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A lesson in failure?

I’m back home now and rested after an adventurous time up on Mt. Baker. Yesterday at this time I was trudging in the snow with a group of world class ultra marathoners wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

I had heard about a Mount Baker Marathon several years back when a neighbor of ours up at our cabin had a copy of the film Mountain Runners. It was a documentary about a race that was held from 1911-1913 from Bellingham to the summit of Mt. Baker and back. I was intrigued.

In February, I found out that there was a group trying to start it again and thought it was pretty cool. This time, the run was going to be 50 miles from the town of Concrete and back. 50 miles? I thought. I could do that. I’ve had long days on in the mountains and know what 10,000ft of descent in a couple hours feels like on Kilimanjaro.

So I sent in an application and a resume of my climbing accomplishments, paid the $595 and was given the opportunity to come try. I knew I was going to be “that guy” and was a little bit out of my box. The other climbs were world class athletes, some with some incredible accomplishments. To be honest, I was pretty intimidated by everyone and dang nervous leading up to the whole thing.

I did a lot of research, spent hours reading about strategy, technique, calorie intake, pacing, run/walk intervals, alpine speed climbs, etc. But nothing teaches you better than just going and giving something a try.

So, at midnight yesterday (12:01am June 4th) the race director Dan said “Go!”. And I went. Some people took off like bullets while others jogged and then starting power walking on the first hill just a couple hundred yards from the line. I watched and tried to key into how others were running, what their pace was like and how they were anticipating the actual mountain climb we ahead of us. I’ve climbed the mountain we were all dashing towards and it’s not a walk in the wood. It’s a big, icy, steep 10,000-foot volcano.

After a few miles, I seemed to find my groove. The anxiety was all gone and I was in my own little mountain-zen world (one of my favorite places). I focused on staying hydrated, power walking the big hills and trying to preserve my legs for the climb and the decent up head.

Around mile 6 the adventure began. At mile 6, or just after, there was a creek crossing. At the crossing, there were a couple Search and Rescue volunteers that were helping direct on how to cross. But, it seemed there had been some miscommunication when the course was set and no one had put the trail makers in line on both sides of the crossing. As a group, we scoured the hillside looking for a way down to the creek only to find a gorge with a 200ft drop up and downstream of where we were. During this wild scramble, I stepped on the brand of a downed tree and tweaked my right knee a bit. This was the same knee that was giving my IT Band issues during my training leading up to the run.

Searching for the Thunder Creek crossing.

Awesome volunteers even offered us beer. We all shared one naturally.

Eventually after no luck in finding the actual crossing, a race coordinator and Search and Rescue volunteers decided they were just going to drive us all around to the other side of the creek. A 30 min detour from our route. So we packed in and hit the road. When we got out, sure as shit, my right knee, and that damned IT band were pissed. I knew the feeling and knew it wasn’t going to get much better.

We got some snacks at the aid station we were brought to, I got some food and water, changed my now wet and muddy shoes, ate 6 ibuprofen and the race was restarted. Right out of the gate I was favoring that leg. Trying to run easy and put more weight on the left. The problem with favoring a knee is that it moves slower when we swing it forward and you pay the price by overworking your hip flexors.

But, I kept on. I wasn’t at the back of the pack, but by the time we made it to the snowline I was right with the last group. At the snowline, we changed out shoes for mountaineering boots and backpacks. I had snowshoes with me but made the choice, against my original plans, to leave them behind and just use boots. I’m still not 100% on why I decided not to use them but I think it was just the idea of having more weight underfoot.

A mile or so into the snow section the group in the back caught up to me. All in snowshoes. I was pushing through soft snow, slipping all around and trying to keep my footing while they trudged on. I got a little higher on the mountain and my knee was only getting worse. I had to stop every 5mins, squeeze my knee and let it rest. I could see others way up higher and knew that there was a lot more mountain ahead.

Other runners way ahead

So I called it. I text Sarah via satellite, tried to signal the climber ahead of me that I was headed back, snapped a selfie and turned around. Humbled. Angry. Disappointed and relieved.

I had anticipated myself going much farther, visualized myself crawling over the finish line and pulling my socks off to find my feet totally destroyed. But, no. My knee just felt like someone was stabbing it. No blood, no evidence, no cool scars.

When I made it back to the last Aid station they asked me for my bib number. 12, I said. The race coordinator got on the radio and called Search and Rescue. “We have the missing runner, 12, Kyle. He’s here”. A few moments later, a guy came, outfitted in snowmobile gear and said: “How’s your knee?”. I said it hurts, how’d you know? He said they saw me moving slow up on the mountain and hobbling along. I hadn’t checked in at the next Aid Station so they figured something was wrong. I was impressed by how swift and observant they were. One thing they did really well during this whole race was keeping track of all of us. But, in the end, there I was sitting at an aid station with a big DNF (Did Not Finish) on on my forehead. I WAS “that guy”.

But I learned a ton. All of which I’ll use to prepare myself for the run next year, likely where I’ll learn even more. I understood more about what it takes and how to better prepare. I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the minutes I hated. Life is all about adventure, putting yourself out here, pushing your envelope and learning more about yourself.

I’ve found the CURRENT limit of my body (my knees when running anyway) and will work to get stronger. I still want to find that line though, where I can’t muster another step. When all of me, not just my knees can’t go on. That challenge still calls me. So, I guess I’ll just have to keep climbing!

I thank everyone who took the time to make this awesome race happen. Even though my personal results were less than par the event in whole was a slam dunk. I’m excited to see this run grow and hopefully my entry helped.


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