Wednesday, August 06, 2008

7/26/08 White River 50 Miler

This picture was taken by Glenn Tachiyama at approximately M16 of the White River 50. Glenn takes the best pictures ever. The look you see is very representative of how I felt for most of the race.

The following takes place between 6:30am and 7:30pm on Saturday, July 26th.

Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep. (That's supposed to be the countdown clock from the TV show "24". Remember this.)

About five years ago, I ran into ultrarunner extraordinaire Scott Jurek at the Seattle Marathon expo. This was long before I had run an ultra, but I was interested in trying one. So I asked Scott for advice on a good ultra for first-timers. His suggestion was White River.

Fast forward five years. I've run a few ultras, including two 50 milers. White River did not become my first, but I've heard so many great things from people about the race throughout the years. Against my better judgment... my two 50 milers were not pretty... I signed up. And for the last few months, I've been terrified of the upcoming experience. See, it turns out that Scott recommended it because it is *very* well managed, the course is well marked, and the views are spectacular. He did not recommend it because the course is "easy". In fact, White River is really quite challenging. And it comes with a 13 hour cut-off time. I checked some of my friends' times from prior years. People who are generally 30-60 minutes faster than me in a marathon have times in the 10-12 hour range at White River. Uh oh. That cut-off seemed pretty aggressive. I was terrified of both death (ok, injury) and the sweeper. Odd juxtaposition. True story, though.

Held near the Crystal Mountain ski resort near Mt Rainier, White River's course is essentially two mountains: climb, descend, climb, descend. The first climb goes from 2000 up to nearly 5700 feet over 8ish miles. The second climb "only" goes up to about 4800 feet over 8.5ish miles. The trails are single track and jeep road, except for a 6 mile section of gravel road downhill towards the end. Most of the single track is technical, and some sections are TECHNICAL. Some of the climb and descent sections are long, but over 50 miles, there's lots of roly poly too. Some of the climbs and descents are somewhat steep. Some parts, ridiculously steep. And a few times, "you have GOT to be kidding" steep. I know that the fast folks run most, if not all, of these sections... and I have no idea how. Especially the downhill switchbacks. Even at a shuffle, I have a hard time negotiating the U-turn at a switchback without sliding off the edge.

Oh yes. Edges.

Much of the course goes up and down the sides of the two mountains. This means that at any moment, runners are feet...or inches... away from seriously hosing their days. And forcing a Wilhelm Scream (learn about that and listen to it here).

In the weeks leading up to the race, the organizers had held training runs on each of the course's two halves. It would have been a great idea to come to these. Of course, I didn't because I was running other races. Had I come, obviously, I would have known what I was in for. But I didn't, so I showed up on race morning pretty oblivious to the challenges, aside from knowing that the race would be "hard".

I was terrified enough to show up in time to take the early start option. This would give me 14 hours instead of 13, and just before the early start, Maniac Lesa... who had done the two training runs... looked me in the eye and told me, "yes, you want to start early." Yikes. But I didn't. I don't know why. Well, I went back to my truck to get my shoes and the door from the car next to me was blocking my way. That's just an excuse. I suspect that deep down inside, I was perversely excited by the challenge of trying to beat the 13 hour cut-off.

In the days leading up to the race, the organizers had sent us a nice description of the course and aid stations along the way. For most aid stations, the document listed pace times for those trying to run a 10 hour and 12 hour race. For the later aid stations, the document also provided the cut-off time for each station. Runners who didn't make it out of a station by the cut-off time would get pulled. The Grim Sweeper! Using a sharpie, I had written the aid station mileage and the 12 hour pace times on my arm. I figured that running close to that 12 hour pace would be reasonable, and it would give me an hour buffer in front of the Grim Sweeper.

At 6:15a, we all gathered for a final course briefing. I saw tons of people, including some semi-famous ultrarunners. Many of these people were waaay more serious about blowing through 50 miles than I was. Maybe they were less afraid of death. Most of them certainly didn't seem to be scared of getting swept. Then again, some people didn't give off nearly the same vibes. Lots of smiles. Lots of chatting. I didn't hear much of the course briefing.

