Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hashimoto and the Fat Dog

You may remember Jeff Hashimoto's story from the Fat Dog 120 two years ago.  The Fat Dog: considered one of the toughest ultras in North America, made even tougher that year with truly epic monsoon weather conditions and, for Jeff, the remnants of a bad fall in the mountains just a month before.  He still ended up finishing in sixth place [correction: he finished in fifth!], and maybe, like me, you wondered what he could do if he actually felt good and ran a good race.  Well, now we know; the man is an endurance machine and for my money, when it comes to long hard endurance events, there is nothing he can't do.  Here is his report.  Thanks, Jeff, for sending, and congratulations on the BIG WIN!


I signed up for Fat Dog in December.  I had finished the race in 2015, but the “wheels had come off,” and I had hobbled for the last 50 miles.  I had had a fall in the mountains 6 weeks before the race, and my training since then had not been great, so I felt that I could run Fat Dog better.  Of course, when I told people what I was doing, they would always ask “why?”  

The Fat Dog course is brutal.  It’s not just the 120 miles.  It’s not just the 4 long climbs (4000-5000 ft of gain each!), or the 28,000ft of elevation gain total.  It’s the footing.  Large sections of the course can only approximately be called a “trail.”  There is some talus hopping, there is a section cruising across tundra, there are logs to climb over, and there are rocks and roots.  There is a total of only about 4 miles of “road cruising.”

Training had mostly gone well in 2017, but I had lingering questions about my fitness.  I had a good base of 2-5 hour runs during the spring, and was able to get some good “all day” runs once summer vacation started.  Still, I am 46, and was wondering how I would hold up.  I had run a half marathon in May and my time was 6 minutes slower than the same race 5 years prior!  Maybe my body was giving up?  However, on July 4th I ran a 5k in 16:23, a time I was quite happy with!  I raced the Grey Rock 50k July 8th, and was only 1 minute slower than in 2014.  I had a bad bonk on a long run in late July, but subsequent runs the next week went well.

Then there was the question of smoke.  I followed the weather, air quality, satellite photos, blogs, etc. to figure out what would happen with the smoke.  Race organizers offered a small credit for racers who decided not to race due to air quality, as well as their criteria for canceling the event.

On Thursday, the day before the race, things looked bad.  I figured we should do due diligence and  go to the start, but I didn’t think there was much chance of racing.  Carey, Apollo and I drove up US 97 and it was apocalyptic- “very unhealthy” in the US, worse in Canada near the start.  We drove to Princeton, site of the pre-race meeting.  We had planned to camp, but with the air so bad decided to get a hotel.  We stayed in the Evergreen Motel (same as Debbie and I stayed in in 2015).  Carey and I went to the pre-race meeting (due diligence again), but I still doubted that I would race.  I was thinking about other things to do; it was probably too late to get into another race, but perhaps I could run the Wonderland Trail.

“The sky is blue at Manning!” a person announced.  The  western part of the course was clear!  When we came out of the meeting, there was blue sky in Princeton, although still smoke at ground level.  I started to think that the race might happen after all.  Thanks to Jake for picking up my number.  That evening I enjoyed the company of some other runners also staying at the Evergreen Motel: Gabe, John, and Alpert.

In the morning the air was better still, although probably still “moderate” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”  The race was a go!

New for 2017 was just under a mile out and back section to separate the crowds before the first big climb: Cathedral.  Somehow I got ahead of everyone on that section, and started up the first climb in first.  This isn’t good, I thought, and took it easy.  Scott and Sammy caught up to me, and we did a fair bit of the climb together.  We took it pretty easy, swapping stories and getting to know each other.  No point hurting on the first climb.  When we arrived at the first aid station at 9 miles, the volunteers told us “we were starting to worry about you.”  “Sorry, we are old and slow,” I told them.  They didn’t know that the added part at the start was 7 minutes long.  Even accounting for the added 7 minutes, I was about 3 minutes behind my time from 2015.  I was definitely going easier, but I had secretly hoped to be going faster too.  I had thought an attempt on the course record might be possible, but I didn’t seem to be moving fast enough.  I would try to run well and get the win.  Evgeny caught up with Sammy and me, and there looked to be about 5 runners a few minutes behind.

