Squak half recap

Today I ran the 2012 Squak 1/2 marathon trail run put on by RD Roger Michel’s Evergreen Trail Runs. Roger is probably still at the mountain while people from the full and 50k are crawling toward the 10 hour course cutoff.  Here’s my recap of the trail and race, which – despite the opening tone of this post – was excellent.

The course

The information on the site is, in my opinion, pretty lacking.  There’s a course map that shows the route and the course description tells you that there is 3,650′ of gain and there is a prize for the first person to make it to the 1800′ peak on Squak, but I was still left with questions – the answers would look something like this…

The course starts near the trailhead / parking lot at the south side of Squak. You immediately start to climb on a main, wide access road at a pretty constant elevation gain. After a mile or so, you cut to the right for an out & back on what Roger calls a “lollipop” (where the beginning and end of the out & back are a shared / 2-way trail). There was a lead pack of four guys and I was in fifth through here, about a minute back. This comes early enough on the course that by the time you get back to the 2-way stick of the lollipop, you’re unlikely to see anyone else in your event so the trail is clear / runnable.  The lollipop is not flat, but it has some moderate ups and downs.  A lot of this section of the trail was really overgrown, the only part of the course like this. At times I was running through heavy fern coverage and really couldn’t see the trail, making things maybe a little bit dangerous. Eventually, you get back to the road, though and start climbing, again at about the same rate of gain from the start.  I was about 1 minute behind the lead pack on the road and trimmed that to ~45 seconds at the aid station, however I didn’t see them again after this point.

This entire leg is (according to Roger) “4ish” miles until you get close to the summit where there is the only aid station on the course (I was out at 43:16). From here, you veer off the road onto what is probably the steepest, most technical part of the course for an ~1 mile downhill. This is very rough going and I knew going down it that I would probably not run back up when the course comes back and climbs along this leg (full/50k’ers were walking back up the ascent here, too).  During the descent I let two guys pass me who I didn’t see again.  After that descent, you wind around on some rolling trails for what feels like a long time before coming up on another 2-way stretch of course. This shared stretch felt long – close to a mile and it has a fair amount of climbing. Eventually you’re on 1-way trail again and this starts a descent until you arrive back at the same trail from which you left the aid station and start the difficult climb back to the aid station. Around this time, two more 1/2 runners passed me, putting me in 9th where I stayed for the rest of the race.  A stronger runner would probably run this uphill, but it is hard, steep, and modestly technical, so I walked and everyone around me (others in the half and by this time I was passing a few from the full and 50k) was, too.  This is another “4ish” mile leg until you get back to the aid station (my time out, split time: 45:59, total: 1:29:16).

As you leave the aid station, you complete the short run up the service road until reaching the radio towers on top of Squak Mountain. Then you start the penultimate descent along the 2-way trail where you were going upstream on the previous leg. This gets a little hairy because of the number of runners, but is manageable as long as you keep your head up and keep the other eye on the terrain.  You’re heading downhill here so most people are happy to yield the course to you.  After the 2-way descent, you veer off for the final climb, leading to the final descent on the course.  However, based on the start times for the events, at this time you’re coming up on a lot of the slower 12k runners.  This could be helpful or inspiring for some people, but it gave me an excuse to walk a little in a section that was perfectly runnable and in hindsight, I wished I’d run all or at least most of it. This uphill comes at a tough time in the course but it isn’t that hard. Eventually you crest, though, and start a fast, twisting downhill that continues basically all the way to the finish.  Along this stretch, you can see trail signs pointing back to the trailhead with distances, which is nice.  I don’t know how long this whole section was but I’d go with “4ish” again. I could still see 8th place ahead of me for much of this leg, but didn’t reel him in – I just passed a bunch of others who were out for longer (or maybe shorter and slower) days as I rolled down to the finish. You cross the service road with about 400m to go to the finish and end back near the parking lot.  My leg split 35:07, finish time 2:04:22.

So in summary

  1. Short, modest service road climb
  2. Rolling “lollipop”
  3. Continue service road climb to AS1
  4. Fast, technical descent
  5. Long rolling leg leading to climb along 2-way trail
  6. Fast, easy descent leading back to hard (but shorter) climb back up 4 to AS2 (formerly AS1)
  7. Short service road climb to radio towers, followed by longish easy descent but on 2-way trail
  8. 1-way trail climb to final peak,
  9. Long descent back to parking lot

One slightly frustrating thing about my race

I don’t have anybody to blame about this, but trail runs are just hard to calibrate and set goals for.  In any ultra I’ve done, my strategy is pretty simple: start slow, try not to lose much time on uphills, try not to blow out my legs on the downhills, try to stay strong in the last miles (this is very hard).  At the end of one of these, I really don’t know if I’ve run well or accomplished much more than being out for a longer-than-normal long run. Each course is so different and the fields that show up for these is so different that it’s hard to tell anything based on time or placement.

Today I ran a 2:04:22. Going into the race, I didn’t know what to expect (elevation gain doesn’t give you a complete picture, either – at Chuckanut there was a lot of snow on the course and there were some really dangerous, slippery rocks). So I looked at times from the 2010 and 2011 races. My same time in either of those years would have put me in 3rd and had me finish 4 minutes ahead of the next runner but today I was 9th.  I’m not disappointed with the time, but starting the race I thought “OK, I guess I could aim for 2:30, maybe 2:20, maybe faster” (2:30 would have been 9th last year – 9th 2 years ago was 2:50ish), but obviously that’s not what I should have aimed for and obviously maybe I should have aimed to be even faster today.  I’m not disappointed that I didn’t, but this fall my plan is to run the Chicago marathon and to break 3:00.  I have a pretty good idea of exactly what will be required to do that and I will know almost every step of the way whether I’m on track to meet that goal.  I also know what that goal will mean in terms of my fitness and capabilities as a runner.

So I definitely had a good experience today, I’m certainly happy with my time, and I don’t think I would have finished ahead of the guys in 8th, 7th, or faster had I just aimed for 2:00, but I feel like I could say I pretty much crushed my goal but I’m not super thrilled about that because now I wonder whether I set a really easy target.  Anyway (or despite this) I would enthusiastically recommend this race to any others who enjoy trail running. Oh – and I have to give some credit to Roger and the organizers for what I felt were terrific course markings.  Looking at the course map, I thought “this looks incredibly easy to get lost on,” but the entire race was very, very easy to follow.

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