I traveled to the Seattle area to run a lesser-known ultra, mostly run by locals, called Pigtails Challenge. There are three distances, 100 miles, 150 miles, and 200 miles. I decided to enter the 150-mile race “the middle child,” fully understanding the difficulty and toll it would take on my body. If successful, this would be the fourth time I had reached at least 150 miles in a single race.
The Pigtails Challenge is held at the Lake Youngs watershed near Renton, Washington, which is only about 15 miles from where I grew up and went to high school. I had expected a park, but discovered that the 9.4-mile loop trail runs around the perimeter of a very protected reservoir that supplies drinking water for Seattle. Along the trail, there is only one place where you can get a glimpse of the lake.
Lake Youngs started construction in 1922. Before then, this was the location of Swan Lake. In the 1880s a few settlers establish homesteads around the lake and a small school was built there in 1891. In 1916, the water department decided to create a large reservoir there and took over the land. The lake was expanded from 548 acres to 790 acres using two dams. The water level also was raised 20 feet. In 1927 the first water was delivered by pipeline to Seattle. Today at Lake Youngs the river water diverted to it is ozonated, exposed to ultraviolet light, lime and chlorine are added.
The perimeter trail is mostly a wide multi-use trail that is popular for running during the mornings and evenings. It is non-technical and well-maintained. Because of the wet weather, gravel is added frequently and this year the trail was well-graveled but still very fast. The trail rolls, with about 700 feet of climbing during each loop. For the race we would change directions each lap giving some variation.
There is a high perimeter chain-linked fence all around the property. The trail was very easy to navigate because you were always running next to the fence. On the fence were strongly worded “no trespassing signs.” I planned to count them during a loop but never did. They were in the hundreds. The character of Lake Youngs Trail shifts from forest lane to roadside path. During the day there are noisy sections along heavily used roads, but then shifts to quiet and solitary passages. You experience both rural and urban views. Running around the security fence for hours made me think of the movie, “The Village” wondering what exactly was inside the area hidden by high trees.
My training had been solid for the past couple months. Six weeks of 100 miles or more of running in the past eight week. For the first time in more than two years, I had been able to train hard, finally recovered from injuries. Setting a goal pace for 150 miles is rather silly, because for me, any distance past 100 miles can’t be predicted very well.
I constructed a pace chart showing my slow pace (poor training) at Pickled Feet 48-hours a couple months ago (163 miles), and my fast pace at Across the Years 48-hours in 2010 (187 miles). I hoped to keep the pace somewhere in-between those two and to finish around 36 hours to avoid a second night of running. The cutoff time for 150 miles is a very generous 56 hours.
There were 13 starters in the 200-mile race, 7 starters in the 150-mile race, and 36 in the 100. So it was a small field which I like supported by only a few very capable volunteers needed. There was a nice aid station at the start and another very suitable unmanned station half-way around the loop. I placed some items near the start for my use instead of always going to my car.
Unique to this race are the robes given to each runner. Right before the 150-mile start, we took pictures in our robes and then walked out on the course for 0.4 miles to that 150-mile start point.
The first loop would be shorter (9.0), but this meant that when we finished the 16th loop we would reach 150 miles.
Our small group was away at 6:00 a.m. and I quickly took the lead. I had not run a step for six days and my legs enjoyed working again. When I looked at my competition before the race, I determined it would be Ryan McNight and Cassidy Hood, both much younger than me. I beat Cassidy by many miles at Pickled Feet 48 a couple months ago so I wasn’t too worried about him, but Ryan’s results looked fast and solid if he could truly go the distance.
My first few miles were fast, 7:31, 8:01, 8:05, 8:02, 8:12. Leading, I was worried about going off course, but I soon understood that we were always running along the perimeter fence. I was surprised to hear another runner staying with me, just 50 yards or so behind. On one of the turns I looked back. It was Cassidy. He passed me around mile 6 as I slowed to a 9:00 pace. He kept running hard. I wasn’t worried and promised myself that I would not worry about placement for at least 80 miles.
I really enjoyed the trail. It was very fast. There were gravel sections, but my max-cushioned shoes worked great, I could barely feel all the rocks. The rolling climbs were perfect for me, giving some variation for the muscles. I ran every step of the first lap, finishing about a half mile behind Cassidy and about a mile ahead of Ryan. All the others were already 20 minutes behind.
