I’ve learned during decades of running that a fellow runner’s statements sometimes stretch the truth, “It’s an easy course,” might be a fact, but it might just as easily mean that she’s since forgotten how absolutely awful it was, or she downplays its difficulty because she just really wants you to run it. Spectators are even more unreliable, “You’re almost there,” means that you have about a mile to go, while “Looking good” is only true on opposite day. You actually look like crap but he or she feels bad about that and believes that the white lie will ease your mind. But it doesn’t. And after hearing the same well-meant lies for so long, I’ve become a skeptic when it comes to such statements about and during races. However, after my most recent trail event, I might need to rethink my thinking. A race organizer who accompanied us while being bused to the start of the Baker Lake Classic 25k, insisted that the course is, “a-hundred percent runnable.” My first thought…We’ll see.
After spending nearly thirty years (that is not a typo) running hundreds of miles a year exclusively on roads, the final seven mostly alone, I ventured out on the trails for the first time with several friends, including a barely better than acquaintance named Nina. Since that first run eight years ago, I’ve spent hundreds of hours traversing thousands of miles on trails, a significant amount of them with my now friend Nina. Now, I hoped to keep up with her for 15.6 miles along a trail that follows Baker Lake in Whatcom County from its northeast to its southwest end. I felt pretty good about it. And so did she. Mostly, because we’d agreed to treat it simply as a training run for an upcoming trail relay.
We arrived at the Kulshan Campground Parking Lot on September 28, site of the finish, at 7:30 am for packet pickup and proceeded to white-tent covered check in tables. After picking up our race bibs, we took shelter from the cold in preparation for spending several hours outdoors on a cloudy day with temperatures forecast in the mid to upper 40s. NW Endurance Events promised, “Stands of giant old growth trees draped in lichen and covered in moss…a majestic stand of Douglas Fir that regrew after Mt Baker erupted and started a forest fire in 1843…burned snags of the cedar trees that once dominated the area…[and] glimpses of Mt. Baker.”
As for the course, “The race starts at Baker Lake Trail #606, where runners begin their 13.3 mile trip, cross the Baker River Suspension Bridge (0.6 miles) on the north end, various small creeks, slippery bridges and a large log with a handy cable at Anderson Creek (12 miles). At the end of the trail, they’ll finish their last 1.6 miles on Baker Dam Road (14 Miles), to the Upper Baker Dam on the south end, to complete the 25k.” It delivered on its promises of “slippery footbridges,” “fallen multicolored maple leaves” and “tricky steps across log bridges.”
What no amount of pre-race information can prepare you for is stuff that happens along the way. And by that, I mean a person who disturbs my attempt to experience non-stop serenity by loudly announcing actual and planned mile split times to her partner. Fortunately, this couple moved past us before mile three, saving me from the effort of a silent growl after each unwanted outburst. During the middle of the race, we exchanged places several times with a young trucker-hatted woman in bright yellow tights who hiked the ascents and sprinted the descents while we just kept running. At about the same time, a young woman participating in her first trail race joined our line of two, thus turning us into a trio, where she remained, very quietly, through to the end of the trail.
We caught sight of the couple attempting a three hour completion as we passed the second aid station. Throughout hour one, two and into three, we traversed a trail so close to Baker Lake that we could see water much of the way, and as it’s a mere 60 miles from Anacortes, its features are similar to that of those of the Anacortes Forest Lands where we run most of our miles. The thought to walk never crossed our minds as we maintained a constant pace until we reached an extended uphill section from mile 11 to 12. For the final two miles of trail we showed our fatigue by falling silent and slowing slightly as we approached the pavement at mile 14. At the road, three pickups passed us in quick succession, filling the air and irritating our lungs with their emissions, exhaust fumes contain certain poisonous chemicals, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, benzene and soot. No wonder it made us feel awful. The highlight of the final 1.6 miles was looking over our shoulders for any woman who might have enough energy to attempt a pass, which Nina insisted that we weren’t going to allow.
Half a mile from the finish, we started across a concrete gravity dam located at the north end of Lake Shannon called Upper Baker Dam. Completed in 1959, it is 312 feet high and 1,200 feet long. Combined with the Lower Baker Dam and the West Pass Dike, the three form the Baker Hydroelectric Project [which] creates more than 7,250 acres of water surface that provides recreational, flood control, fisheries and hydropower benefits to the communities in the Pacific Northwest. As we crossed, a spectator announced, “four hundred yards.” Such a specific distance could only come from a well-informed person. Checking over our shoulder, the only potential passer, a fully bearded younger guy, rallied and closed the gap between us before we pulled away. We finished in 2:56:17, meeting our goal of “about three hours.” A few minutes later, the mile-split-announcer and her companion crossed the finish and met their three hour goal with twenty seconds to spare.
As it turned out, the race official hadn’t lied, neither had the spectator guy. We completed the entire 15.6 miles without walking. Maybe I’m too much of a skeptic.