A Beacon of Light

"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you." -- Jack Kerouac

I signed up for the Beacon Rock 50k on a whim. Demoralized by the preceding nine plus weeks that I’d been unable to run due to a torn peroneal tendon (which followed my disappointing DNF at the Badger Mountain Challenge 100), I needed to run a race so I could feel like an ultra runner again (even if it meant running slowly). I needed to know that I had a chance of regaining my strength and my trail legs before the daunting race schedule I have this summer. I knew Beacon Rock would be a difficult race. Rainshadow races have a reputation of being difficult. I knew that running this race would be a challenge even under the best circumstances, least of all as my first race after a severe injury from which I still had not healed fully. With that in mind, I spent the preceding week preparing myself for the fact that I would not be able to race at capacity.

When I arrived at the race, I did not know what to expect. My ankle felt good in general, but it always does until I get moving; that is the true test. The right side of my body was very sore since it had been compensating for my adjusted gait for the last several weeks. I hoped it would loosen up once I got moving. As I toed the start line, I reminded myself that I was not going to race. I took my position at the back of the pack, ignoring my urge to inch closer to the frontrunners. I took off, slowly. My ankle did not hurt. My right calf, however, was very tight. I kept moving.

Halfway up the climb to Hardy Ridge.

Halfway up the climb to Hardy Ridge.

The course begins at a campsite, progresses across a parking lot, and eventually moves to an old dirt road, which is the beginning of a gradual and sustained uphill that lasts for several miles. I found my low gear and made slow, yet steady, progress forward. I started to loosen up and I felt pretty good, so I picked up the pace and continued to run up the hill. I was certain that I would not feel good for long, so I thought I should take advantage of the feeling while it lasted.

After a short distance on the dirt road, the course turns up a single-track trail, where runners begin the steady, uphill climb to Hardy Ridge that lasts for about four miles and covers approximately 2,400 ft of elevation gain. The climb is runable in places, but requires even the strongest runners to hike in others due to the steep and rocky terrain.  

View from the climb to Hardy Ridge.

View from the climb to Hardy Ridge.

After cresting the saddle of Hardy Ridge, the course goes off the backside and follows a steep, but runnable, downhill pitch of several miles. The terrain was soft and was not overly technical, so I was able to run with ease in most places without risking rolling my ankle. After several miles, the trail intersects with a dirt road for a short distance before the second climb.

After several miles of running, I reached the second climb up Hamilton Mountain. This, too, is a sustained climb, but only of about 1,200 ft over about three miles. While it is a shorter climb, the terrain is equally as, if not more, difficult as the terrain of the first climb. The climb weaves in and out of the trees on single-track trail, offering the benefit of several switchbacks, and ends at the top of Hamilton Mountain, which offers some spectacular views.

View from Hamilton Mountain.

View from Hamilton Mountain.

The course drops off the backside of Hamilton, where it hits a wide, open ridge that connects Hamilton with another road system. It was a windy day, so the ridge was especially windy. That said, the exposed section does not last long, so the wind was more of a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the day than anything else.

The ridge then intersects with a trail junction, which turns into more steep downhill and intersects with a dirt road. There are a few little ups and downs on this road, but, for the most part, it is runnable downhill back to the start

Running across Hamilton Ridge.

Running across Hamilton Ridge.

The course is two 25k loops, which poses some mental barriers. Reaching the start line and seeing all of the 25k finishers enjoy their post-race meals does not make it easy to turn around and run the same course again. I knew this was coming, though, and I prepared myself. I made a quick stop at the aid station, refueled, and headed back out quickly before I could dread what was to come. I glanced at my watch. I had run the first half of the course in 3:40. I was thrilled!

For a short period, the second loop was very difficult for me mentally. During miles 17-20, my ankle started to hurt and I had no idea how I was going to continue. I started to get angry that I was moving so slowly and, at one point, I thought I had taken a wrong turn. I knew I needed to push forward, though. I was out there to push myself and to see how far I could go; dwelling on every tinge of pain was not going to get me anywhere and it is not my way.

Midway through the first/third climb, I began to feel better. I looked ahead and realized that I was submerged in the mist. I stopped. It was so quiet and the trail was so breathtaking. I fell in love with the day all over again. I moved forward. 

The next several miles progressed without incident. About five miles from the finish, I caught up with my friend Teri. She and I commiserated for a moment or so and then ran the final five miles together, talking about food and how good changing out of our wet clothes would feel. When we approached the finish line, she said “Our time isn’t bad.” “I don’t want to know,” I said. “I haven’t looked at my watch. I know I won’t be happy.” We picked up the pace, drew the last bit of effort from our tired legs, and we crossed the finish lines with smiles on our faces. I looked at my watch: 7:31:40. I was thrilled! This certainly was not an unprecedented time for me, but, given the difficulty of the course, my injury, and that my goal was to finish in 8:00, I could not have been happier.

Today, I feel surprisingly good. My ankle is a little sore, as is the rest of my body. The soreness is good sore, however; it’s not injury sore. Most of all, today I have hope that all is not lost.

I will, without a doubt, run this race again. I cannot say enough good things about Rainshadow Running, the organization of the event, the beauty of the course, or the wonderful volunteers.