Just before the start, Maniac Chris gave me some advice: "Take it easy in the first half. It gets really hot in the second half." Ok. It certainly wasn't hot at the start. I was in two shirts, a fleece, and gloves.

And then we were off. The 24 clock (really, the 13 clock) started.


The race starts and finishes at the Buck Creek Campground, which is a short distance from the highway up to Mt Rainier. Oddly out of place in the environment, Buck Creek has an airstrip. We started by running down the road next to the airstrip. I was trying to go slowly. After a bit, we turned onto the singletrack and snaked along a river back towards the campground. And then across the highway. Goodbye, civilization. I almost always have a difficult time in the first crowded miles of a trail race with my pacing. I don't want to get trampled, so I get sucked into the little packs of people. White River was no exception. I thought that I was running slowly, but it was hard to tell. My heartrate was up, but that could have been "I'm running too fast","the big race just started", or "I'm absolutely terrified".

We hit the first aid station, Camp Sheppard, at M3.9. I was at 45:43 on the clock... goodie! I was indeed running slowly. Everyone around me stopped. I was carrying two handheld bottles and they were both still full, so I flew through this station as if I were really racing or something. I'd later figure out that most people stopped to ditch clothes. Not me... I was still in three layers and gloves.


The next aid station, Ranger Creek, would be at M11.7, so essentially 8 miles away. This would be the biggest gap between stations. Our handout cryptically mentioned "Get ready for the first hill on the course." Yeah. After about a mile and half of roly poly, I hit the hill. Switchback up. Lots of fast walking. Not much running. I did the best I could to keep moving at a reasonable clip. Towards the top of the climb, the trail would bend around a ridge and we'd get our first views of Mt Rainier. It looks very different from an elevation of 5000 feet and a few mountains away than it does from Seattle. It almost seemed as though I was looking across, level, at the summit. I knew I wasn't up nearly that high, but it was really cool.

Ranger Creek, M11.7. This was a water-only aid station that we'd visit twice. In the absolute middle of nowhere, the volunteers had hiked in all the water. Wow. As I was filling one of my bottles, a bunch of runners pulled into the station. I assume this was the big pack that had stopped at the last aid station. One guy, let's call him Red Shirt Guy, pushed me out of the way so he could get water. He pushed me! I knew we were somewhere towards the back of the pack. This guy was waaay too serious. My time as I left Ranger Creek was 2:38. In a road marathon, I'd be at M20.

I left the station with a few others. I was in front of Red Shirt Guy. I heard one gal ask another gal why she was back here. Second gal said "I got caught in a congo." What? I thought about that for a bit as we continued our climb. Then I got it. She had been caught in either a convoy or a conga line. Little trains of runners. A congo. I was tempted to ask her if she enjoyed Africa, but I didn't want to get punched.

Welcome to the scariest part of White River. This part of the course is a 5.2 mile (each way) out-and-back between Ranger Creek and Corral Pass. Some parts of the trail were skinny and some parts wide. The climb gave way to a step set of roly polies, including the first "you've got to be kidding" incline/decline. Along the way, there was a snow field. At the end of July. I won't be too dramatic about it because the snow field was only about 100 feet long. But it surely was unexpected! It started to get hot.

But this was the scary section because the fast people were now screaming back in the other direction. I usually love out-and-backs because I get to see the fast folks. Not here. Runners headed up (that would be me) were supposed to casually step out of the way of runners coming down. Casually. Except that they were doing Mach 3, and in some parts, stepping out of the way either meant jumping to the up side of the trail and potentially twisting an ankle OR jumping into oblivion on the down side. Or... stepping in that one-foot wide space between the edge of the trail and oblivion as the person blew by. I tried everything, but it was always scary when they came by. And lots of people came by. I really was at the back of the pack.

