Tuesday, August 3, 2010

White River 50 Report

I have a distinct memory of the night before my first ultra, standing out of the balcony of the Crystal Mountain resort, looking nervously out into the forest that climbed the ski slopes over the ridge, wondering how I ever was going to get through 50 miles. Eventually I did it, but not without 12 hours and 40 minutes of extreme suffering and joyous views and a new respect for not only the runners who do this sport but myself as well. This was White River, and here I was again, 4 years later, ready to do my first repeat ultra. I had trained for this race all year with the goal of making White River my first sub-12 hour 50 mile race which had been one of my three goals every since I had started running. I knew if my training numbers held up, I should be in pretty good shape, but numbers on a training run often don't correlate to the race itself. So, here I was nervously milling about with 225 other runners waiting for the start. Erica and I had enjoyed a good dinner with Mike and Fran the night before, and it was good to catch up with them as I had enjoyed their company at Jemez. I had a good night of sleep, and I had filled up with 2 bottles of water, 2 bagels, and 2 bananas. I was ready.

Before the start. Ready for a day in the pain locker.

And GO! Everyone was off, heading down a dirt road next to an airstrip, some 10 or 12 people wide. After 2 miles, we funneled down to a single track and then shot out onto a loamy trail consisting mostly of mud and decaying trees. It was like running on a track made of the spongy material you find under a kids' swing set, only with a few roots and rocks thrown in to make it a little more fun. The trail, like most trails on the offing for the day, wove its way sinuously around massive trunks and parted carpets of ferns. Eventually we crossed the highway and then wound our way through even prime old growth forest where the struggling gray dawn barely registered. We roly-polied this trail for another 2 miles where the first aid station awaited.

The start. The shirtless Jesus guy in the middle of the picture is the guy who won the thing in under 6.5 hours. What a stud. Hats off, Anton!

Of course, I had assumed my spot WAAAAYYY at the back of the pack . . .

After a quick bottle exchange with Erica, it was another mile and a half and then the first climb started, which was about 3000 feet over 7 miles or so. It started steeply, including a staircase, but quickly mellowed into a long slog with bouts of running and power hiking mixed together. I had gotten stuck behind someone who had started probably too fast but was now clogging up the singletrack with no way around. Soon the conga line stretched out behind us some 25 runners long. Finally, I followed some other runners around the front and pushed up the hill. As the trail would lead you to the edge of the cliffs, you would be rewarded with expansive views of Mt. Ranier, and you could see the airstrip and people mingling 2,500 feet below at the start line. As I ran, I spoke with a few people, easing into what was going to be a long day. I especially enjoyed talking to Tom who used to live in San Diego and trained on many of the same trails and even knew some of the same people. Finally, I came into Ranger Creek aid station at mile 12 at 2.5 hours into the race, about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Typical section of early trail. Ooooh, very Lord of the Rings-esque. Where's Elrond?

In the conga line on the stairs. The guy who took this, who's name I don't know, was hovering in the bushes snapping shots. Thanks to whoever took this! Apparently, he was being devoured by mosquitoes at the time. And thanks to Mike for sending it along!

After a very brief stop of less than a minute, I was up and away up the final 400 feet of the climb. At least this was how it had been advertised, but in fact, some of the steepest pitches of the climb waited ahead, and it was at this point that I was passed by the first downhill runners, including Anton Krupica. What a joy to watch him run, even if it was only for 5 seconds as he came barrelling past. There were a few steep bits left to go, but mostly they were short, and I was making good time as everyone had finally sorted themselves out about to where they would be for most of the race, give or take 10 spots or so. Finally, I got to the ridge, and the fields were littered with wildflowers of every shape and color. I also was enjoying a Mt. Ranier eclipse as the monolith dominated the view, and I could see the sun dancing in the deep blue chutes of the glaciers. As this was an out and back section, I had to dart off the trail time to time to allow the faster runners to keep their momentum headed back. While this interrupted my rhythm, I enjoyed seeing all of the runners ahead of me, especially the strong ones, and everyone gave each other words of encouragement as we were all in this soup together. It was also great to see Mike running so well, and I had to nimbly execute a high five before he got past me.