The next section, across Red Mountain, is where I realized that Fat Dog was serious in 2015.  There is a section  across talus fields.  There is a narrow trail with bad footing.  Oh, and there are marvelous views: high tundra, rocky peaks, flowers, panoramas.  At nearly 8000 ft, this is the high point of the course.  The east side of the range is less heavily glaciated, so there is a broad plateau rather than narrow ridges.  The trail began a long descent, and Evgeny and Sammi took off ahead of me.  I like to descend easily early in the race, so I adopted my “ultra lope,” while still trying to keep them in sight.  All of a sudden, I caught up with Evgeny.  He had run out of water, so I gave him some of mine.  It turned out I was low as well, and only had about ¼ cup to give.  Soon I caught up with Sammy.  The trail took a sudden turn around a boulder.  There was a rotten log that looked like the trail leading to the right.  Sammy started on the rotten log, and then made a quick correction to the trail, but stumbled and fell over a boulder.  I stopped to ask if he was ok, and waited to make sure he was running again.  He said he was fine, but that fall would turn out to be his undoing, as it made him alter his stride, and he ended up dropping out 50 miles later.  I had a disturbing sensation of my own- a cramp in my left quad.  It was way too early for cramps.  Then I realized- I hadn’t peed all race.  How stupid!  I hadn’t tanked up on water that morning, and was dehydrated.


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Sammy and I arrived at Ashnola Aid Station (mile 18) together.  I filled up water, had some ginger ale, watermelon and pizza, then headed up the dirt road towards big climb number 2: Trapper.  I drank and drank as I climbed, trying to get my fluids going again.  I led up the climb, where we had to scramble over several fallen trees.  I felt a few more quad cramps.  Sammy was close behind, then he wasn’t.  It was too early to make a move or get excited, I told myself, so I kept a sensible pace to the next aid station.  My quad stopped cramping.  From here the trail is poorly defined- without the course markings it would be difficult to follow.  I passed the spot where I put on my raincoat in 2015.  Soon after, I peed!  It was the first time in over 5 hours!  It told me that my body was functioning again.  I made the final climb up tundra with no recognizable trail to the top of Flattop Mountain.  I looked back and saw Sammy a few minutes behind.  I didn’t know it then, but this was the last time I would see another solo racer.  The views were fantastic, and it was hot.  I could see the smoke from the Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten to the south.  I looked back to the Cathedral Peaks, and ahead to Manning Park.  And unlike in 2015, I didn’t feel like I was at risk of death by lightning.

The trail stayed high for a few miles, then began a steady descent through lodgepole forest.  I was out of water and looking forward to the aid station.  I had just got my body hydrated, and now I was out of water!  The descent has a lot of rocks, and I had to watch my step.  Once I kicked a rock and it hurt so much I thought I’d torn open my shoe.  I am losing two toenails as a result of that one!  More descending and still no aid station.  Finally I arrived at a water drop- several 5-gallon containers of water next to a stream.  I filled my pack with water and tanked up.  The aid station was only 2 miles later, but I had almost finished my water.

The Calcite Creek Aid station featured an actual Fat Dog.  When I asked where the course went, the volunteers told me “over the dog.” I stepped over the dog, who didn’t seem to mind, or even see the need to move.  The route continued down, on trails, logging roads, down, down to the Pasayten River crossing.  I waded across, splashing myself, stumbling frequently.  On the far side is an aid station and reflective vests for the short highway section ahead.  I peed again, and my cramps were a distant memory. I felt good running up the highway, but Carey later told me she saw me in the distance and thought it was someone else because “Jeff doesn’t run like that.”  

I approached Bonnevier Aid Station, a major aid station.  I arrived at exactly the same time as 2015, but again, I had run 7 minutes more, so I had turned things around and was moving faster.   I ordered two  grilled cheese with bacon and pickles.  “Wait, do you have coffee?” “Yes? Can you mix it with hot chocolate?”  That became my standard drink through the night.  Carey helped me get organized: bright lights, dry shoes and socks, food and electrolytes.  I gave Apollo and Carey hugs and was off, taking my sandwiches to go.  As I left I heard cheering for the next runner - I had spent about 10 minutes at this aid station (by far my longest stop on the course), so that was my lead.

The climb from Bonnevier to Heather is long.  The trail was in good shape, but I hiked most of it, except for a few flat miles in the middle.  Then I arrived at the upper switchbacks, and was surprised to find I was still running!  I was feeling good.  I got out my light, and the wind carried the sound of cheering from the distance.  That was one enthusiastic aid station!  Heather Aid station had been moved from the unprotected location of 2015 and eliminated the out and back from 2016.  The volunteers had music playing and were having an all night party in the dark.  As I left the station, another runner arrived “Don’t worry- I’m a relay runner” he declared.  We ran together for a while, but I didn’t want to get sucked into going too hard, so I let him go ahead.