This was also the first section of the course where I encountered blow-down. Blow-down is the funny term that hikers use for trees that have fallen across a trail, usually because of a storm (or maybe rogue mountain beavers). Perhaps I could have hurdled some of these trees in a shorter run, but not in this race. And most of these trees were pretty big. I went under them sometimes, but I found that crouching hurt my back. So usually it was up and over. Gingerly. The fast people coming the other way tended to vault them. It made that yop yop yop yop sound effect like Speed Racer's car when they did. I just sounded like an old man getting out of bed. Usually, someone else would be wanting to pass when I got to a tree. If it wasn't a Speed Racer coming down, it was someone behind me going up. Almost everybody was nice about it. I noticed that sometimes, people going up weren't that nice to those coming down. This was where Red Shirt Guy caught me again. He was headed up and over a tree when Speed Racer coming the other way wanted to do the same. Red Shirt Guy got mad! GAH. Go on ahead, Red Shirt Guy.


People coming down would sometimes offer up encouragement. A few folks tried to tell me how far I was from the turnaround, the aid station at Corral Pass. This would ultimately be very frustrating because people's estimates were all wonky. It seemed like the station would never appear. I started seeing some folks headed back down who were NOT Speed Racer. And some of the early starters. I knew I must be getting close. In here, I learned a lot of ways to pronounce "Corral". A corral is where they keep horses. Core-RAL. Some people were saying it "coral", like in the ocean. A few times, I heard Cor-EL, like someone in Superman's family. Heh.

This was the first sign that perhaps my brain was getting loopy. I came up with that Cor-EL joke the second or third time that I heard it, and it made me laugh out loud at myself. I never do that.

Anyway, I finally got to Superman's pass at M16.9. No horses. I had sent a drop bag up to this station, so I spent a couple minutes finding it. Then I ditched the yellow fleece and the gloves. I mixed two bottles of perpetuem. I ate some M&Ms and cookies. An eternity went by. Glaciers may have melted. A few runners came in, including Red Shirt Guy. I heard him declare to the volunteers "Only fast people get to eat potatoes!" I guess he was trying to rationalize why he didn't want to eat a spud? I don't know. Finally, it was time to head back down. I was at 3:53 on the clock. The 12 hour pace for this station was 4:02. Huh. I was ahead, and it was time to run downhill.

Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep. This is the point in a season of 24 where you realize that Jack Bauer is getting way way too much done for a single day. Similarly, I was 17 miles into a 50 miler, and I was beginning to feel it. I was feeling way too yuck way too early. At less than 6000 feet, I couldn't blame the altitude. It was THAT hard of a course for me, and there was a lot more coming. At least the next part would be downhill.

Yeah. Downhill. I suck at trail running in general, and running down the hills is my suckiest aspect. I had 5.2 miles back down to water-only Ranger Creek. The top three miles were the same roly poly stuff, but in the down direction, I was more keenly aware of the steep drops that I had previously negotiated with Speed Racer in my face. Yipe. I wish I could say that *I* was Speed Racer now, but no... I was doing old man shuffle on the downhills and hiking the uphills. Not many people headed up as I headed down. A few. One chick with a funny accent. She'd become important to me later. Anyway, this was back-of-the-pack running. About halfway down this section, I passed a woman headed up. "I'm the sweeper". GAH! The Grim Sweeper is following me!

I pulled back into Ranger Creek (this time, M22.1) at 5:10. Holy cow. It had taken me 1:15 to go up this section and 1:16 to come down. So much for running down those hills. Sigh. I was asked to take it easy on the water... they were almost out. I filled up only one of my two bottles. I had 5.1 miles of downhill to the next aid station at Buck Creek, near the start/finish. I figured one would do. For some reason, I suddenly recalled Maniac Chris telling me to take it easy on the first hill. In fact, the course description specifically pointed this out. No problem for me. Apparently I can't run down hills.