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama, who, besides being an accomplished runner, lays like a sniper in the bushes and then takes absolutlely fabulous photos of you. For anyone who wants to see what an ultra is like or just loves great photos of the NW, I encourage you to go to his site which is http://www.pbase.com/gtach/root. Mt. Ranier, obviously in the background. This is "charging" down to the aid station about 17 miles in.

I came into Corral Pass, enjoyed a quick snack, and then pushed out. Unfortunately, it was about here that I began feeling some cramps in my calves which limited my ability to push on the uphills coming back to the ridgeline, although it was nice to have runners stepping out of my way as opposed to the other way around. I was able to push through some rough spots by taking salt and staying right on the edge of cramping and pushing the downhills, knowing a long downhill section awaited me. Once it started, I was off, and I blew through Ranger Creek the second time, pausing only to fill my bottle as they sent us down a different trail back to the start line which was roughly the halfway point. My only worry at this point was getting enough salt in me, as I was still a little crampy and had sweat through my shirt.

As I plunged down the five miles of switchbacks between Ranger Creek and the halfway point at Buck Creek, I realized that I should have stopped for some food at the aid, as I had to slow down on the switchbacks to get some energy gels and salt pills in my system, and what I gained by not taking a minute at the aid station I lost by having to refuel on the run, costing me valuable momentum and time. I did manage to pick off about 8 runners on the way down from the top of the climb before Ranger Creek, but I was only able to average about 10 minute miles, when I should have been able to go at least 2 minutes per mile faster. But I felt strong when I pulled into Buck Creek at about 5 hours and 50 minutes, which was about 1/2 hour ahead of 12 hour pace and almost exactly where I thought I would be when I did my pre-race calculations. I was hoping to see Scotty there, but he was nowhere to be found. I did have a great but quick chat with Erica, who was a perfect crew as always. She gave me some frozen bottles and gels for the road, a quick good word of encouragement, and I was off.

At the halfway aid station. I think I shoved the kid behind me out of the way because he was standing between me and Goldfish.

And I'm off like a herd of turtles for the second half of the course . . . .

My biggest worry in the next two miles was how to manage my cramping. I looked down and I was covered in salt from my dried sweat. I vowed to keep pushing salt down my throat and headed for the Suntop Climb. This was a long 8 mile climb, the first 2.7 of which gained 1,700 feet in 2.7 miles through exposed switchbacks. In training, I was knocking out these kinds of climbs with regularity. But this was a different animal today for some reason. I was struggling mightily, and people were passing me like I had thrown out an anchor. I would guess I was passed by 15 people, and while I had gone out extra aggressively anticipating that I would need time in the bank, so I knew I would be getting passed by people, I had not counted on getting passed by THAT many, especially that badly, as I simply could not get my legs to match any of their pace. I kept trying to catch onto the back of a train, and kept getting dropped within 20 to 30 seconds. Finally, I made it to the aid station at Fawn Ridge, but doing the math, I thought any chance at 12 hours was gone barring a miracle.
I knew I needed a minute to get the morale up, as I was going to finish this thing regardless, so I bolted a few cups of mountain dew and a few bananas, my old friends. I also had some salted potatoes and goldfish and then took off up the final section of this climb. The second section was in tree cover and much less steep, with finally some runnable flats and downs mixed in. My legs were coming back, and I was starting to pick off a few of the runners that had passed me before. But the cramping was getting worse. To combat it, I tried to take my 8th salt pill of the day, but promptly yaked it straight back out. Well, that was it for pills for the day. I’d have to do it on Nuun drink, which is an electrolyte drink you make by dropping an Alka-seltzer like pill into a bottle of water, and salty snacks. Hmmmm. As I went to swing my legs over a stump, I felt a tightening and a paralyzing pain up and down my right inner leg. As I looked down, my right foot was turned out at a 90 degree angle from my other leg as I suffered groin cramps the like I would wish on no other. I limped up the trail, begging the muscles in my leg to relax and let go, cajoling them, pleading for a little speed. I was thinking that I was just starting to feel good again, and now this! I quickly recalculated the time in my head and realized that I had made a stupid mistake on the Fawn Ridge climb. When calculating how much time I had left, I had been looking at clock time, not elapsed time, on the run, so my chance at 12 hours was intact! I did some quick math, and I was going to have to push to try to make it to Sun Top no later than 3:45 PM, but now I was done with all but the last mile of the climb, and then came the downhill, my specialty.
With renewed vigor, I hit the downhill from the false summit to the base of the last climb. This was a one mile steep up, but my legs were recovered, and I enjoy relatively short steep ups as I have good strength for shorter climbs as opposed to the longer ones where I’m too big to make great time. This rocky straight up SOB was right up my alley, almost Xeroxed from Mission Trails, so I powered up this last bit, knowing that the top was soon at hand. I was able to pass a few more of the people who had passed me earlier on this last bit and popped out on the top, with some threatening clouds in the distance and thunder rumbling around the valleys. Last time I had been here, I was so hungry I stuffed down two whole costco chocolate muffins. This time, I had just wretched up a salt pill and was in so-so shape. I took in what salt I could by eating salty boiled potatoes and chips and took off for the 6.6 mile downhill. I left at 3:40, which gave me 2 hours and 50 minute to hit my goal. Knowing that my cramps would not let me push the pace much on the last 6.5 flat miles, I knew I had to try to go for broke on the downhill, where my cramps didn't affect me.
Another Glenn sniper shot, this time from the top of the last climb. Ready for some downhill! What's really funny is that I have the same shot from my 2006 White River race, and I am making the exact same dumb pose. As Bugs would say, "What a Maroon!"
Mt. Ranier from Suntop. This was taken the day before when we were checking out the course. On raceday, there were threatening clouds and thunder, although, disappointingly, never any rain.