The 200-mile runners were scattered around the course and were almost all walking. It was fun to greet them. Many of them would quit during the day, but about half of them would eventually finish within their allotted 80 hours. The winner would come in at 52:32, a solid time.
During my second lap, my pace maintained between 9:30 and 10:00-mile pace. That felt good and fast, letting me clock sub-1:30 laps. After lap 2, I was 11 minutes behind Cassidy and 6 minutes ahead of Ryan. As I observed Ryan, I concluded he would be the guy to beat. I caught up and passed Cassidy around mile 25 and he would slow significantly after that. I stretched my lead over Ryan up to 15 minutes and hit the marathon mark at 4:02, which greatly pleased me. I hit the 50K mark at 4:52. I had not seen that speed in a long race for several years.
Running at nearly sea-level was a major help. This time of the year, I train at 4,500-5,000 feet and normally the limiting factor is my heart rate and lungs. But I was amazed to discover that my breathing and heart-rate were comfortable, even at the fast pace. The limiting factor would be my leg strength. I was delighted.
By late morning, it started to rain. It was just a light drizzle at first, but later would start creating pools of water on the single-track sections of the course. It rained on and off for the next six hours. I was fine with the rain, it kept me cool but not cold. I would never put on a jacket during the entire race, but I did put on garbage bag during the rain. The humidity was high, not allowing me to dry out very fast.
I reached the 50-mile mark at 8:33, a nice fast pace, consistent with the pace I had run when I had reached 100-miles in around 20 hours. I was now nearly two hours ahead of my Pickled Feet race pace a couple months ago on a much flatter but more technical course. I was ahead of my best Pony Express Trail 100 pace and best Rocky Raccoon 100, beating them by 30 minutes! I was just 26 minutes behind my best pace at Across the Years on a very smooth flat track. This really got my attention, knowing that I had a good race going.
But I had recently lost 1st place to Ryan who was running even stronger. By the end of lap 6 (mile 56) I was 12 minutes behind Ryan and 2:11 ahead of Cassidy. Because we reversed loop direction each lap, it was easy to see how far back the other runners were. Cassidy and the other runners were now more than a full lap behind me and Ryan, and the distance was growing.
All continued well for my run. I had minor periods of discomfort that would slow me, but each time I eventually recovered. I changed out of my soaked shirt but then the rain started again and with the garbage bag and humidity, I would sweat enough to again be just as soaked as before. The temperature was very nice and I never felt chilled. As the day became late, the rain passed and some sunshine came out. Then it started to feel hot and I began to struggle. The forest sections were cool, but the exposed sections along the roads with cars felt hot. Some 200-milers were really struggling and I stopped a couple times to offer advice. Thankfully the sun descended lower and the cooler temperature brought me back to life. Even so, up until that point I had run more than 99% of the way as opposed to walking.
I grabbed my flashlight for lap 9 and was amazed that I didn’t need to turn it on until mile 82. Never before had I run 82 miles in one period of daylight. My pace increased as I felt more energized. I caught up and passed Ryan during lap 9, again in first place. We would run close to each other and trade the lead back and forth for the next 50 miles.
The night came to life. Noisy cars disappeared from sections of the course that went along the roads. Singing frogs became the noise of the night in other areas. But mostly it was just quiet running, just me and my music.
I reached the end of lap 10 (mile 93.6) in 18:31, a minute before Ryan. I was only ten minutes behind my speedy Across the Years pace, and an amazing 4.5 hours ahead of my Pickled Feet pace a couple months ago. Wow! I knew that reaching 100 miles in under 20 hours was now very possible and actually would be pretty easy. I marveled over that. I seriously thought that a sub-20 was now in the rear view mirror now that I was nearly 56 years old. But here I was, still running fast, even on a more difficult course.
But with those thoughts, I knew that if I wanted to continue well beyond 100 miles, that I needed to stop to fix my feet. If I would have been only running 100 miles, I would have not stopped but pushed on hard ahead. I had been running in Altra Repititions up until that point, but a couple blisters were developing, probably because I was retaining water. I stopped for a long 20 minutes to fix things and knew now that going sub-20 was probably out of the picture. I reached 100 miles in 20:34. I had only beat that three times before. If I was instead running the 100-mile race, that would have been good for 3rd place. During that 20:34, my moving time was about 19:00, so I had 1:30 aid station stop time.
