Holy shit, this is really happening.
It was 5:30 a.m. on July 30 and I was at start line of the White River 50, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most stunning and challenging ultras with 17,400 feet of elevation change. This moment was a year in the making, and I was quaking in my Cascadias.
Holyshitholyshitholyshit. What am I getting into?
I almost entered the 2010 race on a whim, but fortunately a disastrous training run on the course slapped me back to reality: I wasn’t ready… yet. While I could tear up the roads for miles, technical trails left me a quivering mess. So I started hitting the trails to boost my confidence, as well as entered several of the more challenging races. I built up slowly, starting with shorter races that would increase my trail-running skills without completely wiping me out, then moved on to the longer stuff: Chuckanut 50K, Capitol Peak 55K, 55 miles at the Watershed Preserve 12-hour, Beacon Rock 50K (a particularly grueling race put on by Rainshadow Running).
My training was going well, but I made a bonehead move at the end of June: I tried to BQ again at the Seattle Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. My darling and I had decided to skip Boston for 2012, but had a change of heart. Given how quickly it promised to sell out, we knew we’d have limited chances to get our times. We both had great races up until mile 17, but we weren’t able to hold the pace. While pushing my limits at RnR wasn’t necessarily detrimental to my White River goals, running the Ghost of Bellevue — another road marathon — the next day probably wasn’t the smartest move. The roads beat me up, forcing me to take four days off from running.
To my credit, I did get in three training runs on the White River course. However, due to snow we weren’t able to get as far as we hoped. More troubling: based on my paces in each of these runs I was concerned I wouldn’t make the cutoff, even with an hour early start. In mid July I headed down to Death Valley to pace a friend at Badwater; while I didn’t get in as much running as I would have liked, at least I got to spend time at higher elevations and in intense heat (the second half of White River can be brutal due to the sun). By the time I returned from Death Valley I was in taper mode — there was nothing I could do to improve my fitness, but lots I could do to f@#k it up.
Friday, White River Eve
My darling and I decided to camp overnight at the start at the Buck Creek airstrip; while staying in our bed at home was tempting, it would mean getting up at 2:30 a.m. to make it to the early start on time. Besides, several of our friends were also camping out, including Scott Krell and his VW party bus, and it was shaping up to be a grand ol’ time. Instead of choking down bland pasta at the pasta feed, we feasted on grilled chicken, orzo salad, bacon & cheese quesadillas and fresh greens. I also allowed myself one beer (had to calm the nerves somehow).
We retreated to our tents about 9 p.m., and thankfully I had a decent night’s sleep. But I still awoke before my 4:30 a.m. alarm. Since I had already set out everything I’d need for the run, all I had to worry about was getting in some more calories. Scott fired up the camp stoves and soon the coffee was brewing and the pancakes were griddling. Because there was such hubbub around our campsite many runners thought it was the race check-in. No, we just know how to do it up right!
As I wolfed down a pancake and bacon sandwich (hey — don’t knock it ’til you try it) I figured I should get in line for the port-o-potty. However, the line moved so quickly I decided to duck out, wanting to make sure I was TRULY ready for the task. But when I wandered back over to our campsite I heard someone say it was 5:20; D’OH! I figured it was no later than 5, tops. I ran back to the port-o-potty, and of course the line was much longer. Thankfully people were quick, but I still wasn’t able to fully get down to business, if ya know what I mean. Oh well, at least I had TP and Wet Wipes in my pack should nature called during the race.
Race director Scott McCoubrey called us to the start line for the pre-race briefing. In my haste I had neglected to slather on sunscreen, but I figured I could do so after finishing the first half, which is mostly in the shade. I opted to carry two handheld water bottles — one with Gatorade, one with water — rather than my heavier hydration pack, but I did wear my lightweight Nathan vest where I stored my gels, Powerbars and electrolyte pills. After bonking a few times on my training runs I knew fueling and hydration would be key, so even though gels turn me into Passy McGaster, I’d be taking one every 30-45 minutes.
