My Fight Against Middle-Aged Malaise Involved an Ultramarathon
Feeling out of shape? Maybe you should run up and down a mountain three times.
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It’s a perfectly normal question to ask someone, I just wasn’t the right person to ask. I had been chugging up the trail at about mile 22 or so of the race, trying to push myself but also pace myself, and in my own head because I’d only seen three or four people in the last 45 minutes or so. The guy was hiking downhill, getting out before the Saturday heat really warmed things up, and I had made a little room as I passed him hiking the other direction, trying to get up Tiger Mountain for the last time. We’d said hello, and then he asked,
“How far to the Section Line Trail?”
I rounded the switchback and confidently said, “Oh, I don’t know,” and he seemed a little surprised that I didn’t know, pausing for a second with a somewhat quizzical look on his face. So I added, “This is my first time here,” hoping that would help him understand. It was true, kind of. If I’d felt like I had more time to stop and chat, I might have added a few more bits of information:
> I am participating in an ultramarathon trail race called the Tiger Claw 50K
> I have never set foot on this mountain before today, May 13th, 2023
> This is my third trip to the summit of West Tiger #2, and finally,
> Hey man, I’m just following these pink flags till I see people with pitchers of electrolyte drink and trays of Oreos standing under an EZ-up at the top. I’m not paying attention to the trail names, the distances, or the intersections, I’m barely looking at the scenery. My goals today are:
a) Survive this race despite the 88-degree temperature and 70 percent humidity and
b) Produce urine that isn’t the color of a No Passing Zone sign by midnight tonight
I hope that man found his way and is not still out there looking for the Section Line Trail.
Another question someone asked me, the day before the Tiger Claw: “Why did you pick that race? Isn’t it just kind of a local thing?”
I don’t know how I first heard of the Tiger Claw, but race director Ethan Newberry’s massive media presence as The Ginger Runner certainly doesn’t hurt. I am one of his 190,000+ YouTube subscribers, and also one of his Patreon supporters, and Instagram followers, and all that, so I’m a fan. Did part of me assume that since Ethan and his wife Kim Teshima-Newberry are good at making media, they’d be good at putting together a race? I think so, yes.
I got really out of shape in 2022—spinal disc injury, new baby, sleep deprivation from helping take care of a new baby, and another back/hip injury. I was starting to wonder if at 43, I was hitting some sort of downhill slope in life. I turned 44 this winter, and was determined. Not to return to any sort of athletic glory, no, but to avoid going to the emergency room again after herniating a disc while picking up a dog because I sit on my ass 40 hours a week, and inside my regular-sized middle-aged man body is a smaller man who loves to eat emotionally and is also super fucking lazy.
So I started looking on UltraSignup for 2023 races near western Montana, and thought
As it turned out, we did not have anything going on on May 13th, so I signed up February 15th, giving me a full 12 weeks to get in shape. I tried to wrap my head around the race course:
Three summits of West Tiger #2 (elevation 2,757 feet), returning to the High Point Trailhead (elevation 527) each time. For a total of “nearly 9,000 feet of elevation gain,” per the Tiger Claw website. If you are looking for a fast, flat race to help you get your PR for the 50K distance, the Tiger Claw is not it.
The elevation profile looks like this:
Fortunately, there’s plenty of steep terrain very close to where I live. Unfortunately, lots of that steep terrain was still covered in snow and ice until the first week of April. But, I have microspikes, and enough of it melted out in time for me to get in some steep uphills. I did laps on Mt. Sentinel, sort of our local Tiger Mountain, with a ~2,000-foot climb via several different trails. At one point, I wondered: “Am I spending too much time on really steep terrain? What if the course is more gradual, or rolling?”
A few weeks before the race, my friend Justin emailed me:
Have you decided if you’ll go long loop or short loop first at Tiger Claw? I would choose whatever loop the fewest amount of people are on. Seeking the least resistance is how I make most of my life decisions. I would be a terrible Navy SEAL.
I honestly hadn’t given it any thought until he asked. I had just focused on the big numbers: 31 miles, 8,000-something feet of elevation gain. But now I was thinking about it. And it did sound kind of nice to run the loops in whatever order they would be least crowded. But how would I know?
The week before the race, the weather forecast was: Bullshit. I mean, it was projected to be unseasonably warm for the Pacific Northwest, a heat wave, a heat dome, little heat umbrella following me around like the rain cloud in old cartoons but heat instead of rain, whatever. Early in the week, the forecasted high temperature for Issaquah was 84 degrees. Every day I checked, the high temp crept up a degree. By Friday, the day before the race, the projected high was 88 degrees. Which I was a bit dismayed to see, because I have this story I’ve been telling myself ever since I puked up fruit punch Gatorade after a very hot youth soccer game in 1987 or 1988:
This, I was afraid, would call for drastic measures: I was going to have to learn to do something I have always been terrible at doing: drink a responsible amount of fluids. This was almost too much to ask, I thought. Maybe I should bail. DNS: Did Not Start. Reason: Not good at drinking water.
