The Rut 50k Race Report
I suffered through The Rut 50k back in 2019. That year my wife Ana and I decided to go all-in and sign up for The Rut Mountain Run in Big Sky Montana. Make no mistake, The Rut is not a beginner ultra-marathon (if there is such a thing). It starts at 7k ft. elevation and takes you as high as 11k ft. It includes 10,000 vertical ft of elevation gain and loss. Big sections of the trail are hardly trail at all. You’re forced to try and move efficiently over dinner plate sized rocks, steep sections of scree, and I think there was even a short section with a rope. It’s like some kind of sick joke.
Ana making The Rut look enjoyable.
The Rut 50k culminated with my sitting down beside the trail a quarter mile from the finish-line. I could hear the music blaring and the festivities but my quads were cramping so badly all I could do was sit and wallow. Eventually I dragged myself across the finish-line but my suffering didn’t stop there. I sat in the athlete tent for more than an hour unable to stand up without severe cramping in my quads. I made ALOT of mistakes in that race.
Mistake number 1: Not respecting the taper.
The week before the race I did a strenuous alpine rock climbing trip to climb Pingora in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Carrying a heavy pack and pushing my physical limits on an all-day rock climb was an unwise addition to my taper week. I justified this by reassuring myself I was spending time at altitude and thus adapting my body to race conditions. I blatantly ignored the fatigue I was inducing just days before my first 50k.
Alpine rock climbing... fun but not a taper. Pingora is on the right.
(Photo by James Phan)
My climbing partner James taking a rock-nap the day after climbing Pingora.
Mistake number 2: Setting unrealistic expectations.
I looked online at the previous year’s results and decided I wanted to complete the race in under 8 hours, a totally arbitrary goal. I convinced myself that coming in near to the top of the field was doable. This was insane given that I had never done a 50k before in my life. Additionally, on race day, when I wasn’t on track to achieve it, it would serve as another crushing blow.
Mistake number 3: Experimenting with fuel on race day.
Ana was supremely diligent about practicing with different types of foods and gels leading up to race day. I was too casual and reassured myself that my iron stomach would be able to handle anything new and different. My real error was not recognizing that all the caffeine-riddled gummies from the aid stations I was consuming were working against me leading to…
Mistake number 4: Not recognizing or acting to resolve the early signs of dehydration.
This was the HUGE mistake, which resulted in an agonizing final 10 miles. The cramping started around mile 11 in my adductors and go steadily worse. That should have been the first sign I was running a deficit on water and electrolytes. I underestimated the effects of the altitude and dryness of Montana. It is not an easy place to stay hydrated. Living and training at sea level was an additional disadvantage. Being in the more humid and lower elevation of Seattle for the majority of my training did not set me up for success at The Rut.
Suffering in the recovery tent.
I sat in the “recovery” tent for more than an hour after the race, unable to get up out of my Adirondack chair. The few times that I attempted to walk out of the tent my quads cramped so badly I had to sit on the ground and crawl on all fours back to the chair. Eventually Ana found me and recruited the Skratch Labs reps to revive me. They plied me with electrolyte drinks until I was able to stand without collapsing to the ground from my enfeebled legs. Once my legs were functional again, the only thing left to heal was my bruised and battered ego.
Whistler Alpine Meadows 50k Race Report
That brings us up to 2022. Ana and I signed up for the Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) 50k, which takes place at the beginning of September. I was determined to redeem myself and not relive my first 50k experience.
Leading up to WAM I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s. I even read all the race emails and the detailed logistics of race weekend. WAM and The Rut are similarly challenging. WAM includes 11k feet of elevation gain and 7k feet of elevation loss. It’s another true mountain run.
For WAM we had several advantages. We were able to train in the climate in which we were going to be racing. The race course was close enough to Seattle that we were able to do a scouting run on the course before race day. The most valuable advantage was having already completed our first ultra-marathon.
We had a little bit of smoke to contend with on race day.
The race started out normally. It was an adrenaline-filled morning of race prep. A predawn, mass start in a sea of headlamps is the name of the game. Right from the start line we began our first 4k foot climb and quickly funneled down from a wider forest service road to a single track trail. At this point there were enough people that you could see the headlamp clad conga line weaving its way through the forest below. I was happy to get stuck in the crowd. It helped me achieve one of my goals: going out slowly.
It's easy to smile in the first half of the race.
(Photo by Brian McCurdy)
Some delicious sub-alpine singe single track on Whistler Mountain.
We quickly ascended into the rocky alpine of Whistler Mountain to the first aid station at 14km. After some scenic rolling alpine and subalpine landscapes (thus the race’s namesake) we did about 16km on a steady downhill. “Ohhh, a nice long downhill,” you say? “That sounds mellow,” Don’t be deceived. A downhill of this distance is not to be taken lightly. If you’re not careful and you let yourself pound downhill, you can blow out your quads. Thankfully, with the help of a fellow runner, we were able to maintain a reasonable pace, running in tandem for the entirety of the downhill.
The second big climb away from Whistler Village was one that I was prepared for. It was part of the course we had scouted the month before the race. From the aid station I was setting a good hiking pace up the relatively steep uphill. It’s common for me to be drenched in sweat when pushing the pace uphill but my back was beginning to seem unreasonably wet. I pulled the water bladder from my running pack and sure enough there was a pin-hole leak in one of the seams. My momentum was blown in a moment when I was most fragile. Temperatures were getting warmer by the minute and I was convinced I would need the remaining water in the bladder to finish the race as planned. I walked, defeated, with the bladder in my hand for a long while. Eventually I finished the contents and shoved the bladder back into my pack.
Ana and me on the deceptive terrain near the high point of Blackcomb.
Photo by Ty Holtan
I reached the next aid station at 41km. I was relieved to be receiving support from the volunteers, the unsung heroes of any ultra-marathon. I “camel-ed up” and refilled my half-liter chest bottle. That would have to carry me through the rest of the race. The final 8 miles were tough. There is minimal tree cover and the sun was getting higher in the sky. It was easy to focus on the first two big climbs and overlook the more moderate hills on the upper part of the course on Blackcomb Mountain. l slogged through those miles with a combination of speed hiking and pitiful shuffling, which closely resembled running. Regardless of how the final miles went I was able to rally for the last couple miles and run through the finish line.
My legs were still working at the finish-line of WAM.
The real gift at the finish line of the WAM 50k is the option to ride the gondola back down to the bottom of the ski resort. The gondola ride down is an opportunity to survey and appreciate the difficultly of the course you just completed. Props to Gary Robbins for greeting all the finishers. His presence at the finish line is a testament to the nature of these races. They’re friendly, supportive, and warm.
NOT terribly dehydrated and miserable.
Sweet redemption. I set a low bar for myself after The Rut but I was able to walk after WAM. I successfully avoided the four big mistakes from The Rut 50k. For WAM I tapered like a hero. I didn’t dare glance at previous years’ results and I kept my expectations reasonable. My food and fuel were dialed in well before race day and I crushed water all day during the race. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.