I bolted out of the aid station and onto the downhill fireroad. As I left, another guy who had passed me earlier headed out with me. I hit a hard pace, and he matched me stride for stride. If I faltered a little, he would pull ahead, and then I would pull up a little, and he would come up to me. Without saying a word, he and I pushed each other down the hill, cutting every corner, nearly stride for stride. We weren't necessarily competing against each other as much as teaming with each other to make sure the other wouldn't break and using our momentum to catch whoever was sitting in front of us as we flew past other runners, using them as rabbits to chase. What was really special is neither of us even so much as glanced at one another as we pushed it as hard as we could. We had an unspoken bond between us as runners and racers, and talking about it just would have spoiled it. While I now know his name from looking him up in results, I probably won't ever speak to him. He ended up finishing the race about 10 minutes behind me, and as he crossed the line, he went out of his way to walk up to me, give me a fist bump and a smile, letting me know that he had felt the same way, and melted into the post race crowd. I may never see him again, but I treasure those 50 minutes, as that is how long it took us to run miles 37 to 43.5, which doesn’t sound fast, but those are the fastest miles I’ve ever run in an ultra, not to mention one where I had already been running for 10 hours. Unfortunately, I left my partner behind on the very last portion of the section as I bombed into the last aid station where Erica was waiting with another bottle and a good word. I stopped briefly and then bolted out onto the trails.
Erica got this picture of a guy running the race in sandals. He is one of the ones who passed me on the bad climb to Suntop. I also saw 2 guys with vibrams, one of whom had taken them off and was running in bare feet. I think I lost to all 3 of them!

Last M&M's for 7 miles!

Off for one last push through Skookum Flats. 12 hours, here I come! At least, that's what I hoped . . .

This was Skookum Flats - 6.6 miles of eminently runnable, rooty, rocky, mossy, old growth fun. However, my legs were completly shot and starting to cramp again. I had 1 hour and 50 minutes to make the finish. Normally, of course, not a problem, but with cramps and fatigue, I thought it was going to be on the close side as I felt completely spent. My strategy for this whole section was to run until I cramped, then walk until it eased up, then repeat. At first I was able to go 6 or 7 minutes of slow running, but as I got farther and farther in, and as I tried to push harder and harder, the cramps came faster and faster to the point where it seemed like I was running 400 yards and walking 100 yards.
The Skookum Flats trail . . .

