Since moving earlier this spring, Nick and I have spent a lot of time at home—which for us means exploring the mountains, valleys, beaches, and trails within a 3 hour drive of our home in Bellingham.
Our summer has been divided into pre-Slovenia, when we spent most weekends in Chilliwack exploring Elk, Thurston, Cheam, and Slesse mountains, and post-Slovenia, where we ran the Howe Sound Crest Trail, West Coast Trail, and Juan de Fuca Trail on the coastal part of B.C. After so many runs in Canada, it was time to turn our attention to a Washington route, and despite our assumptions (which is to say, our lack of expectations), the Crystal Mountain Sky Marathon had sections that matched B.C.’s in intensity—made worse packed into the middle of a marathon.
On Friday afternoon, Nick and I packed up the car and started our drive. By 7:30 p.m. it was dark and we watched lightning illuminate the sky and rain splatter onto our windshield as we passed Enumclaw.
“I’m not looking forward to this tomorrow,” I said to Nick as I checked the forecast. Temperatures were predicted to stay in the 40s and showers were expected to arrive by mid-morning. That would make for a cold, wet race.
Luckily, there were still 12 hours before the start and all we had to focus on in the moment was finishing the drive, parking our car, and sleeping in the back. For once we were looking forward to it, too: Nick picked up a piece of foam from the local hardware store and had it cut to size, which made for the best sleep we’ve had in a long time, whether inside a house or not. Where was this before (and after) the West Coast Trail!?
The following morning, I peaked out the window of our fogged-up Subaru and found clear skies. It was cold and damp, but nothing warm clothes couldn’t fix, so I layered up, put on gloves, and forced down half a cold banana before heading to the start with Nick.
I didn’t have high expectations going into this race. Although it can be hard to tell as I suffer from my-body-knows-its-race-week-so-its-freaking-out-and-I-feel-all-sorts-of-funky, I felt a bit mentally tired. Both the West Coast Trail and Juan de Fuca FKT attempts were hard efforts, but Nick and I had signed up for Crystal Mountain before even considering the Juan de Fuca. Plus, I love a good challenge and this race was challenging. A quick glance at the course profile before the race showed 9,400 feet of elevation gain, with the route hitting 6,802 feet twice during the race. I prayed for my glutes—they were in for a world of hurt.
Scott McCoubrey, the RD, gathered us around a few minutes before the start to remind us to watch the course markings—“pink is good! Watch for the pink ribbons!”—and by 8 a.m. we were off.
The first three or so miles of the course climbs nearly 3,000 feet so I knew to start off conservatively. I jogged flatter sections of fire road and power hiked dew-damp meadows and found myself next to Nick for two minutes before he took off and I never saw him again. I glanced back a few times to see if I could spot any other women, but couldn’t. Uh oh, I thought. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run scared the whole race, but didn’t feel I was going out too hard. I continued on, aiming to follow the runner in front of me.
At the top of the climb, I ran through the aid station, not yet needing a refill on anything. (I had brought my UD Adventure Vesta with the 0.6L water bottle but due to cool conditions, I only had to refill it once during the race). From here to the next aid station at mile 10.5 was a long downhill, beginning with the steepest part of the course. Glenn Tachiyama, photographer extraordinaire, was perched near the top and snapped a photo as I tried not to fall flat on my race.
Successful, I continued down through meadows, old-growth forest and over a short bridge; suddenly I was at aid stat ion 2! I grabbed a handful of grapes and continued running, choking my way up a few rolling hills (protip: large grapes don’t work well as easy fuel when running uphill.) This soon turned into even more downhill, this time on perfectly smooth fireroad, and within a few miles I was at aid station 3 at mile 14.
“You look fresh!” One of the volunteers told me as I debated what to eat. Maybe I looked fresh but I sure didn’t feel fresh, I thought. The next six miles would be the hardest of the course and I knew I needed plenty of fuel, but I was sick of sweet foods after a morning of fruit with a side of fruit. I grabbed a few potatoes and took off. I figured the hardest part of the climb would be toward the top, but Scott, who built this part of the course himself, doesn’t go easy. Almost immediately the trail went straight up and I proceeded to suffocate as I attempted to chew the potatoes. After a few bites and far too much water to get them down, I tried to push faster but couldn’t. Climbs are usually my favorite part of the race, but immediately I knew that something was off. My legs felt heavy, my hamstrings and glutes already fried. Although I could see a clearing hundreds of feet above me, I knew the best way to get through these hard sections would be to simply put my head down and take it a step at a time.
After a long time and a lot of steps, I finally heard my watch beep, signaling another mile. I avoided looking. I didn’t want to know my pace through this section. Slow miles per minutes was what I was estimating.
Eventually steepness gave way to something walkable, maybe even runnable, and I pushed myself into a jog until the forest parted to reveal a ridgeline. The views here were beautiful, even if they were obscured by clouds that threatened rain. The first hints of autumn were visible from the scattered orange trees below; even the lichen had taken on a reddish hue for fall. After a few miles of a much more gradual incline, I reached the base of the first steep climb we had descended down at mile 3…and now were to go back up.
My legs burned and I pushed off of my thighs with every step. At the top was Glenn, still waiting and still taking a million fantastic photos. Finally, I was at the top! I urged my legs to turnover and somehow managed to run up yet another climb, this one much smaller, into the final aid station.
From here, it was all downhill…sort of. I remember reading a previous finisher’s race report. She had mentioned how the last six miles were all downhill—excluding 900 feet of climbing—and while I compared that to my typical run around the neighborhood, (which already has close to 700 feet), I figured it wouldn’t be too bad. After so much climbing already, my legs were done. I moved as quickly as I could, then excitedly started to run, fast this time, as I realized how close I was to the finish.
These last few miles were almost flat as we paralleled the ski resort and round around the bowl, but eventually the trail turned into a fire road. A group of hikers came into view and I exchanged hellos and continued to run. All of a sudden I realized there were no pink ribbons around. Maybe they were just a little farther down the trail? I thought. By now I had gone more than half a mile without seeing any—this couldn’t be right. The trees cleared here and I suddenly saw that I was well past the resort and now nearly next to the road! As quick as I had come down, I turned around and ran back. I love bonus climbs, I muttered around every turn in the road. Where was it?!
Ahead I could see a cluster of pink ribbons and finally noticed where I had gone off course. A group of people were clustered around the finish and I imagined Nick standing at the finish. I was almost there!
I crossed the finish in 4:55:xx, 1st female and 12th overall. I had completed about a mile of bonus “fun,” but was really pleased with my effort on the course. Nick was 5th—his first real race back post-heart surgery!
Thanks to Scott for a difficult, but beautiful, race and a big thanks to all the helpful volunteers! Bonus was meeting fellow runners (hi, Elisa! Hi, Uli! Hi, Sasha and Danny and Seth!) at the end of the race, once everyone had changed into dry, warm clothes, and having to ask what they were wearing during the race in order to identify them.
On the drive home later that afternoon, Nick and I talked about our next plans. HURT 100 is on our calendars for January, and I maaaaybe have an FKT attempt up my sleeves, but otherwise we’re simply looking forward to getting back out to the mountains before the snow falls here in our corner of the PNW.
Thanks for reading!