OK, you got me… this isn’t really a “guide.” I titled my report so that others considering this race are crystal clear on one thing: The only mechanism or “mind trick” that will get you through the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K/25K is R.E.S.I.L.E.N.C.E! When you set foot on this course, you set yourself up for a challenge where failure is a very real possibility.
This was my first race of the 2016 season. This year, my calendar is laid out based on training for Western States in June. Because living in the “flatlands” makes it difficult to prepare for what’s coming for me, I picked this race to progress (and test) my elevation training — and the 50K route definitely did that! The steep and frequent climbs on this course make you beg for mercy. Anticipating this, my goal was simply to finish within cutoff and walk off the trail without any issues, so that in another four weeks I could run Ice Age Trail 50 Mile, which I’m also using as a training run for Western States.
I’m no rookie to ultras, so the distance itself wasn’t the concern for Yakima Skyline Rim 50K. I was primarily concerned (read: freaking out) about the steep ascents and descents. To prepare, I’d been consistently throwing down 55 to 65 miles of trail running per week with a weekly average gain of 7,400 to 9,400 feet. My focus during training had been on power-hiking and aggressive downhill running to strengthen my quad muscles and accelerate my pace, while making sure 80 percent of my running was done below my threshold.
Race: Yakima Skyline Rim 50K
Organizers: Rainshadow Running
Race Directors: James Varner, Matt Stebbins and Kerri Stebbins
Location/Course: The 50k is an out-and-back from Umtanum Creek Recreation Area along the Yakima Skyline Rim Trail to its terminus at Buffalo Road and back. With 9,500 feet of gain and 9,500 feet of loss, you're going to take a beating from this one! With each climb, you're rewarded with ever-expanding views of the Columbia Highlands, the Yakima River Canyon and the Cascade Mountains, including Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and the Stuart Range.
You start by climbing nearly straight up, gaining 2,100 feet in the first 2.2 miles. After that, you roll along the ridgeline on an old Jeep road for a few miles before plummeting down into Roza Creek Valley, where you reach the first aid station at mile 8.0 (this aid station, which lies beside the Yakima River, is mile 23 on the return).
After a brief, rolling respite in the Roza Creek area, you toil up again — this time 1,900 feet in just over 2 miles. Back to high ridge running. Two short drops and climbs later — both of which will catch you off guard — you steamroll down into the Buffalo Road aid station at mile 15.5. Don't get too cozy, though, because then comes the joy of retracing your steps all the way back to the start.
Difficulty: Extremely Hard
Time Limit: Official, nine hours. Unofficial, 10 hours. There are two strict cutoffs along the course: 12:30 p.m. at the turnaround aid station and 3:00 p.m. for the return to the Roza Creek aid station.
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Nutrition (approximately 2,200 calories):
Aside from the above-mentioned challenge and training leading into Western States, one other reason I had for entering Yakima Skyline Rim 50K was to reconnect with my BFF Denzil and his wife Megan and spend the weekend with them.
Of course, before we could get running, we had to do some “celebrity stalking.” I spotted Gary Robbins and called out his name. One big smile and hug later, we were chatting about the Barkley Marathon and other races. (Did I mention I was talking to Gary Robbins!?!) Next, I spotted Gunhild Swanson. I went up and introduced myself, and we chatted Western States. The rest of the conversation is a blur, but I recall her saying, “This is going to be tough. I’m not going to make the nine-hour cutoff, but I needed a long training run.”
With that thought ringing in my head, I took my place with the mid-packers as James Varner, the race director, counted down to the start time.
First mile was uneventful as we hit the singletrack in a conga line. Then, we started to snake through some technical trail, slowly but steadily climbing. The strong smell of sagebrush filled the crisp morning air. As the climb got steeper (about 2 miles into the run, if that), my calves were screaming and I felt a tingling sensation in my right foot that would slowly continue to numb it for the next 5 miles. I’d been nursing my right ankle for two weeks leading into this race, and the nerve/blood circulation issue was there to haunt me. No big deal, I told myself. I’ve raced before with similar issues, and after a few miles of warm up I typically start to feel my feet again (which turned out to be the case here).
As I gingerly continued to move forward and stopped to take pictures and shake off the numbness in my foot, I fell to the back of the pack. I shared a few miles with Gunhild and David Wetherholt, both of whom passed me as the climb continued. Feeling a little panicked, I started to brainstorm a strategy; clearly I would not cut it on these climbs, so the only thing left to do was make up time on the downhills.
The thing that is completely mentally decapitating about this course is that you can see ahead for miles on end, and there’s no tree cover. So, just as you’re reaching your breaking point on those climbs, you look up only to have reality staring you in the face as to how far ahead the farthest runner is — and how much more climbing you still have to do!
