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I returned to the Seattle area to run a lesser-known ultra, mostly run by locals, called Pigtails Challenge. There were five distances, 50K, 100K, 100 miles, 150 miles, and 200 miles. I ran this race in 2014 and finished the 150-mile race. This year I entered the 100-miler.

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. 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. The course is very easy to follow because you simply run on the outside of the high fence that guards the property. It always reminds me of the movie, “The Village” where a society lives secretly in the woods behind high walls.

Lake Youngs started construction in 1922. Before then, this was the location of Swan Lake. The water department decided to create a large reservoir there and took over the land. In 1927 the first water was delivered by pipeline to Seattle.

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The perimeter trail is mostly a wide multi-use trail. Because of the wet weather, gravel is added frequently which keeps the mud away and makes the surface very fast. There are a couple sections of single track that don’t receive gravel, and those sections can get muddy and wet when it rains. The trail rolls significantly, with about 700 feet of climbing during each loop. We would change directions each loop, giving some variation. 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.

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I knew exactly what to expect and hoped for a fast race. Looking at the entrants list, it didn’t look like I would win the 100, I thought that would go to Alex Swenson, capable of running a sub-20-hour 100. But I believed I could finish in 2nd, and hoped to improve on my 20:51 time at Jackpot 100 in February. Two years ago while running the 150-miler here, my 100-mile split time was about 20:48. Two years older at age 57, but in better shape, I thought I could beat that time.

I carefully constructed a pacing chart for a 20:43 finish.

Loop # Miles goal Loop time goal mile pace
0 6.0 0:54 0:54:00 0:09:00
1 15.4 2:28 1:34:00 0:10:00
2 24.8 4:11 1:43:24 0:11:00
3 34.2 5:59 1:48:06 0:11:30
4 43.6 7:52 1:52:48 0:12:00
5 53.0 9:45 1:52:48 0:12:00
6 62.4 11:47 2:02:12 0:13:00
7 71.8 13:54 2:06:54 0:13:30
8 81.2 16:05 2:11:36 0:14:00
9 90.6 18:22 2:16:18 0:14:30
10 100.0 20:43 2:21:00 0:15:00

I arrived at the park an hour early to claim a parking spot right by the start. This year instead of using a drop bag in a tent, I simply arranged my things in the passenger seats of my rental car which I would visit at the end of each loop. My friend Karl Jenson from Canada was also running and we said quick hellos before the start.

trailhead

At 6:00 a.m. we were away, a small field of 25 100-mile runners. We would first do a partial loop, a six-mile out and back so the remainder loops would add up to 100 miles. I initially wasn’t up near the front but after a half mile had come forward. A young 27-year-old runner, Nick Tyree from Kirkland, Washington seemed determined to lead the race. This was Nick’s first 100, so I was not really concerned about him leaving us behind or even competing, but it was interesting to watch him run.

Leading the pack early on with Nick

Leading the pack early on with Nick

It was raining lightly as we started, but the temperature during the entire race was always in the 50s, a perfect running temperature for me. I was dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, shorts, water proof cap, and wore a long garbage bag with a belt to have it fit better. That is all I would need. I would never need to put on jacket.

On the course were other 200-mile and 150-mile runners moving slowly, all bundled up. I paused to greet the “Ultrapedestrian,” Ras Vaughan, who started two days earlier. He looked sleepy and wasn’t quite sure which loop he was on, but probably had put in about 140 miles. I led the majority of the out-and-back, but Nick put on a burst of speed near the end to finish that split ahead of me and quickly left again, determined to hold the lead.

I never care what position I am in until about mile 60. More important to me is to run steady during the early miles and stay true to my pacing chart times. It was fun to run the first full loop. The memories of the course flooded back to me. We ran the first 9.4-mile loop clockwise and then would reverse direction for each loop. The variation of forest and urban views made it all interesting. The hills mixed things up and presented fun challenges. I ran every step of the first loop maintaining a 9:30-10:00-minute mile pace. The rain had stopped, but it would remain cloudy during the entire day. I stopped to take off the garbage bag and stuffed it in my pocket. It felt much cooler and better, letting me run faster.

I caught up to Nick as he was already walking up a hill. I passed him, but again, determined, he pushed ahead. About halfway through the loop, about mile 12, Alex Swenson zoomed past me and I expected that would be the last time I would be ahead of him. I finished loop 1 (mile 15.4) in 2:28, exactly on my pace goal. Alex and Nick had arrived five minutes earlier. Alex left first, soon followed by Nick. My stop was short and I began loop 2, in the opposite direction. It was fun to see all the other runners. Karl was 9th place, about 22 minutes back. He commented on my sprinting start. No, not really sprinting, just pushing the pace quickly for the first few loops.

