Thursday, August 22, 2013

White River 50 Mile Endurance Run

So this one had been on my to-do list for a while, ever since I'd seen photos from previous years. It looked special. I'd signed up for it within a few days of DNFing the San Diego 100, although at that point I didn't realize that I'd have run another 50 mile race just two weeks earlier. Ah well, a couple of weeks is enough time to recover, right? Riiiight.

I was travelling down to Washington with Alicia - the first time we'd attended a "destination race" together since last year's Cougar Mountain 50k. As usual, we stopped off as soon as we'd crossed the border to stock up on pre-race essentials: beer, wine, cheap lawn chairs, chocolate and smoked salmon. Realizing that it was already getting a little late in the day, we elected to have dinner in the mall parking lot; not the most scenic location and the cause of some consternation to our fellow shoppers, but we had a great little feast before hitting the road again for the remaining few hours that would take us to our camp ground in the shadows of Mt Rainier.
Nope, we're not running up that mountain. Photos courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama.

Except that by the time we'd arrived, the only shadows were those cast by our headlamps as it was now pitch dark. Still, the tent seemed to go up without too much trouble, and following a quick snack of chocolate and a relaxing mug of wine we turned in, hoping to get maybe four hours of sleep.

It's one of the highlights of this race that it starts and finishes in a state forest camp ground, so many of the racers choose to camp here both before and after the race. It engenders the run with a great sense of community and only being a few hundred metres from the start line in the morning is one less source of anxiety. The downside is the complete lack of bathroom facilities, but at least we're all in the same (stinky) boat.

After a minimal breakfast and some alarmingly sweet instant Mongolian coffee, we assembled at the start line. There were a few familiar faces; Ather who I'd been in a couple of close battles with already this year; and Ed McCarthy, a fellow Vancouverite who was no doubt one of the pre-race favourites. It was one of the bigger 50-milers I've been in; there were around 400 starters and the field was decently competitive.
But I think we do climb up that one.

The race starts off pretty flat on a gravel road next to an airstrip. It's ideal for spreading the field out, but there's the temptation to start out too quickly so as to avoid getting held up behind slower runners once the trail narrows. As we entered some classic Pacific Northwest single-track I couldn't help but feel that the pace was a little on the brisk side; and there were already a lot of people ahead of me. Still, there wasn't much I could do except go along with it.

We all went straight through the first aid station at four miles before starting the first of two big ascents. White River only has two major climbs, but they both involve around 3,000 ft of elevation gain. Which is substantial. As I'd more-or-less expected, the group I was running with attacked the climb a little more enthusiastically than I'd like, so on a few occasions I stepped aside to let people pull ahead of me. The changing gradient - some parts runnable, some not so, made it difficult to find my rhythm, so the stunning views of Mount Rainier that casually presented themselves were a welcome distraction.

More people passed me, including Ather who I'd been expecting to see for some time. There was an aid station at around 10 miles into the race, but I opted to continue, eager to keep moving while I still felt relatively fresh. As we climbed higher, we emerged from the forest into lush alpine meadows. The scenery was magnificent, the weather perfect, yet the climbs were unrelenting. I pushed on, managing to smile for Glenn Tachiyama who'd found a perfect spot for some amazing photography. There's a sizable out-and-back portion in this section of the race, so it was fun to see the leaders flying past. Ed was hanging on tightly in 2nd place, right behind, I believe, Max Ferguson.

At the next aid station, Coral Pass, I decided it was time for a short break. The course was so beautiful and the volunteers so cheerful that it seemed wrong not to spend a few moments soaking up the atmosphere. So I grabbed handfuls of various foods before heading out - and  up - wondering if we were ever going to get any downhill. After the final couple of ascents, the trail started to drop down again. Now I was having fun. The trail was fairly non-technical, but was made entertaining by the sharpness of the switchbacks, some "interesting" drop-offs and the fact that several hundred people were running up the trail in the opposite direction.

