I am not a hot weather runner. I can run in the heat, but I don’t like it and I don’t do well. So I was not happy to see the weather forecast for Saturday, June 4, 2016: HOT, HOT, HOT. Standing at the starting line of the Rainier to Ruston (R2R) race in the shadow of Mt Rainier at 7 AM, I knew that it was going to be a long, hot day.
R2R is a 51.9-mile relay and ultra. The race starts at the Carbon River entrance to Mt Rainier National Park and heads in a northwesterly direction to its ultimate destination on Ruston Way on the Tacoma waterfront. Much of the course is on the Foothills Trail, as it winds its way through the Puyallup Valley; a beautiful place to spend a lovely June day.
The course consists of 12 legs for the relay runners. The exchange points were also refueling locations for us ultra runners. During the race each exchange point would become an eagerly awaited oasis for those of us crazy enough to attempt the entire 51.9-mile distance solo.
And so when the starting gun sounded off that Saturday morning we started our journey into the unknown. The relay team runners led the way. They only had 4.9 miles to go to the first exchange point. We ultra runners followed behind a bit more cautiously. It was already getting warm.
Leg 2 quickly led us onto a dirt trail along the Carbon River. We would follow this trail all the way into the town of Carbonado. Carbonado, once a booming coal mining town in the shadows of Mt Rainier, is today only visited by tourists and runners on their way to somewhere else.
The first few legs of the race went easily and after a quick stop in Wilkeson (Leg 3) we arrived in South Prairie (Leg 4). At this point I had completed 20.9 miles in just over 4 hours. I was right on schedule. At this aid station my drop box was waiting for me.
In anticipation of what was to come I had stocked it with new shoes (switching from trail shoes to road shoes), socks, and a shirt. I also had more gels and electrolyte pills for the journey ahead and sunscreen to protect me from the ever-present sun. I also used this opportunity to refuel. Before the race started I drank a mix of Darigold Refuel chocolate milk and UCAN Cran-Raz powdered drink mix. The night before the race I mixed two extra bottles of this ultra fuel and placed them in an insulated bag with ice in my drop box. At the South Prairie aid station my drop box was toasty hot from sitting in the sun, but my drinks were still nice and cold. After changing shoes and consuming the drinks it was time for me to venture back out into the sun.
In running races it is not a sin to walk (I always get asked by non-runners: “Are you allowed to walk?” The answer is “YES!”). Over the next 14 miles I ran a little and walked a little. The trail was paved now. Sometimes I had company and sometimes I walked alone through the relentless heat. Finally I found the energy to run to the Leg 8 aid station at Meeker (East Puyallup). I had now finished 35.2 miles and had 16.7 to go. This was not going to be pretty.
At 35.2 miles my ability to run was gone. Anyone other than an ultra runner would have said “Enough. Time for a cold beer.” Instead, I filled my water bottle and packed my running hat with ice and started walking. For the next three hours, in 85 degree heat, I walked down farm roads, I walked through residential neighborhoods, and finally I walked the dreaded sand trail into Fife.
I had heard from other R2R runners about this “sand trail” along the Puyallup River. The trail, on the north side of the river between Meridian Avenue and Frank Albert Road, parallels North Levee Road for some 4 miles. And at least on this Saturday these 4 miles were the worst 4 miles anywhere in western Washington.
This sand isn’t sand; it is glacial flour (rock grounded up by the glaciers on Mt Rainier), washed down the Puyallup River and deposited on the river banks during flood events. The sand is so fine (extremely small particle sizes) that traction is impossible. The sand infiltrated every shoe seam and opening and filled my shoes from within. Going slow was my only option. Mile after mile it was like trudging over the sand dunes of the Sahara – heat included. Finally the Leg 10 oasis aid station appeared. I thought that I was finished with this Hell on the Puyallup but, no, I still had another mile to go to reach pavement.
When I finally exited this torture trail I stopped and emptied my shoes of the accumulated sand. I poured enough sand out of my shoes to build a sand castle; maybe not a large one, but at least a small sand castle with a turret. I was glad to be back on pavement.
One of the surprising effects of walking for three hours was that I was ready and able to run again. And so I did. It was slow at first, but then I began to see and pass runners ahead. I crossed the Puyallup River and headed into the big city of Tacoma.
At Dock Street I entered the Tacoma waterfront esplanade. This was a pleasant surprise. The esplanade (official name: “Thea Foss Waterway Public Esplanade”) is a wide pedestrian sidewalk joining waterfront activities and businesses with the Foss Waterway. I ran past the Museum of Glass and viewed it from a side I had never seen before. It was now Saturday evening and people were dining in fancy waterfront restaurants and cafes while sweaty, over-heated runners like me slowly shuffled by. Beautiful.
As others enjoyed dinner and a drink I continued on to Old Town and eventually to the finish line at Marine Park on Ruston Way. Twelve hours, 25 minutes, and 34 seconds after I left the shady forest of Mt Rainier I was standing on the sunny shores of Puget Sound. It had been a very long, hot day. One that I will not soon forget.