The following post is by Montana Trail Crew co-founder, Jeremy Wolf, who reflects on his recent move away from Missoula, injury, and ultra races in 2016.
On January 20th as my wife, daughter, and I drove out of Missoula for the last time heading west we all had tears in our eyes.In the rear view mirror we were leaving behind a place that we’d grown to love, a place where we fit, where we started our family, where we had formed deep relationships with the people and mountains.We were leaving home, for good.
A need for a job change and limited opportunities in Missoula had led me towards accepting a new one near Bellingham, WA. A place we were not familiar with, but had heard good things about. People we met who had spent time in both places drew parallels and talked highly of the college town and it’s abundance of surrounding outdoor activities.
With life changes swirling all around us, one thing stayed constant in my life, running. Running, that one thing you can do anywhere, anytime, in any weather. And that’s exactly what I did for the first two weeks in February. 5am runs in the dark and rain along the interurban trail and Chuckanut Mountains where my daily escape to normalcy. While the terrain was new, the motion was familiar and I found great comfort in that.
I had planned an ambitious ultra racing schedule this spring with Chuckanut 50k in March followed three weeks later by Lake Sonoma 50 mile in April. Not an ideal amount of time for recovery between races, but I was already focused on a return trip to Sonoma and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race a historic 50k right out the backdoor.
With a month to go before Chuckanut 50k I headed to Whistler for a ski trip with my buddies from college, collectively know as “The Bros”. It was a raining at the bottom, socked in and snowing on the top kind of day. On my 5th run, I was flying down through the trees a bit recklessly when I zipped of an invisible 4 foot drop that knocked me off balance to one side. As I landed and started to fall to my right, my left leg over extended as my ski tip stuck in the heavy wet snow. I felt a pulling sensation on the inside of my left knee. I knew it wasn’t good, but managed to pop back up and ski a couple more runs with the guys before I decided I should call it a day.
The following Monday I went to see a sports medicine doctor who took my knee though a series of test. Upon completion, he told me the good news was it’s either an MCL strain in which case it would heal it’s self in 6-8 weeks or the bad news was it could be a meniscus tear which would require surgery. As I absorbed the serious of the diagnosis, I came to terms with the likelihood of being sidelined for much of this spring and summers racing season as I rehabbed my knee. The doc said I could do any exercise which did not agitate the injury, which was just about anything involving lateral movement. When I got home, I just about typed up an email to the race directors, Krissy Moehl and Tropical John, letting them know that I would be doing their races in the upcoming month due to my injury. I decided to hold off to just wait and see how the next few weeks played out.
After a week and a half of training on my elliptigo, I felt confident enough to run. I’ve never had an injury that made so much significant progress with each passing day. The pain was quickly being replaced by functionality. Two weeks after the incident I was back running on trails and feeling cautiously optimistic that I’d be able to line up for Chuckanut in 3 weeks.
I’ll start out by saying that it will never be easier to travel to an ultra than it was for this years Chuckanut 50k. In Fairhaven we are renting a condo that is two blocks from the start of the race. With my knee feeling 100%, I really wanted to perform well here, because I felt a sense of being the home town guy and wanted to represent my new local running community. I had also been training extensively on the race course since I moved to Bellingham, so felt like I knew it well.
Charging out of the gate at Chuckanut. Yep, making sure I started my stopwatch.
As the gun sounded the Nike guys (Bak, Mendoza, Kraft), Flaherty, and a handful of other guys bolted up the trail and were quickly out of sight. I comfortably led a chase pack in about 10th place for the first 7 flat miles on the Interurban Trail. When we reached the uphill single track section into the Chuckanut Mountains my long time running buddy from Missoula, Jimmy Grant, bolted ahead as he and I separated from the pack. I’ve spent more miles running with Jimmy in Missoula than anyone else, so there was a sense of nostalgia and familiarity following my friend up the trail. For the next 14 miles that’s pretty much where I staid, right behind Jimmy. He’d be strong on the up hills and I’d summon up all my mental strength to try to stay with him. We passed a couple guys, a couple guys passed us, we’d pass a few more guys falling off the front and so it went until we crested up and over the chin scraper climb.
I tied an invisible leash to Jimmy so he would tow me up Chin Scraper (pictured here) and many of the other climbs.
From that point it was 3 miles down on lush soft single track and then a flat 7 miles back to the finish. I pulled along side Jimmy and said let’s roll, expecting him to tag along as it was all easy running from this point on. I didn’t hear him come with me as I started flying down the trail. Gravity was on my side and it brought a smile to my face as I flew down hill to the Interurban Trail. Rounding the corner onto the Interurban Trail I new I had about 45 minutes to go.
Just a couple weeks previously I had done a tempo run on this exact segment of the course. During the race, I envisioned myself running this tempo run and remembering how strong I had felt. The closer I got to the finish the more familiar the trail became. This physical and mental training kept me strong and confident as I raced toward the finish. When I rounded the final corner and entered the finish chute, I grabbed my daughter Autumn’s hand as we ran across the finish line together. Never really knowing my exact place, I was happy to learn I finished in 5th. A solid performance on my home course in a competitive field felt like a great start to the season, especially considering I couldn’t even run less than a month prior.