Despite not pushing the pace too hard, I passed at least a dozen people over the 10-mile descent. This section was probably my favourite of the whole race, as the trail was deliciously runnable. Exactly how I like it, I reflected, as my foot caught on a root and I sailed spectacularly through the air before landing in a dishevelled heap. I looked around. No-one seemed to have seen me, so I quickly picked myself up and carried on, wondering if I'd ever learn to stop doing this. Don't hold your breath.

Eventually, just as I was starting to tire of the constant downhill pounding, the descent came to an end and we entered another aid station, roughly half-way through the race and cruelly close to the finish line. I wolfed down a questionable assortment of food items - who says fudge isn't a good running fuel? - before launching into the next couple of miles of trail that weaved around the camp ground before the next big climb started. This was the part of the day I was least looking forward to - the arduous steep climb up to Sun Top. Everyone's legs were feeling a little worked by this point and the temperature was creeping up quickly. I passed a couple of other runners who were looking desperately unhappy. I also passed a pair of horseback riders - twice, because my legs unexpectedly and painfully cramped up as soon as I'd overtaken them, so I stood sheepishly stretching while they casually cantered past me.

After a gruelling few miles of steep climbing, the next aid station was a welcome sight. It was around this point, that ultra-legend Megan Arbogast passed me, oozing class and professionalism. All except for her failure to sound genuinely upset when someone told her that Ashley Arnold, who was wining the race, had rolled her ankle. She efficiently exited the aid station while I spent a little longer there trying to compose myself and prepare for the rest of the climb.

After a couple more miles, the trail suddenly dropped down, but I had at least been prepared enough to know that this was a false dawn. There was a final steep half-mile of uphill to go. Just before emerging at Sun Top, Glenn put in another appearance, although this time I don't think I managed to look quite so spritely. Again, the views this high up were absolutely incredible, but their uplifting effect was less pronounced than earlier. I knew there was a pounding downhill to come and I'd been telling myself on the climb "Just stick to water for now - you don't want to feel bloated when you're hammering it down that road". Sounds like a plan? Of course, as soon as I saw those delectable little cups full of Coke and Mountain Dew, resolve went out the window and I went about quaffing sugar, caffeine and carbonation with alarming gusto.
No Glenn, I'm not going to start running.
The next stage is potentially one of the fastest in the race if you've still got legs for it. It's a 6-mile steep descent on a gravel road. Totally runnable, but after 38-miles many people's quads are screaming. My legs didn't feel too bad; my stomach, as you may have guessed, less so. Still, I managed a reasonable effort over the next 45 minutes or so, but this time, I couldn't wait for the downhill to be over.

Dropping back into the trails, the staff at the final aid station told me, as they are contractually obliged to, that I was looking great. I remained skeptical and pleaded for an exact breakdown of what was left. About six miles. On the elevation profile, it looks pretty flat, but I'd been warned beforehand, that it's no such thing. The trail rolls along the banks of the eponymous White River, gradually climbing as you head upstream. It had been described to me as "technical", but fortunately it wasn't as severe as I'd feared and the first couple of miles clicked off fairly quickly. But I could feel myself rapidly running out of gas. With the steep descent from Sun Top and my slightly dodgy stomach, I'd not consumed many calories over the last hour and it was starting to catch up with me. I began walking sections that I had no business to be. Eventually I pulled out a pack of jelly beans and munching on a few of the tangy delights gave me a small boost. Still, I was probably passed by five or six people at this stage. I kept repeating the "Just keep moving forward" mantra, and after an eternity of glacial progress, I finally popped out of the trail on to the road that marked the final few hundred metres of the race.
Yep, it's a picture of me running. Thanks to Ather Haleem for this one.

