Oh What a Yakimatmosphere
Saturday night, as the skies darkened, I settled into my little one person tent, Big Agnes, at the edge of the swiftly flowing Yakima River thinking, “Wow, this place is a magical little paradise.” The skies were clear, the stars were shining brightly and the life-size version of the Yakima Rim 50K course elevation profile eerily loomed overhead. The hilly mountains seemed to peer down at me and snicker, “Hey, just you wait and see what we have in store for you tomorrow, just you wait and see…” Sighing deeply, I wrapped my chilled feet in a couple of fleece blankets, pulled my sleeping bag over my head and attempted to get some much-needed rest.
Just a week or so earlier I had made a last minute decision to enter Rainshadow Running’s inaugural Yakima Skyline Rim 50K race thinking that it would be excellent training for the Western States Endurance Run this June. I noticed that the Yakima race would have at least four killer climbs and, therefore, four killer downhills. Perfect. Of course, a lot of things sound perfect when you are in the planning stage. But this race was perfect – perfect training, perfect weather, perfect organization, perfect aid stations, perfect atmosphere and, best of all, a perfectly torturous test of the mind and body.
At 0800 Sunday, April 3, 2011, the race started with a sense of trepidation – the Race Director, James Varner, had forewarned us that this course was “really hard” and that it was quite possible that many runners would not make it to the 25K turnaround in the four-hour cut-off time limit. Hmm… Initially, we runners ran the length of the parking lot at the Umtanum Recreation Site in the Yakima River Canyon before making a quick u-turn and returning to the little suspension bridge that would symbolize the start and finish of the race. I settled in for the first little bit with superb Seattle trail runner, Adam Hewey, and quizzed him with, “Hey, do you know that guy up there?” While most of us were starting relatively conservatively, local runner Joe Rotter had shot off from the start at a torrid pace. I was simply wondering who he was and if he knew what he was doing. Adam did not know who Joe was, at the time, but as we quickly hit the first 2+ mile 2000+ foot climb, Adam shot off to catch Joe and find out more. Sooooooo, what to do, what to do, other than settle into this first killer climb and attempt to conserve some energy.
Eagerly ascending the rocky (and sometimes muddy) single track trail I attempted to keep Joe and Adam in view. At times they appeared relatively close and at other times they appeared miles away. As I reached the gravel road at the top of the first climb I realized that I had lost sight of both of them. Oh well, more climbing. Crossing the road and setting off on the last ascent, I scurried quickly to the absolute top of the Umtanum Ridge. Phew. Except the trail stopped there! No more trail. Uh-oh. As I looked behind me, of course, about five other runners had followed me on my erroneous way. Oops. Sorry fellas, but I think the trail is down there. We all rushed back down to the gravel road and made the left turn, right turn from our new position, onto the gravel road. A little embarrassed, I took off and passed five or six runners on the three-mile gravel road section. But Adam and Joe were nowhere in sight. I would not see either of them again until the 25K turnaround. Running solo to the turnaround allowed me to take in the scenery, pay attention to the trail, and really appreciate the volunteers and the excellent aid stations. I could only think that this course, this nature, this big sky above me, these punishing climbs, these blissful downhills (one nearly requiring padding for the good ole’ derriere) and this entire Yakimatmosphere made this the best possible place for me to be at this moment in time.
On the last relentless climb before the 25K turnaround, I began to catch the 50K early starters. As I began my descent to the turnaround I was happy to see the 25K leader (the 25k runners started at the turnaround two hours after the 50K start) running strongly towards me. Soon, I was amidst many ascending 25K runners while I tried to quicken my descent on the extremely rocky trail. Fortunately, many of the ascenders gave way to me and allowed me to keep my groove. Nearing the turnaround aid station I stumbled across Adam as he strongly ran the initial climb of the return trip. At the aid station, I was happy to see the cheerful faces of Dan, Linda, and Sean, as well as many other great vollies. Chatting a bit and reloading with some fluids and S-Caps (Thanks Sean!) I heard Dan say, “Get going Mike!” (Thanks Dan!) Oh yeah, right, there is a race on. So I set out on the first climb back feeling mentally and physically all right, but not extremely motivated to tackle the killer climbs of the return trip. Up ahead I could see Joe climbing at about the pace I was climbing. So I tried to keep that pace or quicken it a bit if I could, and then hope that I could catch him on the downhills. As we reached the top of the first return trip climb I did catch Joe and had a pleasant twenty-second conversation about the beauty of the course and the difficulty of the ascents. And then it was off to run solo again. Upon reaching the excellent Green Dot Aid Station, interestingly situated a few hundred metres out of sight atop an extremely rocky uphill off of the main trail, I felt rejuvenated knowing that I had a fun downhill ahead, followed by one more big climb (albeit the most punishing climb of all, although I did not fully realize this at the time), a few little climbs and then a roaring downhill to finish this race off. There was a lot of fun still to be had. As I left the aid station and made the descent back to the main trail I ran across Joe who had begun his ascent. More pleasantries exchanged, and we were off on our own ways again. Well, as I had feared the night before, during the last climb(s) to the last aid station five and a half miles from the start I do believe I heard the hilly mountains chuckling at me again. “Ha, ha, ha, this is fun? Ha, ha, ha, come on, get those legs moving, come on! Ha, ha, ha, we’re not done with you yet.”
Fortunately, these last climbs were filled with 25K runners attempting not to fall off the mountain, so I was able to keep my sanity by having quick encouraging conversations with them as I hurried on by. As I neared the aid station at the top of the second last climb I was happy to know that I could finally refill my empty water bottle. Leaving the aid station, I was fortunate to chat a bit with Matt Hagen, who had two enormous cameras with him as he ran twenty or so miles while photographing the runners. Now, that is dedication. Matt’s energy and cheerfulness were promising to me. Now if I could only run these three gravel road miles a little more quickly. As I reached the point of my earlier course error, the top of the first climb, I realized that I somehow felt revitalized. The thought of flying down a few miles of killer, questionably runnable, downhill was just too good. I knew that this race would be over for me in a matter of minutes and, strangely, I was a bit disappointed that this adventure would soon end. As I bombarded down, I passed many 25K runners and also had the good fortune of running by Glenn Tachiyama who had intermittently run the 25K and stopped to take his excellent photos of the runners he met along the course. Another example of real trail runner coolness – Glenn’s photos are simply awesome, and the fact that he’s running a 25K doesn’t stop him from taking the photos. Spying the little suspension bridge in the distance and hearing the finish line fervour I tried to sprint to the end. And I tried to whisper a little “thank you” to the hilly mountains, the life-size elevation profile, and the Yakima Canyon. What a beautiful place. What an intense experience.
Special thanks to Kintec, Smartwool socks, Udderly Smooth, Rainshadow Running, James Varner, Glenn Tachiyama, Matt Hagen, and all the cool volunteers and runners of the 2011 Yakima Skyline Rim 50K.
Race Results: https://yakimaskylinerim.blogspot.com/p/results.html