Always fun to cross the finish line with this girl when ever we can!
Now I had to figure out the best way to recover from Chuckanut and stay sharp for Lake Sonoma, which just 3 weeks away. I was excited to return to Lake Sonoma for another go at the super competitive 50 miler. Last year Sonoma was my first 50 miler ever and I had run we’ll finishing just one spot outside the top ten. I figured I was in better shape this year, and as long as I could recover well from Chuckanut, I had a good shot at a sub 7 hour time and top ten finish.
The race went out pretty easy and I settled into a comfortable pace for the first couple of miles on the road. Once we hit the trail I was around 20th place, but not caring too much because I knew I’d see a lot of the guys in front of me later in the race as the carnage took hold.
Things stayed comfortable and relaxed and I was surprised to already be passing 4 runners around Madrone Point, at mile 18. I wasn’t expecting this amount of runners to be faiding this early. Up ahead were the big climbs of the race and mentally it was helpful having the course experience of knowing when the climbs would end. Heading up the last climb is where I saw the race leaders heading towards me on this out and back course. Jim Wamsley was absolutely flying down hill. I don’t think I’ve seen a runner resemble a gazelle more than at that moment.
Perfect weather for running 50 miles. Sharing a few miles here with Alex Varner.
I made it into the 25 mile aid station and on the way out saw Karl Meltzer running in. This was exactly reminiscent of last years race. I passed one more runner on the climb on the way back to Madrone. The legs were feeling pretty good, with a slight cramp in the right quad triggering on the climbs. On the steep sections when I power hiked, I’d simultaneously rub my palm down my quad in an effort to keep the cramping at bay.
I tried to maintain a steady pace and be on top of my fluids and gels on the way back. I made one more pass and then a couple miles later rolled into the mile 38 aid station. I gathered some information that I was sitting right around 10th place at the time. As I ran out of the aid down to the stream crossing I could hear cheers for Karl and another runner right behind me. Shortly after the stream crossing Karl and another runner came flying by me. I didn’t feel like I was running that slow, but they both zipped by me quickly. As Karl said “On your left Wolf”, I replied “Deja Vu”. This was the exact same spot where Karl had passed me last year. As those guys pulled away I wondered if I’d catch a second wind soon and be able to catch back up as I had done the year before.
Grinding up one of the longer climbs the course has to offer.
Over the next five miles things just stayed constant. Not fast, not slow, just somewhere in the middle. I was starting to become content with 12th place and would just maintain to the finish. That all changed as soon as I caught sight of two guys ahead of me heading down the the short out and back aid station at mile 45. As soon as I laid eyes on these guys the slight quad cramping disappeared and I was mentally back in race mode! As I trailed these two into the aid station, Zach Bitter was heading out a couple minutes ahead of us. I made quick time in the aid and was the first guy out and now on a mission to catch Zach. Wolf was on the hunt!
A couple miles later I caught a glimpse of Zach heading up the long climb toward the finish. A few minutes later I passed him. I kept the throttle down all the way to the finish and was pretty happy to finish in 9th place in 7:05:55. Not the sub seven hour time I’d wanted, but landing in the top 10 after a rally near the end felt good.
Fortunate to call Paul Terranova and Karl Meltzer my teammates. These guys are still kicking ass well into their 40’s. Inspired!
The post race scene at Sonoma is always great with good food, beer, and friends to catch up with. Tropical John put’s on an outstanding race and I enjoy feeling the hospitality and friendliness of the ultra running community during the entire race weekend.
So if you haven’t gathered it yet, my made up event called Chucknoma is racing Chuckanut 50k and Lake Sonoma 50 mile back to back I wasn’t the only one who raced these two races this year, I’m just the only one who came up with a name for it. Below are the results for the 2016 Chucknoma. I’m not advocating Chucknoma become a thing or goal for anyone, it’s just how the cards fell for me this year. I typically schedule my ultra races months apart from one another, not weeks.
2016 Chucknoma Results
Lake Sonoma 50m
The Chucknoma flag has been planted and we’ll see who comes in search of it next year.
There you have it. The secret to my ultra running success in 2016 is uprooting your family, start a new job, and strain a knee ligament. Sometimes things just work out in life and it’s best not to over analyze why, bust rather just be grateful and enjoy the ride.
Hoka One One Speed Instinct – Light weight and fast trail racing shoes that are due out this summer. Glad to be helping with the development of this shoe.
Ultimate Direction Groove Stereo – UD finally nailed a waist belt that I felt comfortable racing in. With two soft flasks in the back and gels and salt tabs up front, this carries every thing I need in a comfortable and easy to access way. Watch Billy Yang’s short Lake Sonoma 50 video for good visuals of the race.
Special thanks to Krissy Moehl and Tropical John for directing some of the most iconic ultras in the U.S. They and their support team put on flawless events this year that continue to foster the strong sense of community that makes ultra running a truly special sport to be a part of. Shout out to my wife Tiffany for supporting my work/life/running balance.