The 5.2 miles to Buck Creek was ALL downhill. Steeper than the previous section and no roly poly mixed in. Switchbacks. And blow-down that made previous blow-down look like easy trail. I tried to run. Really, I did. The course description reads "this 4.8 mile section of switchback downhill running is a blast." I do not think that word means what the course description writer thinks it means. I was absolutely petrified.

About halfway down... which at the time I didn't really know was only half; I thought I was down... I encountered a trail washout. The orange tape marking the course seemed to indicate that we were supposed to go around the slide and blow-down by (cautiously?) scaling down the steep side of the hill. I did this to the next flag. I saw that the following flag was even lower. Down I went. And then I saw no more flags.

Oh shit.

I was on the steep side of a slope and I was absolutely completely lost.

Red Shirt Guy was coming down the slope by this point. We looked around and around... and, aha! The next marker was way back up at where the trail continued on the other side of the washout. Looking back, this makes perfect sense. But at the time and already feeling 1) loopy and 2) petrified, it was a miracle revelation. We carefully climbed UP the slope and headed onward.

For a second. From far behind me, I heard someone call out, "what do I do now??" I stopped and turned around. A guy was kind of noodling down the hill as I had done.

There's a character in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, one of Davy Jones' creature henchmen. His head dislodges from his body frequently and the head has to direct the headless (and therefore blind... but not deaf, huh?) body back to find the head. One of my favorite lines from the second movie is this guy.

"Minudo! Follow my voice. Diss way."
(the body stumbles into a tree)
"No, no. Dat a tree."

That's pretty much the exact dialog I used with the lost guy behind me. I may have even done it with that character's voice. Heh. Anyway, I helped him avoid the stone petrification that I endured. And off I went.

Down and around. Down and around. A guy was peeing at a switchback. Not even modestly behind a bush. Yahoo! Down and around. And then from behind me, I heard it. The Wilhelm scream. Oh no, someone just went over the edge. I turned around and looked. Nope, no one had gone over. But the guy I'd helped... let's call him Minudo... he was spread eagled on the side of the hill. Ooops. I went back. He collected himself and I collected his stuff. Had we been skiing, this would have been called a "yard sale". Onward.

Incidentally, the course description for this section also contains this gem: "There are lots of good falls in this section." Yes. I believe the writer was trying to tell us about waterfalls. I saw a few. But it meant something altogether different to me. (Wilhelm scream)

As I got toward the bottom of the hill, a small pack of people had developed. Me, Minudo, Red Shirt Guy, switchback pee-er, and a couple gals found ourselves at the highway crossing. I talked to the gals for a second and realized that they, along with many other folks, were only doing the first half. A lot of people were dropping by choice or otherwise at the next aid station. After another half a mile, we finally... and I do mean finally... got to Buck Creek.

Buck Creek. M27.2. Essentially this was halfway, plus it was close to the start/finish. My truck was right over there. Oh man I was tired. Other people had dropped. I could. I ate some food and drank a coke. Nah, no dropping. Time to head out. I was at 6:25 on the clock. The 12 hour pace was 6:18. At the top of the mountain, I had been 9 minutes ahead of pace. At the bottom, I was 7 minutes behind. Even factoring in some of my unplanned stops, it was clear that I had run down that mountain poorly.

And now I was pushing closer to the absolute cut-off. The Grim Sweeper. Crap. I should have gone out early. But I didn't. Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep.

The next aid station, Fawn Ridge, was only 4.5 miles away. Only. After a mile or so of flat running next to the river, the trail headed up. It wasn't too steep at first. Suddenly, a guy came sprinting towards me down the hill. Wow. My brain had difficulty processing him. This was not an out-and-back section, so there shouldn't have been anyone headed this way. It was Uli, former winner of this race as well as many Seattle Marathons. He wasn't in the race; he was just running down the hill with his dog. Hiiiiii, Uli. And hi Uli's dog. He was fast too.