I finished loop 2 (mile 24.8) at 4:09, only two minutes ahead of my goal. Everything was going exactly as planned. Nick had finished his loop four minutes ahead of me and continued on as I arrived. My stop was just two minutes long to refill. I reached the marathon mark (26.2) at 4:25, which seemed slow, but I knew I was running according to my plan. As I thought about it more, with about 700 feet of climbing each loop, it was a solid pace. I hit the 50K mark at 5:17.

I caught up and passed Nick who I could tell was slowing. Alex was nowhere to be seen, already about fifteen minutes ahead. I kept my pace steady, at about 10:30-mile pace at that point. After a nice long, fast downhill, I was surprised to see Nick pass me quickly. I started to watch him more closely and it occurred to me that this first-time 100-miler was pushing it too hard and would soon crash and burn. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case, but he seemed to be more worried about getting ahead of me than keeping a solid pace going. He disappeared down the road, but in a couple miles I almost caught up. Seeing me, he again pushed hard ahead. It was a nice amusing distraction to watch.

Loop # Miles goal actual loop time goal actual
0 6.0 0:54 0:53 0:54 0:53
1 15.4 2:28 2:28 1:34 1:35
2 24.8 4:11 4:09 1:43 1:40
3 34.2 5:59 5:54 1:48 1:45

I finished Loop 3 (mile 34.2) at 5:54, a minute behind Nick. I was just five minutes ahead of my goal. After just another two-minute stop, I was on my way again. Nick looked distressed and was still recovering. (Unfortunately, my prediction came true as young Nick started crashing and slowed significantly. When I would see him, I wanted to encourage him, because his effort was so determined, but he would later DNF with hip pain at mile 72, about 3.5 hours behind me.)

With each loop, Alex seems to push another mile ahead of me. Knowing unfortunately that Nick would not last, the next runners chasing me were now about three miles behind. It was a group of runners including Karl. Each loop, with the reverse direction, I would carefully determine how far back the runners were. That gave me something for my mind to do. There were also many 100K runners on the course who started two hours after us. They would eventually mix in with the 100-milers.

During my 4th loop, I lapped the last place 100-mile runner. Because of the reversed loops, that meant I was 18.8 miles ahead of him. I would lap many others in the hours to come. Everything seemed to be going well for me. I wasn’t eating enough as usual, but after each loop, I ate planned items until I was nearly full. There was also an unmanned aid station half way around the loop which I used to refill the one water bottle I carried. I finished loop 4 (mile 43.6) at 7:45, seven minutes ahead of my goal pace. My stop was about four minutes. During the entire race, I never needed to take off my shoes. No dirt got in them and no hot spots or blisters ever developed. The shoes (discontinued Hoka Rapa Nui II) performed perfectly.

The Rollercoaster

The Rollercoaster

Loop 5 went fine. My pace had slowed to 11:30-12:00-mile pace, but that was still according to plan. I reached the 50-mile mark at 9:06. I knew that I probably couldn’t do the second 50 miles in 11 hours, so breaking 20 hours probably wouldn’t happen, but I would just try to stick to the plan. I liked the counter-clockwise direction a lot more than the clockwise direction. On the west side of the course, there was a long two-mile straightaway that I called the Rollercoaster. The Rollercoaster seemed to be much easier going counter-clockwise at this point, with fewer climbs.

I finished Loop 5 (mile 53.0) at 9:43, just two minutes ahead of my goal. My stop was longer, seven minutes to use the bathroom, do a little recovery, and eat better. I still had not sat down at all. I was still in 2nd place, four miles behind Alex, and four miles ahead of Karl, who was now in 3rd place. I thought it was funny that the first three runners were ages, 52, 57, and 66.

trail3

I knew that with the 6th loop that I would reach the 100K mark. I try not to think about how many miles I have left to reach 100 miles and instead think of the various milestones along the way. My loops including my longer stops now, were now taking about two hours. All went well during this loop, keeping my miles faster than 12 minutes. I finished loop 6 (mile 62.4) at 11:45, just two minutes ahead of schedule. I was delighted that I was still running to plan and it always is nice to reach 100K before the 12-hour mark.  My 100K split time would have been fast enough to place 2nd in the 100K event this year. In the 100, I was still in 2nd place, five miles behind Alex and five miles ahead of Karl, in 3rd. I knew the gaps were big. I wished that the gaps were smaller and would give me something to push harder against.

