious minutes of race time for an experiment but it was a good experience and I felt fresher afterwards, especially after smearing some Anti-Chafe Material X hopefully inconspicuously onto several sensitive nether regions.
The long downhill slide from the peak past Rhodies and down into the next Aid Station at Deadfall (the Deadfall?) continued for about seven miles. The best news about that was that the race was suddenly two-thirds over! Piece of cake.
The bad news was that the climb up Mt. Zion began right after Deadfall. After more bananas, apple slices, and maybe a slice of tomato (and, OK, an Oreo), I darted up the path and onto the second largest climb of the day. It was around this time that I fell in lockstep with probably John Hager from Redmond, WA. I seem to remember his name started with a “J”. We tried to chat and I remember him being a good guy, but the going was really tough here. For some reason the climb seemed to be harder and steeper than Mt. Townsend, even though Mt. Zion was way teenier.
Then we started running downhill again. Gulp. I was confused-there was no way we could already be at the top of Mt. Zion and, in fact, we had arrived at the aforementioned dropoff that both mountains had about a third of the way up. Once we hit the bottom of this dropoff, the real challenge began. The next 2 miles or so would be some of the most challenging moments of my life.
It’s hard without pictures to convey how difficult this climb was, but picture a trail that is as absolutely steep as it possibly can be without forcing its passersby to actually climb and you may begin to comprehend. I looked up up up this infernal hill and saw a trail that might as well have been glued to the side of a skyscraper. Only buildings are flat-this trail had rocks and roots and twists and ditches everywhere.
I was hurting-bad. I had to “sit” a couple of times on logs sticking into the path that had miraculously NOT rolled down the mountains’ skirt. John had pressed on, plodding ever upward. Watching him go, I wistfully wished to have begun running at his age (32) or younger, and to have more of his youthful vigor.
So I snailed my way up the mountain alone. I stopped repeatedly, standing there in a squat with my elbows on my thighs; I tried to put my hands on my hips for a bit, I tried anything that would help me get another step or two up Mt. Zion.
And at repeated intervals I would follow the trail uphill and see…nothing except more up. How much more up could there possibly be? I whined to myself. I’ve already gone so much up. There can’t be but hardly any more up to go! I must be about 9/10ths of the way through this up. Etc….
I’m way upper than Mt. Townsend now! I must be way upper than, like, an Alp or something! HOW MUCH MORE UP CAN THERE POSSIBLY BE?????? In fact, the way up Mt. Zion has no end to its upness-through pure exhaustion alone do the race’s participants mentally convince themselves that they are traveling downhill, or are on flat ground, or have finished the race, where in fact they have disappeared forever into the ether long ago.
Eff Mt. Zion.
I only ramble on so much about this climb so that you might begin to understand how hard it really was, even though no information short of planting you on the trail and pointing uphill will do it. At one point, finally near the top, I said to myself that that was it. I would never do another Ultra again. Just so it’s said, the incline up Mt. Zion is around three miles long. Up Mt. Townsend it’s about six. I’d rather do the latter three times than the former once.
After FINALLY reaching the top of Mt. Zion it’s four miles downhill, and after that about three more in a slight rise to the finish “line”. The worst is behind you, and it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until you can pour yourself a cold one from the keg of delicious Upper Left beer.
As I puttered over these last few miles, I caught up to and chatted with Shannon Douglas, who turned 29 that day-who would CHOOSE to celebrate like that?? I couldn’t help noticing her shoes, and I remembered I had seen her back at Rhodies where her husband, on crutches, had paid her a visit and cheered her on. It was hard to see what I saw, know what I know, and NOT tell her what I wanted to say. Which was that I already knew how her husband got hurt, and was sure it would happen to her, too, at some point.
And here I must also pause and insert a word of thanks to the person responsible for forming me into a respectable Ultra Marathon runner, capable of running injury-free for so long and completing truly difficult feats like this one. Shout out to my wife and coach, the most singularly, intensely special person I have ever met. We don’t need to mention that nothing would be possible without you.
Here’s where I got a little confused. We were passed there by someone named Jason about two miles out. After that, I bid Shannon adieu and made my last pathetic push toward the finish…zone. Shortly thereafter I passed Jason, not believing I still had enough energy to jog, much less pass anyone. I finished a half minute ahead of Jason, but if you check the results, he’s listed a half minute ahead of me!(?) No comprendo.
Who cares. I was personally greeted by a horde of cheering race fans in a very festive mood as well as Colin or the other one [it’s Dennis!], who shook everyone’s hand as they passed the finish line. It was there that I learned that I was not the only one who had not completely enjoyed the ascent up Mt. Zion, and I also learned that there are a lot of competent beer brewers in Washington State! Damn that beer was good.
Which brings me to the day’s list of thoughtful musings:
-I have lived in Germany for more than a quarter of a century and can proudly say that I have acquired a sensitive tongue when it comes to beer. Although I consider Germany to be the Hub of the Beer Brewing Art, I have since been pleasantly surprised to see so many American breweries have begun brewing so competently (a far cry from the Miller High Life 80’s), especially in the Northwest. It’s now four months later and that wonderful taste of finish line beer, as well as several stupendous micro-brews down Poulsbo way, still dance on my tongue. I’ll put a lot of these beers up against anyone, anywhere, anytime. The only problem with it is, and this is where Germany is so superior, who in God’s name can afford it??
-As I said, at the back of the finish line area thingy, there was another of these backstop mounds. I later learned that someone had christened it Gunshot Mountain, and it was possible to enter a select, elite society of individuals known as the Quarry Club simply by continuing to run past the finish line and up Gunshot Mt.. Damn, should’ve read the home page better.
-Referring to the Disappointment Second Most Huge: Bud did indeed finish the race (the 37th or so of the year) and all I can say about his project is “WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?”
-My Disappointment Most Huge: When I signed up for the race I was asked something I had never been asked. On the entrance form it said right there in black and white that if I were to put down a song I wanted to hear when I crossed the finish line, then they would play it. Oh, goody!! Being a sober, serious, semi-intelligent, middle-aged man, I settled on “Another One Rides the Bus” from Weird Al. I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately, the project never realized itself because, as Colin (maybe) said in exactly these words: “We couldn’t repatch the digital mainframe with the coagulated thromboid services network. Thingy.” Or something.
In closing, looking upon this adventure from afar, both geologically and chronologically, I see Mt. Townsend always in the back of mind, shining there, representing some special version of me or all of us, standing for potential and opportunity, ready and waiting to welcome us with brash reality, truth, and hope. Its bastard playmate, Mt. Zion, is for me the hard road we must travel to get there.
Just knowing both are there provide me with an overwhelming feeling of comfort and gratitude, for everything this life is and could be. No one can talk away a mountain.