The next section, Heather, stays high in subalpine meadows.  It was dark, so I didn’t get to appreciate all the flowers, but the running was smooth.  I kicked a few more rocks, including a critical one with my right foot.  At one point I stepped over something strange.  I thought it was a pile of bear poop, but I stopped to examine the object- it was a northern toad!  I began the rocky descent to Nicomen Lake.  I looked back, but didn’t see any lights.  How much of a lead did I have?  Most of the volunteers at Nicomen were asleep.  I got a gel and some water, and thanked the volunteers profusely.  After all, they had carried everything in 13 miles!

After Nicomen, there is a 13-mile descent to Cayuse Flats.  I cruised along, thankful for the occasional uphills where I got to use different muscles.  In 2015, shortly after this descent I had fallen apart.  So I took the descent fairly easy, stopping occasionally and taking a dozen walking steps.  As I approached Cayuse, the terrain was more runnable, until a short but brutal climb and descent to the river crossing.  Cayuse Aid station!  I fueled up quickly and motored on towards Skagit Bluffs.

Fortunately, I was familiar with Skagit Bluffs.  A casual look at the course map would make you think this is a 7km cruise.  Actually, there is a remarkable series of climbs and descents, as the trail climbs up and over the cliffs of the Skagit gorge.  There are kilometer markers, and I think one kilometer took me over 10 minutes!  After an hour, I arrived at Cascade (3:20AM), another crew access aid station.

As I filled my pack with water and food, I asked where the other runners were.  “Oh, there’s a guy 5-10 minutes behind you.”  What?  I hadn’t seen any lights, hadn’t heard a thing.  I figured I was on my own. “No one else is within an hour of you two.”   It was Nolan, who I hadn’t run with all race, but had been close behind me the whole way.  I had a quesadilla with egg and salsa, and I sprinkled a liberal amount of rock salt.  I started eating as I headed into the woods.  Crunch.  “How did they get gravel into my breakfast?”  Then I realized it was the rock salt.  Here is the second road section, a 2-mile descent to Sumallo Grove.  I looked behind me but didn’t see any lights.  Where was Nolan?  I cruised into Sumallo and after a quick pit stop headed along the Skagit River Trail.

The Skagit River Trail was built by Americans in the Canadian Gold Rush to avoid paying taxes.  It follows the river, but has a lot of twists and turns and short steep climbs and descents.  Finally, after a particularly steep descent around a rockslide, there was several miles of flat, runnable trail.  It was dawn, and I was able to switch off my lights.  The trail had been well brushed and was fast.  I turned onto the out and back to Shawatum Aid Station. Carey was there.  I ditched my heavy lights and switched to ultralight “just in case” lights and fueled and watered up.

I equate Shawatum with Kachess (mile 67) on Cascade Crest.  Shawatum is 3 miles closer to the finish, but there is more climbing.  Kachess to the finish is the most difficult section of Cascade Crest.  But in Fat Dog, getting to Shawatum is as hard as the entire Cascade Crest! 

About this time my right shin was starting to really hurt.  I noticed that if I was turning right, or sidehilling with the uphill on my right, it felt better.  Unfortunately, almost the whole course from here sidehills the other way.  I tried to run on the right edge of the trail, where there was a slight slope to the left.  I ran hard on right-hand corners.  The trail switchbacked down to a river crossing- one way felt ok, the other way hurt.  I heard singing in the distance behind me.  Was that Nolan or his pacer?  Shortly afterwards a relay runner caught me.  She was singing.  We ran together for a while, and shortly before Skyline Aid station she left me behind.

Competitors had been warned that we would be checked for mental competence at Skyline.  We had answered 4 questions when registering: What was the first trail race we ran?  What was the first car we drove?  What color is our front door?  What is the name of the hospital where we were born?  As I arrived, I rattled off “Cle Elum 50k, Honda Civic, Brown, St. Clare’s.”

“What are you talking about?” the volunteers asked.

“I heard we were supposed to tell you those things so you could decide if we were mentally with it enough to go on.”

“I don’t know about that, but you seem good to go.”

From Skyline to the finish is really something.  20 miles with a  5000 ft climb, followed by 7 more climbs.  At the hotel, I had told John “Seven climbs.  Don’t forget.  It’s longer than you think.”  Then a 2500 ft descent to the finish.