Loop 7 was tough. It started raining pretty hard as I started the loop. Soon I put on my garbage bag again. On the single-track sections puddles started to form and slickish mud appeared, to slow things down. Thankfully Washington storms lack wind and just drop wet drizzle. I could tell that I was going more slowly and that was a little discouraging. The drizzle decreased and I took off the garbage bag. The bag was keeping me too warm and I felt much better with it off, even if a little wetter. That loop took me 2:09.

Loop # Miles goal actual loop time goal actual
4 43.6 7:52 7:45 1:52 1:51
5 53.0 9:45 9:43 1:52 1:58
6 62.4 11:47 11:45 2:02 2:01
7 71.8 13:54 13:54 2:06 2:09

I finished Loop 7 (mile 71.8) in 13:54, exactly on my planned pace – amazing! My stop was for seven minutes. I switched out GPS watches, refilled my pockets, ate a burrito, and visited the bathroom. Still in 2nd place, I was now 6 miles behind Alex and 4.5 mile ahead of Laura Schmitt, age 37, who had moved up to 3rd running strong with a pacer. Her pace was good and made me think a little bit about the possibility of her catching me.

Darkness came during continued rainy loop 8. I turned on my headlamp at about mile 78. It was so nice and encouraging to have already completed 78 miles during the day. The trail was still slick and slow in parts but I did my best. It was now easy to detect other slow-moving 100-mile or 100K runners with lights who I could catch up and lap. I knew they were 18.8 miles behind.

I finished Loop 8 (mile 81.2) in 16:05 after a 2:21 loop. I was at a low point. My stomach was a bit unsettled and I was finding it more difficult to find the energy to keep a sustained run without a little walking. I sat and rested for the first time. My stop was seven minutes. But I was anxious to get going again, wondering about the runners behind me. I was still in 2nd place, now 8 miles behind Alex and six miles ahead of Laura.

I now knew that my 2nd place finish was very safe. I now had my green handheld light to guide my way and sang to lift my spirits. The night sounds were out, chirping frogs and hooting owls. I tried to greet cheerfully the runners coming toward me. I was delighted to think that I was completing my last harder clockwise loop. Midnight arrived and I’m sure cars passing by thought we were nuts out running with lights. The rain stopped and I could even see some clear skies poking through some clouds. The night was very pleasant.

I finished Loop 9 (mile 90.6) at 18:22. Alex had just finished his race in 18:19 for the win, 9.5 miles ahead of me. I was still about six mile ahead of Laura (she would finish in 23:09). I knew that I was now 20 minutes behind my planned schedule and that catching up and reaching my goal was pretty impossible at this point, but I thought it was still possible to break 21 hours, so my stop was fast, five minutes.

As I ran my final loop, about all I could think of was my motel room just 15 minutes away. It would be great to finish early in the night and be able to try to sleep for several hours. My first mile during the loop was solid, eleven minutes. But my motivation to continue to push hard went away and I again got lazy, slowing to 14-minute miles. I should have continued pushing, my legs felt great. I was pretty amazed at how well I felt. I could still run all the uphills. My feet weren’t sore and my leg muscles were still interested in more miles.

Drowsiness did hit me and I paused to sit on a bench for a couple minutes to sit and rest my eyes. That helped and I was ready to get to the finish. The 21-hour mark clicked by. As I neared the finish, I met Karl who was starting with 9th loop, 9.4 miles behind. He explained that he had slowed due to a bad stomach and I wished him well. He went on to finish in 5th, in 23:36.

Loop # Miles goal actual loop time goal actual
8 81.2 16:05 16:15 2:11 2:21
9 90.6 18:22 18:42 2:16 2:26
10 100.0 20:43 21:05 2:21 2:23

I then ran the final section and finished Pigtails 100 in 21:05, for 2nd place. I was very pleased. Yes, I missed my goal time by 22 minutes (mostly due to the rain), but 21:05 is still very solid for a runner my age.

IMG_0402 (691x488)

This was my 80th career 100-mile finish and already my 6th finish for 2016. My average times for those six finishes were 23:13. I’ve had a very good stretch of races and during them have never had any thoughts of quitting early. This stretch of good times has been the best I’ve ever had. I credit my very long weekly runs. #noProductCredits

Fitbit record

Fitbit record