Chin Scraper, Trail Taker, Might I Need a Pacemaker?


Race day morning: raindrops barraging the skylights, wind whipping through the trees, and 100% chance of rain forecasted from nine to noon, the duration of the Bellingham Trail Half Marathon. So, I did what any self-respecting person would do, went back to bed. As I lay there, I knew I wouldn’t be able to face my sister (nor text or call) to tell her I’d backed out because of inclement weather. If given the chance, she’d have done it, so I needed to do it. I was running late as I dragged myself out from under the covers, packed up and set out for Lake Padden Park in near total darkness.


Former school buses painted kelly green transported runners from Lake Padden Park to the Fragrance Lake Parking lot across from Larabee State Park. From there, we’d run a point to point course leading back to the lake. Wearing the shirt from my toughest trail race, Oregon Coast 30k, for inspiration, I rode with a Seattelite named Rob. We commiserated during the 20 minute trip about keeping injuries at bay after running for so many years and shared favorite trail race courses. His recommendation The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship course located in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.


Runners and spectators in waterproof gear huddled together under cover in the parking lot while waiting for the start. Race director Candace Burt provided pre-race instructions, displayed a sample trail marker, and sent us on our way at 9:00 am. 


After a short half mile flat section on Fragrance Lake Road and the Interurban Trail, runners headed uphill along the section known as the chinscraper (Double Diamond Trail). Under a canopy of Douglas Firs, it was drier than in the open parking lot, but the muddy trails were eroded from recent rains. After the aid station at mile 2, it was only a mile to the course’s summit. The Ridge Trail section was my favorite, though fog obscured what I know to be beautiful views.


On the descent, rolling hills with maple leaf covered paths as we followed the Lost Lake, Madrone Crest, Hush Hush Trails, then back to the Interurban. A gal I’d passed earlier followed me for a quarter mile before continuing on by. When I first checked my watch at a beep, it read mile 7. With nearly the same to go, I slowed, thinking I’d gone out too quickly along the hard part which might mean walking a lot at the end. Three marathoner men flew by during a twenty-minute time span. Just before the second checkpoint at mile 10, a woman sporting French braids and mud-spattered calves passed me. I recognized her as last year’s female winner. I caught her at the aid station at mile 10 for me and she confirmed my suspicion, she was the female marathon front-runner.


When I next checked my watch at the lap beep, it read 11 miles. I realized with relief that I’d misread mile 9 as 7. We ran exited the trails at Old Fairhaven Parkway and followed the roads to and under I-5, then back to the trails leading to Lake Padden.


One of the prettiest moments, which I would have enjoyed more had I not felt so awful, was the trail towards the lake. I couldn’t see the blue inflated awning marking the finish, but knew I had nearly two miles to go. Minutes after I crossed, Candace presented the awards for the half marathon. Michael Seiser, a local 27-year-old, was the overall winner in 2:05:00. The first female finisher was also a local, 28-year-old Amelia Bethke, who owns four of the five fastest female times. After the ceremony, I sat near a guy who flew by me at about mile 11. He’d taken a wrong turn at the first aid station, run an extra five miles, and still finished ahead of me.


I was glad to have finished the race, but a strange thing happened afterward. I was wearing two watches, the Garmin 220 Forerunner, which I’d bought recently, and the Garmin 35, which I’d acquired for free through the Amazon Vine Program. The heart rate monitor “hrm” for the 35 is built-in to the watch, the 220 has a separate chest strap. While driving home 15 minutes after the finish, the 35 showed my heart rate was 120 bpm, high for a resting rate…which made me panic…which raised my heart rate. I tried to calm my mind, the rate decreased, then went back up!


I downloaded the race data from my watch. It showed my maximum heart rate as 190 bpm, which would be nearly impossible for someone my age. The typical calculation for a person’s maximum heart rate is 220-(your age), 168 bpm for me. A Runners World article provides a formula for older athletes 208-0.7*(your age) would yield 172 for someone my age. My chest hrm had shown a max of 173 in the past. This type is thought to be more accurate at determining heart rate because it uses electrical impulses, while an optical hrm, “measures your heart rate using light. An LED shines through the skin, and an optical sensor examines the light that bounces back. Since blood absorbs more light, fluctuations in light level can be translated into heart rate – a process called photoplethysmography.¶Currently, using an optical heart rate monitor on the wrist just isn’t as accurate as using one on the fingertip or on the chest. The chest-worn models more closely mimic an EKG machine.” I don’t need a pacemaker, which is used for hearts with abnormal rhythms, but I think I need to take the data from my wrist hrm with a grain of salt. Sometimes too much data, and especially inaccurate data, is more harmful than helpful.

The Bellingham Trail Half Marathon course is challenging but beautiful. Running it taught me a few things, most importantly: sometimes, you just need to show up.

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