Just shy of 150 of us gathered at the starting line to listen to Ethan greet everyone, wish us luck, crack some jokes, and give some final updates before the 7:00 a.m. start. The important part, for me, was when Ethan asked for a show of hands: Who was doing the Pink Loop first? Lots of hands. Who’s doing the Yellow Loop first? Lots of hands. OK, who’s doing the White Loop first? Maybe 10 hands, including mine. Fantastic news.
The White Loop was the steepest. Ethan’s final email to participants the previous day had said the Pink Loop would stay in the shade into the afternoon. I had decided to go White (steepest, least fun) first, Yellow (longest, most meandering) second, and Pink (afternoon shade). I chugged down a 17-ounce water bottle in the final minutes before the start and stuffed it in my vest.
The first 4.6 miles wound around in the forest with a couple ups and downs, gradually climbing a few hundred feet to get us to the lower aid station, where we’d split up into our respective loops and go on our way. I had put a small drop bag at the lower aid station, as we’d all return here after each of our three ascents and descents of West Tiger 2. I packed my drop mag pretty minimally because after I finished my final lap, I planned to stuff whatever was left of it into my vest for the final three miles to the finish line, so I didn’t have to drive back to get it after the race.
I filled one water bottle at the aid station and ran on, splitting off to do the White Loop, 2.8 miles, 2,800 feet of climbing to the upper aid station/turnaround. I had no ambitions to do a fast first lap, but ran some of the less-steep sections and hiked the rest. Less than a mile into the White Loop, I was alone in the forest, so I pulled over to pee. Just as I was finishing, Krissy Moehl, who is a very famous ultrarunner, hiked past a few feet away, which is sort of an awkward moment to introduce yourself, but I did it anyway, because we have a mutual friend, and then we ended up hiking together for the rest of the ascent. This is not to say that I am as fast as a person who won the UTMB in 2003 and 2009; more like Krissy was not in a hurry on the race course.
With a couple other guys, we jogged a few short sections of the trail, but mostly hiked at a good clip to the upper aid station, arriving at about 1 hour and 45 minutes. I got my water bottles refilled and started heading down. The top of West Tiger 2 had been logged a few years back, and the good news was we could see Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, the buildings of downtown Seattle, and the Puget Sound. The bad news was there was no shade at the top, and it was already sunny and warm at 8:45 a.m.
The 2.2-mile route back down to the lower aid station, which we’d all do a total of three times during the race, was steep and technical for about a half-mile, and then just steep. I made myself drink two 17-ounce bottles of fluid as I ran downhill, and made a mental note to do this each time I ran the descent. I had drunk two bottles on the way up, and my shirt was completely drenched in sweat, front and back, by the time we hit the summit.
At the lower aid station, I grabbed my drop bag, stuffed a couple packages of Clif Bloks into my sweat-soaked vest, filled up three water bottles, and started jogging back up the trail, looking for the turnoff for the Yellow Loop—5.5 miles, 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
I’ve talked to several runners who don’t like multiple-loop races—the ones in which you have to cover the same terrain more than once during a race. For example, a 100K or 100-mile race comprised of three (or five) laps of the same 20-mile loop, such as the Javelina Jundred or the Rocky Raccoon 100. In those scenarios, you can feel like there’s more gravity to pull you out of orbit every time you pass the start/finish area, where, wow, it would be so easy to quit right now. As opposed to a point-to-point race, or an out-and-back race, when you might feel like quitting, but you’re 10 miles from any sort of aid station, and even if you quit there, you’d have to wait for someone with a vehicle to give you a ride back to the start, and that could take hours, so, fuck it, might as well just keep going.
The Tiger Claw is sort of a multiple-loop race, in that you run multiple loops, and pass through the same checkpoint (the lower aid station) at the end of each loop—but that checkpoint is still three miles from where you parked your car at the start/finish, so maybe it’s less tempting. (you could call someone and ask them to pick you up at the aid station, though, since it’s about 150 feet from a parking lot that’s only a mile from I-90)
But I was definitely not thinking, “Man, I hate loops, I can’t believe I have to come back to this aid station two more times”—I was thinking, “Jesus it’s hot already.”
The Yellow Loop, the longest, wound around the north, west, and south sides of Tiger Mountain in a gradually climbing, half circumnavigation and oh! a bonus summit, West Tiger 1, which is actually higher than West Tiger 2, and a brief dip down to the saddle before you re-climb about 200 feet back up to the upper aid station/checkpoint.
I was alone for most of the loop, running when possible, hiking the steeper parts, and chugging water and Skratch electrolyte drink. About two-thirds of the way up, Krissy Moehl passed me, and we chatted for a few minutes. Through the forest, I had been forcing myself to chug water—three 17-ounce bottles by the time I got to the top of the climb. Mileage-wise, I was past the halfway mark by my second summit of West Tiger 2, and had drunk 7 bottles of liquid, or about 119 ounces.
