Beat and I traveled to Montana together and rented a cabin in Columbia Falls. Not only was it a quaint little place to stay, it was also the location of the race finish. Since Swan Crest is a point-to-point race, the shuttle picked us up here in the morning for to drive to the start.
The start of the race was near Swan Lake, about an hour's drive away. The shuttle got us there early so we muddled about, chatting with other runners in the cold morning, waiting for the race to start.
|Jon Burg was the other Bay Area local running the race|
Looking around at the start, I had another Déjà vu moment from Plain. I definitely felt like one of the least fit people there. As Beat put it the day before at the pre-race meeting, "geez, we're the fat people here."
|Panorama of the 50 runners waiting at the start|
Eventually we hit the road for about a mile before taking a left and beginning the gradual grind up the gravel double-wide.
|Long gravel road|
|Some nice views along the way|
For my last comparison to Plain (I promise), Beat and I started the race near the back of the pack. I was hopeful that the strategy would work out as well as it had there.
|Beat and I stuck together in the early miles|
|Pretty easy going|
After about 10 miles, we finally arrived at the first aid station. It was a beautiful morning and I was ready to take on some single-track. At least, I thought I was ready. Little did I know that "single-track" in Montana means pretty much no track.
|Apologies to the lady in the photo, this is only intended to show the aid station|
|About as much trail as I was going to see for a while|
|For a little perspective, my head is just over Beat's shoulder|
|OK, so two but shots is probably going overboard, but there's a story here|
|The fun was about to end|
|Trail? What trail?|
|Those red flags are the trail!|
|Exhausting doesn't even begin to describe it.|
|I never thought I would be so happy to see the overgrowth again.|
Finally, upon reaching the ledge, we caught a slight downhill. Beat was a bit behind me at this point, but I'd no idea how far.
Catching a glimpse of the other side was the first reminder that we were indeed in "the mountains." The gathering clouds made clear their intention.
The second aid station, mile 19, was at the end of an out-and-back along a narrow ridge. It rolled and meandered offering views of distant peaks for distraction.
Shortly, the rain fell. I put on my light jacket and took a photo of what could be the first in a series of fashion shots for my favorite piece of gear, The Buff.
|First rain, let it fall where may|
|Looking like a happy camper at mile 19|
|The ridge is narrow in parts|
This was the beginning of the first of the "long sections" without aid. It was also the longest such section at a little over 24 miles. The aid station volunteers told us that there was plenty of water on the course. What they didn't tell us was that most of it was in the first 10 miles. By the time I reached the snow banks, I'd drunk most of what I'd filled from streams.
|Snow bank in the distance|
|At the snow bank|
|Looking back from where I'd just come I could see Beat|
Swan Crest pass through an awe-inspiring variety of terrain. One minute we were in a wide open meadow, the next snow, then fields of flowers followed by a burnt-out forest. Each had its charms. Unfortunately, none of them had any large flowing bodies of water.
|Summer is like spring in these mountains|
|Looking back again|
|Another field in bloom|
|Water, but not near|
|Gratuitous Buff fashion shot - sweat band mode!|
|These were all over|
|Return to lush, overgrown trail|
|Another ridge with great views|
I distracted myself with taking photos, but I estimated it had been around 12 miles since I'd filled my water. I was totally dry. Unfortunately, I had in my head that the section was 2 miles shorter than actual. This is the excuse I give for automatically taking a left at a Y when the marker seemed right in the middle. I knew there was a split coming up and I knew it was a left.
There's always a point after taking a wrong turn when a voice in the back of your head tells you "this isn't right" and you think you should maybe go back to check. I need to learn to listen to this voice. The trail I was on narrowed to the point of a mere deer path. It then went over and through some brush. Normally this would give me bigger pause, but having run through the avalanche field, it seemed par for the course (except for the lack of markers). Once the trail disappeared altogether, I knew it was the wrong way.
Back on the right path, I was even more thirsty than ever. I took a photo.
|Nice shot, eh?|
|With water comes happy|
|Very welcome faces after a long journey|
|Red-faced at the peak|
Feeling great, I bombed back down. Somewhere close to the aid station I saw Beat. He wasn't having a great day, stating he didn't feel good, he was heading to the peak carrying his water bladder in his hand. I told him head recover and then continued down. I was anxious to start the big descent before dark.
With 6 mostly-downhill miles, this next section to Quintonkon was expected to be fairly fast. I thought I might make it by nightfall. I was wrong.
The downhill went pretty quick at least the initial "free flow" descent. I recall a section of wide gradual downhill and then a rather sizable river. I didn't see any ribbon across the river, but there was really no other place to go so I made my way. This lead to a short path to a road. The route headed up the road. Guess work and hope would put the aid station not too far off.
The road seemed to go on and on. There was no evidence of any campground or other obvious location where an aid station might be. After a couple of more miles, I could hear something off in the distance. Slowly, the noises and then light grew closer. The aid station was here.
It turns out they had to move it a couple of miles further along the road making it 8 miles. I gave Brad, the RD, a bit of good natured ribbing. However, it sounded like some people took it a bit more seriously. It's funny, I don't quite understand how someone could be upset about 2 extra miles on a 6 mile section after having route that has sections of 24, 22 and 14 miles.
At any rate, I was surprised to find Jon Burg here waiting for me. A much faster runner (and walker), I didn't expect to see him after the start. Everyone has their lows and his came while running with the above referenced complainers who dropped at this station. Jon and I headed out to tackle the 14+ miles together. With an initial climb and a nighttime descent, it promised to be a long go. It was nice to have a bit of company.
|Obligatory night photo somewhere round mile 55|
I felt good at the start, but I had yet to have my real low and I could feel fatigue kicking in. Jon let me take the lead at first, which worked OK since it let me set the pace. He is a very strident walker (excuse the pun) as I learned pacing him at a race last year. I worked to keep a good clip and we made a bit of time on a couple of runners ahead of us. It turns out that they were both Statistics professors at a local university. Jon is an actuary. I felt woefully out of place.
