Beaverhead 55K 2017
I’ll say it right up front: I didn’t finish this race. I don’t regret the decision, either, under the circumstances. I signed up for Missoula’s marathon before I added Beaverhead to the weekend’s events. Beaverhead is in Idaho. Missoula is in Montana. In my quest for 50 states I had already completed a full marathon in Idaho, so completing Beaverhead on Saturday, while a goal, was not essential in order to increase my state count. Completing Missoula on Sunday, however, was vital, and I decided going into the weekend that if I needed to sacrifice Beaverhead in order to increase the chance of finishing Missoula, I would.
Came the long-awaited weekend and the weather in the Northwest was, to put it bluntly, awful. I arrived in Spokane on Thursday afternoon and walked out of the airport into a wall of heat. This wasn’t expected to break until Monday. I drove over to Missoula with the AC blasting the whole way, picked up Margaret, Lisa, and Katie, and we drove down to Salmon, Idaho, for Beaverhead 55K, which we had been warned was a tough event. They weren’t kidding, all jokes about “I da ho? No, YOU da ho!” aside.
Salmon sits in a rural valley with the Salmon River, also known as the River of No Return, running through it. There are mountains on both sides: the Rockies to the east, the Cascades to the west. Shirt pickup is at Salmon High School, home of the Salmon Savages. (I admire high school and college mascot designers who can make just about any creature look feisty and fierce.) Bibs are not given out until the runners arrive at the start, which reduces the number of people who get their bibs and then don’t show for the race which means that the organizers have to figure out if that person did actually start the event. This is definitely a course where getting lost could be a very bad thing indeed.
The race starts with a long bus ride up into the mountains east of Salmon. Over half of the 55K, and most of the 100K, is on the Continental Divide Trail. 100Kers had been taken out earlier and had started running a lot further south. We went to Lemhi Pass and started north from there. No water at the start, we were all warned to bring enough water for the first few miles. May I say that anyone who begins a trail race of that distance, in July, without a supply of water shouldn’t be allowed out in public unaccompanied.
Last minute instructions are given: look for pink and yellow ribbons, blazes on trees, or Continental Divide Trail logos. Once the course splits from the CDT, go by the pink and yellow ribbons, you should be able to sight from one to the next. Take your time going down the steep parts. A young woman plays the national anthem on a trumpet, then we’re off.
First part is up a steep grassy hill, in a trail overgrown with wildflowers. Lisa dubs this “Potpourri Hill” because it smells so nice. I drop to the back of the pack fairly early on. From the meadow we go into the forest and begin a long winding single track path. I am with others for the first couple of miles but soon I have lost sight of all other participants and I’m singing loudly to discourage any ursines or felines that might be thinking “ooh! Breakfast!”
Race started at 7 AM, by 8:30 I’m at the first aid station. This is at mile 4.4 or so which makes me feel better about timing, a 2.5-3 mph pace is enough to get me through the day. I do a lot of hiking as well as slow trail running. The aid station is road accessible and friendly, they have a number of signs out for the runners. I help myself to some watermelon and orange slices and set out again.
Off through more forest, rolling hills, the bugs and flies are becoming more irritating. I put bug spray on arms, legs, neck, and face but forgot to do head and ears. This is lovely trail, though – trees, flowers, occasional views. I cross some snowmobile trails and the occasional logging road and feel thankful to the person(s) who cut all those blazes in the trees, there are far more blazes than there are pink ribbons.
Ouch – the back of my heel feels as if there’s a blister forming. What’s going on? I stop, take off my shoe, and find there’s a hole in my sock right at the top of the back of my shoe. I am not carrying an extra pair of socks. What to do? I take off the sock, turn it around so that the heel is in front, and put it back on. Much better, the heel isn’t bunching and the hole is not up against any part of the shoe. Not the way socks are designed to be worn but it will work.
I reach the second aid station at about 11 AM and spray myself thoroughly with bug spray. There’s a woman in the med tent, Andrea, who is dropping because the elevation is getting to her. Altitude sickness. I hadn’t really noticed but then I’m not pushing hard. More watermelon and refill my pack with ice because the next aid station is 7.7 miles away.
First more forest, then the terrain changes. It’s steeper and rockier. The trail is not as defined, and I start to see cairns of rock delineating where we should go. The first snowdrift is a surprise. The next few are welcome. I’m passed by the first 100K runner, who puts snow in his water bottle and kneels in the bank. I put handfuls down my running bra but I don’t want to ingest it, there’s enough ice in my pack that I don’t need to risk giardia.
We’re now scrambling up and down steep talus slopes. (The difference between talus and scree? Talus is big rocks. Scree is little rocks.) This is not easy, we’re on the backbone of the continent and there is little margin for error. At some points the trail is very narrow and on a ridge. If I fall to the right, the death certificate will say Montana. If I fall to the left, I’m Idaho’s paperwork problem. I slow down even further and look before I step.
However, sometimes it widens out. I pass a snowbank safely away from the cliff, one that hasn’t been scooped out by thirsty or hot runners and hikers. I lie back in the snow and make a snow angel. And it’s a pretty good one if I say so myself. However, this angel is about to lose its wings. Along comes a 100Ker who does a joyous belly slide into the snow. Oh well. I follow the 100K runners slowly, traversing a scary snowbank along the way which makes me dig my fingers into the snow and lean hard to the uphill side. The drop on the downside is frightening.