I got passed by a few people on this loop. Not knowing how long the section was, I asked them as they went by how much further did they estimate we had to go. I got varying numbers, none of which I trusted and all of which made me nervous. There were no mile markers, and I had no ability to discern what my pace was with all the starting and stopping and fast walking and slow running. Finally, I was passed by someone who turned out to be Van Phan, who has finished more races than I will ever start. She said that we had "about" 3 miles to go at the bridge. 2 minutes later, I crossed the bridge. It was 5:30, so I had an hour left to beat my goal, but it had taken me 50 minutes to cover 3.5 miles, and I had actually been able to run big sections of that, and now I was running only for 1 to 2 minute chunks at a time. The trail wound along the river's edge from time to time, and I would look out for the river, as I knew if I could see a bridge, I would be close to the finish as it was .4 miles from the road to the line. I pushed ahead, running when I could, finally even running with cramps on areas of open trail where there was nothing to trip on. I’m sure I looked like some mutant old growth penguin waddling stiff-legged through the forest. I looked at my watch. 20 minutes to go. A little panic started to creep in. I had NOT worked this hard and come this close to let it slip away.

A shot of the White River. It really is White! Now where is that damned bridge . . .

In the distance, I heard a voice that said "Up here!" Looking around, I saw a guy dressed in red about 400 yards ahead of me. He was standing at the end of the trail. "You made it!" he yelled. I looked at my watch. It was in the bag. I was so happy I screamed back at him, yelling in tongues. I still have no idea what I said. I had made it! As I dumped onto the road, I grabbed the guy by the shirt with both hands and told him I was going to marry him. If I had the energy, I would have kissed him, so lucky for us both I was too tired. I simply turned up the road and made my way towards the turn to the finish. Coming around the last corner with .2 miles to go, I let myself spend a moment thinking about all the hard work and training and sacrifice in the last 4 years and all the help and advice and good thoughts and words I had gotten from friends to push me along to this point. And now, it was coming to pass. For 30 seconds, as I trotted down the dirt road, I just let it wash over me, and I can’t remember ever feeling so completely and simply satisfied.

But the end and the glory awaited! As soon as I came out of the trees, I could see the finish! Everyone who was left started to cheer, as they did for every runner who finished. I heard Mike and Fran say congratulations as I was coming up the final bit, and as I bunny-hopped over the finish, there was Erica and Scotty! Fantastic! It was great to see Scotty, as my original White River has been his idea (although he hadn’t bothered to show up for it - ha!), and he was the one who got me into trail racing instead of just trail running. So it was nice serendipity to see him at the finish.
Whoa! I almost look like a real runner! Look at that concentration and focus!

Or not. Here I am giving Gator jaws to the crowd instead of just running the 200 yards to the finish. See previous caption about being a Maroon.

I literally made it 3 steps and collapsed into a chair. Mike and Fran came up, and I had a ball talking to them, hearing about Mike’s race (he crushed it), and talking the usual BS with Scotty and Deeser. My final time - 11:45:55, good for 147th place out of 194 finishers and 226 starters, or almost the exact same relative placing as Jemez. After a salty cheeseburger and fries on the way home, I was starting to feel myself. I hopped on a scale at Uncle’s house in Seattle. I weighed 210 when I left Seattle on Friday AM, and I weighed 192 less than 36 hours later. I lost 18 pounds!!! That, as they say in fancy doctor offices, is not good. I also will be losing 4 toenails, have a giant raw spot on my chest from where my bandana knot was rubbing, and have a hickey like bruise on my neck from my hydration pack. I'll just tell people its a hickey - it sounds much more macho. I also have a couple of other hickey/raw spots from the belt on my new running shorts, but those will remain safely tucked from view . . .
Mike says he runs for the chair. How true. I made it about 3 steps before collapsing into this one, very proud but very tired.

So, how does it feel having nailed a life goal of a sub-12 50 miler? Well, for one, I’m not changing the name of the blog. But it feels amazing. Of course now, 2 days later, I start to think about where I could have made up minutes, where I let some mental weakness slip in, and how I could have raced it better. It was a good racing day, but not my best, so the question is how much faster can I get? I’m definitely going to keep pushing, but it won’t take away the deep satisfaction of getting this finish in the books. Big thanks to Deeser for crewing, for Uncle and Aunt and the girls for putting us up in Seattle and feeding and taking care of me (and for the awesome footrub Aunt K!), for everyone who sent good thoughts my way as I’m a big believer in good karma, and to everyone who gave a crap because its fun for me to share my adventures on the trails. Next up - Cascade Crest 100! I’ve got a month to rest up . . .


  1. fun to see you again, BJ. The write up is great. Your next title will have 11 in it right? I hope to see you and Erica at Cascade Crest!

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