Over a creek crossing - the only time my feet got wet. Then the hill got steeper and it got hotter. And steeper. And steeper. Finally I was walking the switchbacks. I passed a couple folks in here. I also completely drained two bottles (40 oz) in 4.5 miles.

I was at Fawn Ridge. 7:45 on the clock. 4.5 miles took me 1:19. 12 hour pace was 7:33... I was now 8 minutes over. Also, the Grim Sweeper now actually came into play. This aid station was due to close in slightly over 30 minutes. Everyone over this would get yanked. Time to beat feet.


By this point, it finally sunk in that I should not look at the mileage to the next station with the modifier "only". The next station would be Sun Top, 5.3 miles away. Not "only 5.3 miles". The steep hill continued for about three more miles. Up and up. This part of the trail headed up the center of the mountain rather than following the slope around. It was covered with trees, but the forest seemed really strange. I figured it out: no understory at all. Just trees over bare ground. Obviously this area had been logged and replanted. It was weird. Luckily, it wasn't nearly as steep through the forest. The trees gave way to a clear-cut area that was blanketed in wildflowers. This was by far my favorite section of the course for scenery.

I popped out at a road. Runners were headed down. Woohoo! I saw Maniac Bob, who was in front of me. He said "3/4ths of a mile to the top." Across the road, I was back in the forest. But a few minutes later, I curved back to the road, this time a bit higher up. This time I saw Maniac Monte, who was also in front of me but apparently behind Bob. "One mile to the top!" GAH. Across the road and back on the trail. More wildflowers. And more switchback. The last (one? 3/4ths??) mile up to Suntop was super steep. My legs were burning. Just before the top, I saw Photographer Glenn T again.

"You're limping."
"Yeah, I know."

I knew what it was. Way back at Corral Pass, you know, M16.9, I had known what was going on. All the downhill had rubbed a blister on one of my heels. A big one. And it had certainly broken a long time ago. One more reason why dropping at Buck Creek had been tempting. I had been choking down the pain for 20 miles. And I had 13 more. I was indeed limping.

Suntop, M37. My other drop bag was up here. I had originally planned on changing socks, but I knew that with the blister, I shouldn't. Taking off the shoe and sock might rip off whatever skin was left. I pulled some perpetuem out of the bag and mixed it. Then I ate the best peanut butter sandwich I've ever had in my life. Ever. And I eat a lot of peanut butter. Maniac Leslie arrived at Suntop. Hooray! I was at 9:3o on the clock, still 8 minutes over 12 hour pace. I hadn't really lost more time since Buck Creek. Another reminder - going up hills: good, going down hills: bad. Leslie was a little worried about the cut-off. "Leslie, we have 3 1/2 hours to run a half marathon. We can do this."

The next section was the downhill section on the gravel road. Long too: 6.4 miles to the final aid station, Skookum Flats. Essentially, this was a downhill road 10k. Had it not been after 37 miles and 9 1/2 hours of legtime, it might have been fun. But I gritted my teeth, and Leslie and I headed down. Lots of time to discuss the meaning of life in this part. Discussing the meaning of life helped distract me from the incredible eyewatering pain in my foot. We passed a couple folks in this section, including Maniac Don who I had met the day before. Down we went.

The Skookum Flats station was located back on trail, about 50 feet off the road. The volunteers were all eating birthday cake. I was offered a piece. It sounded terrible. In retrospect, I can see that my brain was really out of sorts. Cake should have sounded yummy. I was no longer sociable: I wanted to be done. Skookum Flats was at M43.4. The clock was at 10:44. 12 hour pace was 10:27. It had felt like Leslie and I sprinted down the hill, but it had taken 1:13. On the good side, I had shaved a full minute off my difference from the 12 hour pace.

We had 2+ hours to finish the race, 6.6 miles. Roly poly miles along the river. On fresh legs, this would have been a groovy trail run. At the end of this race? Old man shuffle. Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep.