As I flopped over the finish line, the race director handed me a water bottle filled with ice-cold water, a nice touch. My time was around 8:48, for 24th out of 286 finishers. A little slower than I'd hoped for, but at that point I was just glad to be done. Before long, Alicia crossed the line looking a whole lot more lively. She'd snagged third place, a fantastic achievement against a strong field. We spent the rest of the afternoon cheering other runners in, eating and drinking in the sunshine, and then as darkness descended, eating and drinking more around the campfire.

White River's a tough race for sure, but it's more than made up for by the fantastic setting, a great atmosphere and superb organization and volunteers. I'd highly recommend it. As usual, I'd like to thank FITS Sock Co. for their support and kitting me out with their amazing Performance Trail Socks which cushioned my feet admirably on a pounding course.

Official Web Site
2013 Results
Alicia's Race Report
My run on Strava

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mt. Hood 50

Sometimes, you have months of build up to a big race. It takes over your life and your every waking moment is devoted to honing your fitness to peak at precisely the right time. Other times, you find out that you're going to be running a 50-mile race with less than three days notice. This was one of those races.

I'd known for several months that I'd be heading down to Oregon for the Mt. Hood 50-miler, but only in a vague capacity as crew/support/driver for Alex who'd already signed up for it. But following a possible episode of burn-out, where I managed to DNF on a single 4 km interval, I decided I needed a break from all this hard training. Then I decided to put my name down on the wait-list for a 50-mile race instead. What can I say? It looked pretty.

We (Alex, myself and Lucy; who was not racing) decided to leave Vancouver bright and early on the Friday morning, which was just as well as an unexpected vehicle malfunction delayed us a couple of hours. Still, we were across the border by late morning and soon well on the way to our hotel. Veering east as we neared Portland, we gradually climbed higher through classic Pacific Northwest forest scenery, with Mt Hood putting in occasional breathtaking appearances as we rounded bends.

Alex had made an excellent choice with her hotel booking. Not only was the out-of-season ski resort very comfortable and well located for the race; it was mere seconds away from the Ice Axe Grill, home to the Mt Hood Brewing Company. It took little persuasion to convince our crew to head here, where we enjoyed a light meal and some heavy beers.
Mmmm... beer.

The nutritional benefits of dark chocolate and red wine are well-established. So in the interests of a healthy lifestyle I gorged mildly on these before lights out around sunset.

Pre-race wine and chocolate.

4 am came around with its customary haste. We moved smoothly through the standard race-morning routine and were soon driving the 30 minutes to the start as the skies gradually lightened. In places, a slowly clearing mist hung over the landscape. The air was cool, crisp and clear as we picked up bibs and milled around the start area. With very little ceremony, the race suddenly started and we darted off into some flowing single-track.
Yes, it's another picture of me running.

The first few miles of the course are pretty flat, so there's always the temptation for adrenaline to take over and run out too fast. Which I did for maybe a mile, before relaxing and letting a few of the speedier runners pass me. For a while I ran with Norman who was running his first 50-miler. He said he had a plan to walk a lot of the uphills in the early part of the race. Of course he didn't, and charged up the climbs that began after six miles. I never caught up with him again.

Around eleven miles into the race, the trees thinned out a little and we were presented with one of *those* views that make you remember why running on trails is so special. The valley floor opened up below us, before sweeping up majestically to frame Mt Hood looking utterly stunning in the early morning light. At this point I was aware of another runner gradually gaining on me. It was Andrea, the lead woman. I was a little surprised that she was ahead of Alex, as our pre-race ultrasignup stalking hadn't identified much serious competition. We ran close together until the 14-mile aid station where the course doubled back on itself, all the way back to the start.
Fortunately, an ascent of Mt Hood is not part of the course.

I grabbed a couple of gels as a precaution and left a few seconds ahead of Andrea. On the return leg, I soon encountered Alex, only a couple of minutes back, looking strong and controlled. I shouted something that I hoped was encouraging without being too disparaging about her competition. I'm not sure that I succeeded on either count. I ran slightly ahead of Andrea all the way back to the start line, the 28-mile mark of the race. Sometimes we were close enough to chat about the kinds of things runners talk about during races. I asked her if she was aware of Amy Sproston's course record. She was, and in fact Amy had encouraged her to take it down.

