My very first ultra - Cougar Mountain 50k

It was a fabulous day filled with joy, great people, and occasional pain. 7,500 ft of elevation throughout the course of 31 miles was the kind of challenge that you welcome with excitement and a positive outlook. Cougar Mountain 50k was my very first ultra, and it was perfect!

The race started quickly (see Strava embed below). First 10 miles flew by in a blink: a few turns, a few hills, lots of beautiful falls colors, a few laughs with the fellow runners, the segment was over. Then came the first challenge. Squak mountain, a hard climb with 3,500ft elevation was next and I was ready to take on it.

As I had planned ahead, I was not going to run with my whole might. Since I wasn’t about to win the race, I wanted to run strong and to finish. Squak was just one mountain, but it was still 11 miles away from the finish. To do well, I needed to stay as consistent as I could with my pace, keeping my cool and saving up the energy for a long haul. If I couldn’t climb fast, the best way was to keep on walking. A few hours and a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches later, Squak was done and I was feeling great!

What came next was unexpected. My legs started to hurt. Ankles were tired from the last downhill. Back, shoulders, hips, all suddenly tired from a long day. The side of my right knee started to hurt. I wasn't feeling 100% composed anymore; just before the next hardest climb.

At this point in the race, I was a few minutes behind the runner ahead and a few ahead of the next. That meant I would be running alone, shuffling through the dark forest by myself. I love to be in the forest, to walk through quiet and peaceful paths, not a soul. I love the wet moss and the little creatures slowly going on their way. Not a single runner in sight, beautiful scenery, and tired legs - all that made it really hard to move fast. I did not want to power through the pain and finish, I wanted to stay and wonder instead!

The hardest part of the trail turned to be the most majestic as well. At one point it started to drizzle, got a little bit dark and a little bit cold, and I was beginning to feel down. I realized I was getting tired because at one point I mistaken a big tree trunk for a horse. My mind started to get confused. Then, I heard some noise on the side of the road. Snapped out of the trance, I saw a deer. A beautiful tall deer, with a giant set of antlers, just chilling not even 10ft away from me. He took a few steps and looked at me with the utmost patience and serenity! That moment boosted me with new energy, reminded me of the beautiful course I was on, and brought finish closer. A couple of miles, the last walk uphill, couple of turns, and I was done. Greeted by my friend Eric, chicken soup in hand, I was done, completely relax, happy, and ready for the next challenge.

They say that running ultras are easier on your body than marathons, and I tend to agree. A day later my ankles hurt a little, but otherwise I was feeling pretty well rested and ready for more running. A week later I was feeling great and craving to run more 50’s, as if the last one was already months behind me.

Runners vs. Goats by The Oatmeal ^ Runners vs. Goats by The Oatmeal. I hope he doesn't mind that I link to this gem image here.

The race and my rest time after brought me a somewhat existential question - why bother running? I have been running for 15 years now and so far I have been doing it to stay healthy. I wouldn’t even say “fit”, as I am not, but on average I am fairly healthy and running helps me to sleep and eat better, so I keep on doing it. But why run a race, especially such a long race? Just a few weeks ago I got myself sponsored for a marathon, that was kind of fun, but as Brad feld would tell you, that marathon sucked overall. This ultra, on the other hand, was completely different and a really pleasant experience.

Now that I have conquered 50k, the next natural path is to do 50 miles; a race nearly double the distance, and twice as much fun. But why? I am not planning to be a professional athlete, and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I don’t care if I finish the first in my age group (thanks for the prize guys!) or if I finish last. Running for me is a medicinal adventure, a form of meditation if you will. “Racing” is almost the counter opposite.

While running the course I thought that I’d stop. I would go back to running 5 miles a day for fitness, but I won’t keep on trying to do something hard. Yet, now that I am done with the 50k and feeling relaxed, I can’t help but to want to do another 50k someplace. I want to go out and run, soak up the outdoors, feel the fresh air on my face, and have a few hours every day to relax and to think.

We shall see what comes next. Next few months are going to be mostly about skiing, copious amounts of skiing in fact! Whistler, I am looking at you.

What kind of distances I choose to run in the spring, I’ll know in spring.


Ps. If you live in Seattle and would like to try this race on your own, I made a Suunto Movescount course map of the Cougar Mountain 50k. I don’t advise going actually on your own though, get a group together and bring some snacks. Actually, bring a sandwich or a few, thank me later.

Although Eric Sach and his team of awesome volunteers did a great job marking the course during the race, as I mentioned during training, turns was one thing I was very concerned with on this course. In a span of 30 miles there are roughly 40 places where the roads splits. Some roads only appear on the map, but a lot of them are very much real, and while being tired and hungry staying on course is a challenge.

As a hack, I placed a POI (Point of Interest) on every turn along the course, with names such as LEFT or RIGHT. This way, shortly before every turn, the watch would tell me "Approaching LEFT", eliminating the confusion of where to go.

All said and done though, don't just rely on your watch. The course is long and the roads are twisty. Bring a map along, know how to use it, and double-check on your first pass through. Enjoy!

p.p.s. Thanks to my friend Oleksiy Kovyrin for encouraging me to keep running. I just signed for the Golden Ultra, Blood Sweat and Tears route. 50 miles, split over three days. Should be a blast!