First two photos supplied courtesy of Rainshadow Running, the sponsors of this run.
The Yakima Skyline 50K
by Laura Valaas
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
At this point, I realized two things — they were asking what my name was, and I hadn’t been responding out loud. It was the halfway mark and turn around point of the Yakima Skyline 50k trail running race and names didn’t seem to be an important part of my universe right now.
This being my first ultra, I had started the race in the back, the very back, one of the last five people to cross the starting line. I was wary of making the rookie mistake of going out too hard and suffering a miserable death somewhere on the course. I was also self-conscious about my shiny new hydration pack, having longstanding scorn for people who prepare for an event by buying new gear instead of actually training. Now I was counting myself among the scorned.
After about a mile of stop-and-go running (the accordion effect) at the back of the pack, I decided I should log some real running miles while I was feeling good and temperatures were cool. I moved past several trains of happily chatting runners. Across the undulations on the top of the first hill, I worried about opening up my stride and letting loose across the runnable terrain – I thought I might be dying on the return trip when I saw this stretch of trail again, but I did it anyway.
I hit the first aid station at eight miles but had plenty of food and water so onward I went. I knew that eating and drinking would be a challenge for me because I didn’t have experience with events requiring mid-race fueling. I committed myself to eating and drinking whether I wanted to or not – the plan was to eat on the uphills while I was walking and, theoretically, not breathing as hard.
Coming off the second hill and starting the descent, I expected to see the front runners on their way back. No sign of them. On I went and still there was no sign of them. Finally, they filed past me, looking relaxed. I realized I was making better time than I expected, but with no watch and my daily running goal on my Fitbit reached long ago, I didn’t have any reference.
I passed a group of hikers and they seemed extraordinarily pleased to see me, which I didn’t comprehend until one of them said, “You’re the first woman!” I laughed incredulously, but the others confirmed this.
Despite not knowing my own name at halfway aid station, I thought I was still quite alert. Terrified of stopping and not being able to start again, however, I only refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some food, and hit the trail for what I was sure would be a much more painful return trip. On the hill leaving the halfway point, I had my first experience of what it’s like for food to turn to sawdust in your mouth. The only thing that kept me eating was knowing what sort of torture awaited me if I let my calories get out of sync with my energy demands.
On the long descent around mile 20, I was channeling my friend Kikkan Randall, who can run downhill like a madwoman. I pushed myself to actually run instead of shuffle. This was going well until I caught my toe on a rock. I flew and landed in Superwoman position right on the trail. So much dust. And so much pain! I panicked because blood was flowing and everything stung. But moving seemed like the solution – then I couldn’t actually look at the bloody body parts. I ran on, now channeling Kikkan Randall “girl who runs fast down hills without falling on face.”
Approaching the 23-mile aid station, I didn’t know how far from the turnoff the aid station was. I had food and water and I was not about to add even 50 meters to the day. “I’m good,” I told the volunteers who tried to direct me into the aid station.
As I headed up the final series of climbs, I realized I wasn’t “good.” I had run through all my salt tabs and now I faced eight more miles of running lacking the electrolytes I needed to stave off cramping. Then, came a minor miracle: Someone had dropped a couple of salt tabs on the trail! Like manna from Heaven, they were beacons of white hope shining through the dust. I scooped them up and popped a dirty pill into my mouth. I slipped the second one into a pocket.
I didn’t know if anyone was behind me and I didn’t look, but if someone wanted to pass me this late in the race, I was going to make them suffer. I put my head down and forced myself to run the rolling ascent to the final summit. In my mind, I flew down the final downhill but, to an observer, it probably looked more like stumbling.