After finishing lap 11 (mile 103), I felt pretty thrashed. It was time for a long rest. My feet were in great pain, had low energy, and was very drowsy. I went to my car and rested for more than an hour. I contemplated quitting, but after an hour felt much better, so pulled myself out of the car and continued on.
Dawn arrived during the next slow lap. I now was doing lots of walking. But I still enjoyed running the uphills and would get comments from the other runners who saw me doing that. The 100-mile runners started and soon were seen running by very fast. With my long stop, I fell behind Ryan by up to 42 minutes, but he also took a long stop, and about mile 115 I caught up. We ran/walked with each other for a while and it was good to talk. Even with the stops, the next runner, Reed, was about 20 miles behind.
I left Ryan behind when four neighborhood running ladies passed by. I decided to kick it in gear and see if I could keep pace. They were running at about 9:30 pace. Sure enough I kept up just fine. They soon noticed me and for the next couple miles had great conversation about running and the race. They were pretty amazed at how far I had run and asked me all kinds of questions including my age. They were very nice and it was cool to run with people for a while. But eventually I said goodbye and they went on ahead. They were planning on running two loops.
Ryan caught back up and we finished the loop together. I was now in rough shape after about 122 miles, ready to quit, and went back to my car. I posted on the Wasatch Mountain Wranglers Facebook group, “122 tied for the lead. Resting again. Motivation low. Next runners about 30 miles behind.” I really wanted to quit. I saw no good reason to continue. But quitting while you are in first place is just stupid. I received some good encouragement from friends on Facebook. After 30 minutes of resting I again felt better and continued on.
Ryan had not stopped and was now far ahead. I managed to do a slow 3-hour loop. During the loop a small deer was caught on the wrong side of the fence. It was interesting to watch it try and try to find a way through. It eventually ran away from me into the neighborhood. At the half-way point, the leading 100-mile runner, and eventual winner, Gavin came by. He was running at record pace. I decided to try to keep up. He soon noticed me and we ran together for a couple miles and chatted. We were going at about 8:30-9:30 pace. Eventually I bid goodbye and he went on to finish in 17:35.
After that loop, I again wanted to quit. I contemplated going to get a motel room, cleaning up, resting and coming back to run the last two laps during the night. But after fixing my feet, and cooling down (the day was becoming hot), I was ready to go again. Before I left, Ryan came in now a full lap ahead of me.
During lap 15, around mile 135, I pushed the straight long section hard, running all the uphills, passing many 100-mile runners who were walking. They looked at me in surprise. This was great. But at about mile 137 while running hard, I felt alarming pain in my bad knee. I could no longer run and feared that I had messed up my knee again. I finished that lap (mile 140.6) at 35:50. I was now more than three hours behind my best time, but still almost five hours better than my Pickled Feet pace at this point.
One more lap. It would really be stupid to quit at this point but I needed to be very careful. I walked nearly the entire 9.4 miles in almost four hours. It was very slow and painful. I was able to jog many of the uphills because the pain was much less. I could notice some swelling in my knee and along the areas of my previous stress fractures. I was pretty alarmed and with a couple miles to go, seriously wondered if I would have to quit. But I pushed on ahead slowly. That last mile seemed to take forever. It was now dark and I used a headlamp for the last 1.5 miles. Finally the finish came in sight.
I walked slowly over the finish line with no celebration. I thanked the volunteers, received my buckle, gathered my things, and went directly to a motel. I had finished 150 miles in 39:48:31. I had run the first 100 miles in 20.5 hours, and then “ran” the next 50 miles in 19 hours. There were 4.5 hours when I wasn’t moving, a lot of resting time. The first 100 seemed fun and easy, but the last 50 miles were hard and at times torture. I should stick to 100s.
Very little sleep came that night because of all the pain. I iced my bad leg and my sore feet and eventually some sleep came. I rested on Sunday and arrived home in the evening. By Monday, things were much better and it looks like I didn’t experience any serious injury. I was lucky this time.
Pigtails Challenge is a great event. I was glad to be part of it. Next time I’ll probably stick with running the 100 where I should be able to finish with a fast time.