Part of me was wondering how I could manipulate the situation to help Alex's race. Maybe I could slooooooow riiiiight dooooown and Andrea would too? Or maybe I should run really hard to force the pace? Of course, in the end, I did no such thing and just enjoyed having some company.

After being cruelly forced through the start/finish area, we dropped into a new section of trail for another out-and-back that constituted the second half of the race. I realized at this point that I was feeling quite tired. Had I not tapered properly? Was my nutrition at fault? Lack of sleep? Or maybe, it's normal to feel a little less than fresh after running for thirty miles. Whatever it was, it caused me to trip and fall embarrassingly, twice in quick succession, on totally innocuous terrain. This was clearly a signal. After a steep climb to the next aid station I started pounding back the coke. The caffeine and sugar rush hit me almost instantly and there was a new spring in my step as we embarked on a fun three-mile descent to the river.

Shortly after crossing the river, we encountered the leaders of the race on the return leg, and then started a climb that would take us to the second turnaround. Somehow I was expecting this section to be steeper and was relieved that I was running the bulk of the hill. Andrea gradually slowed down here, and after running together for over twenty miles, I finally pulled ahead. There were a few distractions on this section; a couple of fallen trees that necessitated some mild clambering and a few horseback riders that forced a welcome slowing of the pace as I passed them.

Soon enough I hit the aid station, stopped briefly to reposition my food supplies then headed back down the trail. Andrea was not too far back and pushing bravely upwards. A little later I encoutered Alex, still in second place, who was keen to know how far the turnaround was. Again, I tried to offer encouragement, and with eleven hilly miles left, I knew that her battle for the top spot was far from over.

When I returned to the river, I knew that the final climb that lay ahead was going to be the most gruelling of the race. Fortunately, I was encountering plenty of other runners on the outbound leg and fed off their energy. There was a lot of hiking, and the temperature was rising. When I finally emerged at the last aid station, I complained bitterly about this section. They aid station staff were sympathetic, but pointed out that it was pretty much all downhill for the last five miles. I chugged more coke and pressed on.

The first couple of miles clicked off easily enough. Then there was a downed tree to clamber over. Fair enough, there's been a few of these already today. Although this time, this late in the race, it was a little different. Almost immediately my inner thighs cramped up horribly, and for a moment I wasn't sure that I could carry on. I gingerly walked, then jogged, and eventually resumed something resembling running. There was one final exhausted face-plant with a mile to go, but fortunately no-one was around to see this one. Then there was a short section of road which gave me a chance to try and look composed for the finish line before I crossed in 7:12. Fist-bumps from the race director who then presented me with a Mt Hood beer glass. I ended up in 9th position overall, which I was very happy with considering the lateness of my sign-up.
More beer!

I chatted incoherently with Lucy for a few minutes while my body tried to recover. Within fifteen minutes I was gorging myself on an excellent burger from the post-race barbecue, maybe a little saddened by the multiple "No Alcohol" signs that were necessary because of the race's location in a state park. Andrea finished not longer after me, breaking the course record and winning her d├ębut 50-mile race.

Alex's race... didn't go quite as well as we might have hoped. Despite gastrointestinal issues - "I've never thrown up so much in my life" - that caused her to walk large sections of runnable terrain, she still finished in third position. Fortunately she recovered quickly enough that we were able to take full advantage of the rest of the weekend relaxing in Portland with craft beers, great food and some life-altering ice cream from...
Still smiling!

I really enjoyed the Mt. Hood 50. It has a fairly low-key, friendly atmosphere, some stunning scenery and mostly runnable terrain. The course marking was exemplary, the aid station staff super-cool and the organizers were awesome. Definitely one to consider.


Official web site
2013 Results
My race on Strava
Alex's race report (amongst other things)