Written by: Sedona McNerney - Smiles and Miles & All In Trail Athlete
Gulch Countdown; a last-person-standing backyard ultra. Leading up to the race, I had a lot of people ask me about it, specifically how long it was. When I would respond with “Well, it depends…” I got some interesting reactions. The best way I can describe this race is by comparing it to the pacer test. You know, the running portion of the Presidential Physical Fitness Testing you had to complete in elementary and middle school? “The FitnessGram™ Pacer Test is a multistage aerobic capacity test that progressively gets more difficult as it continues.” Ring a bell?
Here is how the race works. The course is a 2.18 mile loop through the Japanese Gulch in Mukilteo, Washington. Each loop has a time cutoff for completion, beginning at 32 minutes and descending by one minute every lap. So lap two has a cutoff of 31 minutes, lap three a cutoff of 30 minutes, and so on. If you make it back before the cutoff, you have the rest of the remaining lap time to rest, receive aid, and get yourself ready for the next lap, which begins when the lap timer for the current lap runs out. Your race ends when you fail to complete a lap before the timer for that lap runs out. You DNF. Everyone does; that’s the point!
I chose this race because I was the weird kid in elementary school whose favorite week of PE class was the Presidential Physical Fitness Testing. It always felt like it was my week to shine, and the pacer was my favorite stage to perform on. It wasn’t enough for me to be the last person still running; I would keep going until I felt like I had sufficiently destroyed the tiny developing egos of my male counterparts. So naturally, Gulch Countdown was alluring. Combine that with the fact that it sets you up for a DNF, and I was in! I figured this would be the best possible place for my first DNF.
Race day was practically perfect. Late June in Seattle meant no rain but perfectly overcast skies and a cool temperature of around 55 degrees, perfect for running endless loops through the forest. My plan for the race was to take it really easy for as long as possible, as the initial few laps had very generous cut off times. I figured I could slowly pick up the pace as needed in order to make sure I was getting a little bit of rest between each lap. One of my big goals was to focus on fueling and making sure I was eating something between every single lap, so I wanted to make sure I had at least 3-5 minutes to do so. For the first 5 laps, I had closer to 8-9 minutes to rest and reset before the next lap began, which I thoroughly enjoyed while I could.
For the first eight laps, you could choose which direction to run; clockwise or counter. For me, clockwise seemed to feel best, as all the climbing and descending would be done at the beginning of the lap as opposed to hiking a massive hill right at the end. I did try out the counter direction twice, just to make sure I knew how it felt, because after eight laps, everyone was required to go the same direction and alternate every lap. At lap six, I let my competitive edge get the best of me and I took off to run the fastest lap of the day so far, which meant I got my name on the board and got to pose for a picture in a crown. Looking back, that was probably unnecessary and I should have saved that energy, but I don’t think I could say I regret it.
The laps seemed to tick by for quite a while, and I felt relatively relaxed until about 10 laps in or so. At this point we were approaching the marathon cutoff (lap 12) which would shift the time drop to be by only 30 seconds a lap as opposed to one whole minute. I knew I really wanted to make it past a marathon so that I could feel confident about calling my race an ultra. My legs started to feel a burn for laps eleven and twelve, but I made it comfortably through both cutoffs. About halfway through lap thirteen I could tell I was moving slow. We were headed counter clockwise, which was not my preferred direction. My legs were heavy and I began to notice that I was cutting it close to making the cutoff time. As I trudged along past the halfway point I realized what I had already accomplished; 27 miles on trails, progressively getting faster, fueling each lap, and having a total blast chatting with new faces each time we looped. I had already gotten so much out of my day and more importantly, I was having fun. It was at that moment that I decided I was more than happy to have my race come to an end, so I enjoyed my quiet last mile through the woods, emerging past the finish line about two minutes late and immediately plopping myself into the DNF chair with a big silly grin on my face.
A Sedona of the past would have reflected on this race with a critical eye. She would have been disappointed to take second place instead of pushing herself to the point of absolute failure for a win. She would have beat herself up and lost the joy of it all in the process. But the Sedona of today has spent the last several years determining that running is a journey of joy for herself, which is why I am so proud of my choice to both push myself and find pride and accomplishment in the enjoyment of my race. This race was an intricate balance of speed and endurance, asking you to ride that delicately blurred line between moving quickly and moving for a long period of time. I loved the way it stretched the abilities of both my brain and my body, asking me to do more than just run fast or run far - to do both. I found it the perfect challenge and a huge confident booster in the middle of my summer training cycle. And the best part is, you hold total control over your race. You get what you give. And, you get a DNF to be proud of :)