I'm not sure if it was just normal fatigue or pushing up the gradual climb, but my energy was waning. I let Jon go in front and shortly thereafter told him I was gonna have to take a break. I sat to try and gather my head for a second and then continued at my own pace. I was definitely getting tired as I was having trouble focusing my eyes on the trail and was weaving a bit.
I finally decided to sit for a little longer and try something new. I sat on a rock and closed my eyes. I let my mind wander the drift. I faded. I woke when my flashlight hit the ground.
According to my watch it had been perhaps a few minutes, 5 at most. However, when I stood up and headed out, my eyes were focused, my head was clear and I was moving much better. I always enjoy the night and this one was no exception. The stars were out.
I promised my wife I'd look at the stars. They were wonderful. Shortly, though the moon became jealous and came to outshine them. Later the moon would be overshadowed by the clouds obscuring show. I occupied myself with this play in the sky.
|Not that it shows, but the moon and clouds put on quite a show|
|Of this, I have no idea. I must have thought I saw something.|
I set my mind on auto-pilot and marched from dirt road to paved to dirt again. The last couple of miles began the ascent that would follow after the next aid station. Strawberry Trail would be our last major climb though it was also the beginning of our last long section without aid.
Morning was breaking at this aid station and I asked about the weather forecast. I should have known better when they told me it was supposed to be warm in the morning and showers in the late afternoon. We were in the mountains after-all. I dropped all my warm and rain gear in my drop bag reasoning that it would just incentize me to finish before late afternoon. I also should have known better than to try and reason anything the second day of an overnight race.
The initial climb was a grind, but at least it was over in a few miles. I felt fine and was ready to enjoy the sights and sounds of a second day on the trail.
|OK, maybe I was just a wee bit tired as well|
|The overgrowth was back...|
|...so was all the natural beauty|
Perhaps you can see the wet and cold permeating my Buff and my normally upbeat persona.
To put it bluntly, it started dumping and I was freezing. I ran. I ran hard. I ran harder than I ever would have were I not trying to escape the rain and stay warm. I suppose I have that. The mud didn't help, but I had already dealt with much worse at Bighorn.
The good thing about being in the mountains for a summer shower is that it is generally short lived. I knew it would let up eventually and it did. The rain turned to mist and as the sun came out we were running in a dense fog.
|The ever-changing mountain climate|
|I doubt the snow is fresh, but the cold rain certainly didn't melt it.|
My running-crazed in the rain took a big chunk of time out of this 22 mile section. However, I wasn't exactly sure how much. There was a lot of talk about the final downhill and how "treacherous" it was. 5 miles of steep descent switchbacking down the mountain. I was so looking forward to it.
Having not studied the course, I believed that once I reached the ridge where I could see the town below, that the descent would not be far. Well, I could see that I was on the ridge.
When I arrived at what appeared to be the apex, I took one last panorama. The peaks of Glacier National Park to the East and Columbia Falls to the West. I was ready to fly down this mountain.
From that point on, every slight downhill slope was, to me, the start of the path down. Over and over I repeated the cycle of excitement and disappointment. Had I taken a moment to look at the hills in front of me, I would have realized that the trail wasn't about to descend until the near the final peak. Part of the beauty of this course is that it travels the distance of a visible ridge line.
Of course, the descent did arrive after awhile and i was so ready for it. I let it fly. Fast downhills at the end of long races are one of my favorite things on the planet. This, I have to say, was one of the best. Not only was it steep enough to just "let go," the switchbacks were wide enough to bank without slowing down. I can't imagine how fun it would be to run this while fresh.
I really should have committed more of the profile to memory. I had this idea in my head that the downhill ended right at the aid station. When the switchbacks stopped I expected a short ride down the more gradual grade to the break before the final 2 miles. One last dip and I ran right through a wide creak before a short uphill. Just a bump before some further descent.
When another uphill came, I was a bit annoyed, but still believed it would be brief. It continued up. It went around a curve and then up some more. I stopped. This was ridiculous! I'd gone up a couple hundred more feet and I could see we still had plenty of descent before being at the level of the town. I won't repeat the curse words here, but suffice to say, I said them all.
I took the rest of the trail easy realizing that I had no clue how long it actually was to the aid station. A change of perspective can do wonders. Once I stopped expecting, I was upon it in short order. At this point, I was very much ready to be done.
One thing I have learned from running 100 mile trail races is that nearly all of them end on the road. Whether its 1 mile of road or 5, it always seems long. The end of Swan Crest isn't long, but it does seem to wander a bit. I had a vague idea where the finish was, but really was pretty unaware. It was hot, the road was long, I took it slow.
I had no real time goals at this point. 30 hours and 31 had both come and gone. 31-1/2 didn't seem worth the effort so I just trotted on in for 31:34.
It was great to be done. It was a wonderful event. I took a shower, took a rest and then took a short nap. When I awoke, the BBQ was just getting underway and friends were starting to come in. The field was sparse and spread out. I actually finished top-10, but only 20 people total finished the race. Beat came in 34+ and just under 35 Jon Burg finished. I was surprised by this last as I didn't remember passing him. It turns out that Jon took the very long course with a long detour in the midst of an already-long section. I give him special kudos for continuing on to finish when the short path would have been to head back after finding the trail again.
Swan Crest is an adventure. Low key and filled with challenges. Minimal aid, trail obstacles, difficult course tracking, all part of the package. A highly recommended and highly successful first running.
Finally, when it comes right down to it, there is absolutely nothing Plain about this race.