Oh man. I could barely move through this section. I told Leslie that I was going to have to go easy and she went off ahead. I tried not to lose sight of her, and I noticed that anytime the course involved going up, I gained. Anytime it involved downhill, I lost ground. Yup.

I caught up to Leslie. She had a weird smile on her face. "Coyote!" And she pointed. I looked, but I didn't spot it. She now believes that perhaps she saw a wolf. Either way, that's pretty cool, but I missed it.

Every now and then, the course ran across the river's grey sand beaches. It was pretty, but, ugh. Leslie pulled away again. I kept looking at my watch. We must be getting close. But the trail continued with no sign of civilization. I heard a couple voices behind me. Maniac Don had caught up. So had... the chick with the strange accent, who I hadn't seen in 8 hours. She passed me. I passed Leslie. Don and Leslie ran together. I was just slightly in front of them, and Strange Accent Chick was about 100 yards in front of me. Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep.

I saw her rocket up a hill to what looked like a road.

I called back to Leslie and Don, "I think we're there." Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep.

I got up to the road. We were indeed on the little road headed into Buck Creek. I spied Strange Accent Chick up ahead making the final turn to the road where this had all started. Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep. If this was 24, it would be time for the final showdown and twist.

Ok. Just finish. Around the corner. People were sitting at a makeshift stage. Awards were being passed out. Some cheering went up for Strange Accent Chick.

I glanced at my watch. Yeah, I'd make the cut-off. Chirp...Cheep...Chirp...Cheep.

A few cheers for me, and I was done. I hadn't saved the world from some random nuclear threat. No bioweapons were confiscated. But I did finish a ridiculously hard race. At exactly 12:30. 30 minutes before the cut-off. It took me a full 1:46 to complete that last 6.6 mile section, and it didn't involve long climbs or steep descents. I had been +7 against the 12 hour pace, and I finished +30. WOW. I slowed 23 minutes over 6.6 miles. Just, wow.

I heard the timers mention that there were only 10 more people out on the course. Two were right behind me... here came Leslie and Don. Woohoo!

In the final results, I am slightly higher than "10 before the end" because several early starters actually took longer than me overall, even though they finished before I finished. But not that many. Red Shirt Guy was one of those last 10, though.

All the beer was gone. Most of the good drinks were gone. I got a cup of water, and then some excellent hot food.... of which there was PLENTY. I talked to my friends, including Maniac Annie, who had come in third female overall.

I thanked Strange Accent Chick for helping pull me to the finish. Turns out, she was (and is) from Venezuela.

I went to first aid to finally reveal the bloody sock. While I was in there, a guy was carried in. Minudo! He had fallen one more time and I think it really freaked him out. Plus it hurt. Plus... we had all gone 50 miles, some folks on their feet for 13-14 hours. We were all a little freaked out.

But guess what! I did not get taken by The Grim Sweeper! I made my goal.

Did I learn anything from my White River adventure? Many things. The most important thing I learned was the value of race-specific training. It's one thing to teach myself how to run 50 miles. But I did not spend nearly enough time learning how to climb. And my biggest weakness... by far... is how to descend. Aside from the last 6.6 miles, my slowest sections were the downhills. If I choose to come back, I have a lot of work to do. That said, I have no real desire to come back. Just, WOW. That was hard. And while it was fun and it feels nice to achieve a difficult goal, there comes a point where the cost/benefit doesn't really work out. Said differently: I can't think of anything in life that is fun for 13 hours.

I am glad I ran White River, though. And for those who want to run a 50, I would not hesitate to recommend it. The race org was outstanding and the course was really cool. But I think I'd be a bit more descriptive than Scott Jurek was with me :-).

Next up: The all-new Tacoma Narrows Half, which I lovingly call "The Taco Man half" because of their website's url: Considering that I was seven days removed from White River and missing all the skin from the heel of my right foot, I did pretty well. More on that Real Soon Now.

And if you read this whole report, you deserve a special prize. Thanks.

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