It took me 4 hours to go 7.7 miles. 3 PM and I get into Goldenstone which is where this race leaves the Continental Divide trail. Lots more watermelon, more bug spray, notice people sitting around and wonder if they are dropping. I pet several dogs and then head out to Janke (pronounced Yankee) Lake, 4.7 miles further.
This is hard trail. Switchbacks. It reminds me of the portion of Bryce Canyon that Lisa and I slogged up going from tree to tree and resting in the shade at each one. Very steep. I am passed by another runner, Mike, who is also in the 55K (I thought I was the last one!), then he slows and we run/walk and chat. His wife is in the 100K and he tells me about his family, his wife, his mother who died recently. I am happy to have company because I am still worried about bears, but now there is a more immediate danger. Thunder and lightning. A storm is coming in from the west. We hurry to get off a ridge, then realize that the storm is going further south to the ridge before Goldenstone. Glad I’m not there. This portion of the race is mostly on logging roads, it seems. We round a last turn and see an aid station at the top of a steep hill. The lake is down the other side of the slope, far below us, but the station is still called Janke Lake because we can see the lake from the AS.
It’s 5:15. I’m OK on time, the cutoff is 6:30, and there are 4.5 miles to the next aid station but these are the toughest 4.5 of the course, including a steep descent on a scree slope. Mike gets a call from his wife, who has been swept off the course at Goldenstone and will be transported down the mountain. He thinks he’s going to drop. I have been wavering back and forth but decide I’ll try the next section, assured by the volunteers that I have plenty of time to get the last 10 miles. The cutoff at the last aid station is 11 PM. The aid station folk have brought up a grill and are making bacon, sausage, hash browns (in the bacon fat, dammit), and quesadillas, but I don’t feel like anything except fruit. Fill up with water again, prove to the checkout person that I have a headlamp in my backpack even though it’s light until 9:30 PM here, and head out.
The first bit is easy. Down a steep grassy hill into a gully, turn right, up the wash to get to a peak. There is no real trail, I’m sighting from one ribbon to the next and looking for footprints as well. I’m OK so far. But now the tracks are getting very close to the edge, and we are on the Continental Divide itself though the trail has dropped into the valley to the east. I don’t like being this close to the dropoff. I am not normally scared of heights but this is really bad. Sheer cliff or very steep rocky slope. Nobody is in sight. I’m wearing a gray shirt, black shorts, gray hydration pack, gray running shoes. If I slip or trip and go off the edge it’s a drop of several hundred feet. It’s unlikely anyone would find me until the turkey vultures started circling.
Trail goes up, up more, stops right at edge and footprints go along edge. Scared of falling. Try to stay away from edge, around peaks rather than up and over them on edge, circling snow patches when possible because they’re slippery. Getting more and more scared looking at the scree slopes on the Montana side. I can’t see where I’m going. Alone. Shaking and trying not to cry.
Then the tracks go in a snowbank sloping down to the edge and I can’t see any way around it. I can’t do it. I’m freaked out and so scared of falling. I stand whimpering at the edge of the snow. I don’t want to go on. I decide to turn around. A few 100K runners pass me and ask if I’m OK. I explain I’m too scared to do it, I’m going back to the aid station. They nod. One person who passes me is Mike, who also asks if I’m OK. He knows I’m doing Missoula tomorrow so no attempt to dissuade me from turning back. (He will finish the race, coming in around 11:15 PM.) I get to the aid station, they greet me and tell me it’s better to be brought down from there than from the scree slope. The last 100K runners come through, their cutoff is 7:30. One doesn’t have a headlamp so I give him mine, he needs it a lot more than I do. We clean up the aid station, pack everything into 4-wheelers and trailers – even the grill – and fling all the leftover perishables into the bushes for the squirrels. The sweepers come through, we’ll take their bikes down and they will continue on foot.
I am loaded into the back of a 4-wheeler with a volunteer, another dropped runner is shotgun and a volunteer is at the wheel. I have even more admiration for the volunteers once we get down. That is a really bad road. It takes us well over an hour and we bottom out many times, cross a creek multiple times, bounce over rocks as branches whip past us. Finally we’re at the finish line. Margaret, Lisa, and Katie all finished (in that order). They ate, I am not hungry. We head back to the motel, shower, and sleep for a couple of hours before it’s time to leave for Missoula.
No finish. No regrets. I did my best and I think I made the right decision. If I hadn’t had another race the next day, I might have tried to overcome my fear and get myself past the abyss. And in hindsight I would certainly have picked more conspicuous clothing to increase visibility. Had I been running with someone else that might also have influenced my decision, though my attitude has always been (and will continue to be) that each of us runs our own race and unless I’ve committed to stay with someone until the end of the event I will not expect any fellow runner to stay with me and I don’t expect someone else to make that demand of me either. If I’ve agreed to be a pacer, or if someone is acting as mine, that’s different. If I’d pushed on – and not fallen, which was a very real possibility given my lack of surefootedness on slopes – I doubt I’d have been able to finish Missoula before the cutoff the next day. But despite the decision to drop, I’m very glad I made the attempt. The race is breathtakingly gorgeous and extremely remote and is one of the many places I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see.