I tried to run the gradual ups of Skyline, but mostly I hiked, and my running didn’t look like much.  Still, I remarked to myself, “Everything feels great: I have good energy, my stomach is good, I am hydrated, no cramps, my left leg feels good, most of my right leg feels good.  It’s just this right shin!”  The top of the climb opens up, with great views of Hozomeen Peak.  I looked behind me, but didn’t see a soul.  “I’ve led this race for a long time.  I am not going to get passed now.”  I told myself.  “But if someone passes me, who knows if I’ll be able to respond!”

The downhills really hurt my shin.  I thought of the girl in track with 3 stress fractures.  “My shins will be swollen, but not for long enough to get a stress fracture...I hope.”  Then I realized, “this hurts a lot, but I can still run fast.”  I passed camp Mowich Aid station- these volunteers had hiked in 10 miles!  Thank you, volunteers.

As I started up the first climb, I counted “one.”  It was great to be in daylight and clear air on this scenic section.  Wildflowers, views, it was awesome!  “One.”  I was still on one.  I measure these climbs in comparison to Manastash Ridge, behind my house.  This one is a ⅔ Manastash.  Finally, the downhill, but it was quite a sidehill, the wrong way.  My right shin screamed, but I continued.   “Two.” Another down, this one sidehilling the right way.  “Three.” Another aid station.  Thanks volunteers!  “11km to the finish” they told me.

As I passed “Five” I saw some hikers.  One remarkable thing about Fat Dog is how lonely it is.  I had seen 2 people not associated with the race in the first 110 miles.  The last climb is the highest of the seven, touching 2000m.  The descent is initially steep and rocky.  A hiker told me, “8km to go.”  “8k,” I whined.  I was hoping it was closer.  That was a lot of effort for 3km from the last aid station.  The descent hurt my shin, but I was moving now.  My watch said I had 35 minutes to make it under 27 hours.  I would go for it.  The trail flattened and became more runnable.  Although my shin hurt every step, I pushed the pace.

After arriving at the bottom, I had another mile of flat to the finish.  In 2015, I had run the final mile really fast.  I think my body knows that it could shut down soon, so it allowed me to go faster for a short time.  When I got in sight of Mountain Madness’ inflatable arch, I let out a hoarse yodel, which no one heard.  Shin screaming, I ran around the lake and under the arch.

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I gave Carey and Apollo hugs.  I gave race director Heather MacDonald a hug.  I had tried not to think about it, but it had happened.  I had won a long ultramarathon.  My time was 26:55:01.  I was 1:45 off the course record, but I had run the last 30 miles at course record pace.

There was an attractive patch of grass.  I had wanted to lie down for so long.  I tried it out.  Soon, joints started to stiffen.  I managed to wash off at the lake and have a burger.  Nolan finished in 27:50:20.  It was fun to meet him and his family (we actually spent more time with his sister and nephews!).

Carey and Apollo were tired of waiting around, so we headed to a hotel in Hope.  People always say “I bet you sleep well.”  Actually, my legs hurt so much I slept quite poorly.  And it took me about 5 minutes to loosen up enough to limp to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  We went back to Manning Park for awards, where it was fun to hear stories from other runners.  Friends John and Jake had finished 9th and 11th.  Alpert from Chicago, who had trained on a treadmill, had finished in 37:52.

As I write this a week later, my shin is still tender but the swelling has gone down to the point that casual passersbys don’t ask “what happened to you?”  I think the cause might have been a rock I caught with my toe- it might have stretched the anterior tibialis, which tightened up to protect itself.  The 13 mile downhill that mostly sloped to the right exacerbated the tight shin.  It raises the question though, “is it possible to run this race without disabling myself?”

I won a free entry to next year’s event.  Perhaps I will get another data point.

I put my legs up in the backseat and Carey drove us home.  I couldn’t have done it without her (and I don’t just mean the drive!). Thanks to the race organizers and volunteers who make the event possible.   Thanks to my family for patience and for understanding all summer that when I said, “I am going for a long run,” that I meant I would be gone all day.  Thanks to Carey for crewing for me (and putting up with me in day to day life, but that’s another story)!

4 comments:

  1. Jeff, you never cease to amaze me. I've never done an ultra-distance trail race, yet you capture the event so well it's as if the vicarious reader is there with you, complete with sore shin! Thanks for being an inspiration to all of us in the NW endurance community. Congratulations, David Evans

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    1. An ultra-distance trail race is right up your alley, David -- you are also an endurance machine!

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  2. After reading your amazing race tale, I better appreciate why you always excelled at 30K XC races! Truly amazing story and spectacular result! Glad the air cleared and you were able to run! Best to you! Brian Dumais

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  3. I just doubled the size of my breakfast...

    ... epic read!

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