With only the Pink Loop to go, I only had 2,700 feet of elevation gain to climb. I could feel a slight dehydration headache forming, but maybe if I kept forcing water down I’d be able to keep it at bay. At the Upper Aid Station, I refilled two bottles and drank both of them as I navigated the downhill.
On my way up the pink loop, I wasn’t second-guessing my strategy, but with no one to talk to, I was definitely thinking about it. I saw only one other racer for the first three miles of the ascent, so it definitely seemed like I’d picked the least popular sequence. I wasn’t done yet, but I hadn’t experienced any sort of heat illness, so maybe saving the afternoon-shaded Pink Loop for last was a good idea. I wondered what a race like this would be like for someone hoping to win, or compete? You wouldn’t know how far behind the leader you were, or even if you were in first place, unless all the fastest people stuck together.
If you look a map of the course with all three loops on a map, you could see why they called it the Tiger Claw:
Just kidding. Here’s my actual Strava map of the race course:
A solid mile and a half from the upper aid station, I started to hear a dog howling. Or some animal. I kept plugging away, slowly passing a couple other runners, every once in a while scanning the trees above my head for the top of the ridge, the end of my final climb. Eventually, I ran out of trees, hitting the north edge where the trees had been clear cut. I went from hints of sun to full-blast afternoon white heat as I chugged up the trail, finally seeing the howling dog, which turned out to not be a dog at all, just a really psyched volunteer wooing so loudly and so often that I thought there was no chance he’d have his voice tomorrow. I thanked him and walked to the aid station, got my water bottles refilled, grabbed a handful of potato chips and a couple Oreos, and headed down.
On each of my three descents of the trails to the lower aid station, I was elated to not be climbing. I was also reminded that there was, also today, a race called the Tiger Claw Double, a 50-mile version of this same race I was doing, but with THREE EXTRA LAPS to the summit of West Tiger 2. As I ran downhill, I’d pass by a 50-mile racer heading uphill, and I’d say something like “Good job,” but what I was thinking was, “Look, I am a person of questionable judgment and intelligence, who is spending their Saturday doing a steep-ass 50K race with almost 9,000 feet of climbing in 88-degree heat and 70 percent humidity, but you, Runner, are a FUCKING MANIAC. I salute you. Also I’m really glad I didn’t sign up for that race instead.”
At this point, midway through my final descent, the hot spots on the instep sides of my big toes had turned into full-on blisters, and my toenails were sick of the cumulative effects of being pushed backwards by my shoes every one of the thousands of downhill steps so far.
My strides had shortened, and I wasn’t grunting or wincing with pain every step, but I definitely wasn’t smiling. I glanced down at my watch to check my pace, just out of curiosity: 12-minute miles. I was pretty ready to be done.
I hit the lower aid station, grabbed my drop bag, shoved it into the back pocket of my vest, and started jogging down the road in full sun. Every piece of fabric on my body was soaked through with sweat, including the inside of my vest and the outsides of my shoes.
The route meandered through a short section of forest, and the final three-quarters of a mile was a wide, paved, shaded multi-use path. I started running faster, because on flat ground, my blisters didn’t hurt, and I was ready to get it over with. And I think I remembered them saying something about pizza at the finish line.
I jogged under the finish arch, gave Ethan a very soggy, gross hug, took my finisher medal, and felt the relief of No More Exercising Today slowly roll over me. Mark Griffith, who had been out on the course taking photos all day and working as hard as the racers, directed me to the pizza and cold beverages, and I asked him if he was able to take care of himself at all in the heat. He said he eventually was able to rehydrate at the upper aid station, but at one point, the sweat was just rolling down his head into his eyes. “My eyebrows stopped working,” he said. And I thought, Same, man. I had drunk approximately 225 ounces of water and Skratch electrolyte drink in 7 hours and 39 minutes, and I still felt like a piece of beef jerky that had been left out in the sun for a week.
It had been hot, for sure, but I finished, and as I sat down with a can of sparkling water, it seemed like I had a good chance of surviving the day. I thought a little bit about my friend’s question as to how I decided to sign up for the Tiger Claw, since it was kind of a local race on a local mountain. I am not sure if I could draw a flow chart of how I, and maybe other runners too, decide to run whichever races we run. I don’t know, it sounded fun? It sounded not fun? I heard good things about it? It was close to where I live, or close to some place I wanted to travel to, or it was flat, or it was steep, or whatever.
As far as I know, ultramarathon races basically work like this:
I had assumed that Ethan and Kim could put on a pretty good race because they do other things well, and I am not in the business of reviewing races, but I have to say, I was right. It was fun. Although parts of it were not fun.