As I reached the top of the first of many brutal climbs that day, I started to stretch my legs and push forward, running along the rolling ridgeline and passing other runners all the way down into Roza Creek Valley. This was the first aid station, and I’d passed both Gunhild and David on my trip down. Be forewarned that this trip down ain’t no smooth ride. It’s steep as a mo-fo and hard to find footing (zero traction). One missed step and you’re going face down. I was in and out of the aid station quickly, as I anticipated having to make up time on the runnable sections.
And then I hit the second major climb.
This climb seemed to be a little more pleasant, or maybe my legs were getting acclimated to the steepness of the terrain. There was no telling. This climb led into a long, steep, extremely technical descent that took us to the mid-point at Buffalo Road aid station.
I was running the downhill as fast as my legs would take me — and surprisingly well given the extremely technical terrain. The main thing driving me at this point was the mid-point cutoff. I had to make it. I got in and out of the aid station 25 minutes ahead of the time limit.
Lots of runners were dropping at this point. It was a depressing sight. Head full of thought clouds, questioning the human spirit and pushing through the (physical and mental) pain, I made the relentless climb back up the way I had come down. I decided not to look up and just grind it out until I made it to the top of the hill and could run again.
I passed a few runners on the climb. The temperature was nearing 72 degrees, and the sun was bearing down. This is when I came up behind Clay Ross, and a conversation started with him saying something about my tattoos and me saying that I wasn’t going to make the second cutoff. In all honesty, I felt so miserable that in my head I wished I would miss the cutoff and end the misery. I was at the lowest point in my race, but Clay pulled me along. Every time I’d look up, he would smile at me and tell me we were going to make it.
Slowly, Clay pulled ahead and I didn’t see him anymore. As I continued to plug along, something hit me. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I could hear the voice in my head telling me to push hard, see what I’m made of and try to make that cutoff instead of resigning myself to failure. Just like that: second wind. I hit a runnable section of the course, and next thing I know I was flying downhill as fast as I could. There was Clay again. He stepped off to the side as I ran past him and straight down to the aid station. I was in and out again, this time 35 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Yay!
But as I started to stare up at the long-ass climb that was about to hit me, I quickly revisited my enthusiasm. Maybe I should just call it a day. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I’m 23 miles in — that’s a solid run. I once again found myself questioning if I would make the nine-hour cutoff.
A series of arguments with myself later, I found my legs pushing forward while my brain was still trying to make up its mind. (“See what happens. Just lay this thing to bed. Does it matter if you finish within cutoff?”) I passed a few more runners and hit the water drop. I was 5.5 miles from the finish, but it wasn’t over yet. There was more climbing to be done, and then the final decent of 2,100 feet. That was going to bite. I dumped a water bottle on my head and continued to plow through the climbs. Finally, I was on top looking down…and I mean all the freaking way down.
The only thing standing between me and the finish was 2 miles of pure downhill. I’m not a great uphill runner, but I am better than most at downhills. I can do this! I can make cutoff! As I started to pick a line and run down, I suddenly found myself on my ass, legs stretched out over the hill, with a tight cramp in my right calf. It was ironic, and a little scary. I sat on the top of this hill staring down at the drop with my heart racing and my head panicked. After a few minutes of letting the cramp work itself out, I slowly got up and started to reacclimatize my legs to the descent. Soon, I was running again.
I passed two more people on my way to the finish. Just five paces ahead of me were two runners dragging it, Jeffrey Stauch and Joe Yela, and because I wanted to give them shit I ran by them with a tap on the shoulder and said ,“C’mon guys, don’t slug it now. Gotta finish this thing!” Before I knew it, the three of us were racing each other to the finish! As we crossed the line, we hugged each other and laughed. We had all finished within cutoff on our own two feet.
My official time was 8:47:30. After I finished, I got waved over by Gary Robbins, and I planted myself on the ground next to him and chatted for the next 25 minutes, watching other runners pull into the finish. I saw Clay and Gunhild finish within the unofficial 10-hour time limit and got to hang out and take photos with them. I topped off my finish with a pleasant exchange with James Varner. A beer and two slices of pizza later, I was a happy girl!
This race is simply BRUTIFUL! I pride myself on being a mentally tough person, but this race made me question myself not once but multiple times. Truthfully, I think I’d rather run a 100-mile race with 9,500 feet of gain than have to tackle this course again. But that was the whole point of signing up for the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K — to prove to myself that I’m not so far out of my comfort zone and that Western States is, in fact, achievable.
I walked away from this race without any major issues and, actually, ran the Sunday after as well as the following Tuesday. I’m still addressing the numbing issue in my right foot, but it hasn’t stopped my training. In hindsight, I guess it was a good call to not push too hard for a better finish time for this race. I learned that I can power through downhills, but I need to work on getting better at climbing. Four more weeks to Ice Age 50 Mile!
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.