Ommmm… Ommmm… Ommmm…
I took several deep breaths and lined up. There were about 50 of us who took the early start, including several of my friends. However, I’d be running my own race; there’d be little to no chatting (I get more fatigued when I talk during a run, plus I wanted my full attention on the technical trails). A few minutes past 5:30 we were off. Although I was still scared shitless, I was excited to get going.
The first five miles are relatively flat, heading along the Buck Creek airstrip and then turning on to the Skookum Flats trail. While the forest service and volunteer crews had cleared the blowdowns higher up on the course, this section still had a couple to navigate. After crossing Highway 410 we headed down the Dalles trail to Camp Shephard and the first aid station. This is one of my favorite sections — twisty/turny/rooty, but still very runnable. I was running with fellow Maniac Mike Mahaney and another White River first-timer, Craig Romano, who chose the race to celebrate his 50th birthday. We did chat a bit, but I warned them not to take it personally if I became taciturn.
About 5 miles in we turned up the Palisades Trail for the 6-mile climb to the second aid station at the Ranger Creek cabin. I’ve “run” this section several times, but it still knocks me out. While I was reduced to a power hike up most of the steep switchbacks, I forced myself to run even just a few steps on the flatter sections, a tip given to me by my friend Tracy Brown, who’s run several ultras (and kicks my ass doing so). While I was passed by a couple of runners, most of us settled into a steady slog. During a particularly steep section one runner stopped just ahead of me, his body language clearly yelling out, “WTF?” I then saw what he was looking at: the stairs. There’s only about 20 steps, but they appear to be completely vertical. I assured him the trail leveled off somewhat at the top and we’d have some more runnable sections (I think I was trying to convince myself as much as him).
My darling and I had a bet as to when I’d be passed by the front-runner, as well as by him. I had hoped to get to the Ranger Creek aid station at mile 11.7 before the leader got to me; I then predicted my darling wouldn’t pass until I hit that station again after the Corral Pass out & back (mile 22). But about a mile and a half before Ranger Creek I heard the patter of fleet feet and turned around just in time to see local runner extraordinaire Uli “Mountain Goat” Steidl fly by. (Uli held the course record — 6:32:43 — for 5 years until Anton Krupicka broke it in 2009 by just 26 seconds. Anton went on to break his own record in 2010 by almost 7 minutes).
It was now time to do the trail dance: hop to the side to let the speedsters pass while still attempting forward motion. Given the width of some sections of single track, this was tough to do. I’d glance behind occasionally to see if someone was coming up; once they neared I’d let them know my intentions: “I’ll stop just after that tree,” “You can sneak by on the left,” etc. While I didn’t want to impede their progress, I knew stopping several times would hamper my own race.
As I had promised, the trail became much more runnable and I settled into a steady pace, easily scampering over the roots, rocks and other trail debris. I was having a blast! But soon my cockiness caught up to me and I biffed — on one of the flattest, more well-groomed sections, no less. My water bottles took the brunt of the fall, but I still managed to scrape my right elbow (it was only a flesh wound). I vowed to pay more attention to my footing from there on out.
I refilled my bottles at Ranger Creek and continued up the trail to Corral Pass. About a mile and a half up we hit the snow, but fortunately the trail volunteers cut steps into it which made for slightly easier footing. The climb topped at about 5,700 feet and we continued on the ridgeline for a couple of miles before hitting Corral Pass. By then the women’s front-runner, Shawna Tompkins, had blown by me and several people were making their way back from Corral Pass. The trail dance became even more intricate as I had to jump out of the way for runners coming and going. It’s along this ridge where we got our first picture snapped by Glenn Tachiyama. As luck would have it another runner was heading back just as I passed Glenn, totally obliterating Mt. Rainier in the background. Fortunately my darling has mad Photoshop skillz, so the pic you see at the beginning of this report is the one he doctored.
My darling vowed he’d pass me somewhere along the ridgeline to Corral Pass, so I did my best to ensure his prediction was wrong. I stopped at the aid station just long enough to refill my bottles and grab some watermelon and pb&js. Lingering too long at the aid stations is often a runner’s downfall, so I continued walking at a fast pace while I polished off the food.
I refused to look at my Garmin, afraid of what I might see, but I also felt I was running strong. Nothing hurt, although I was feel slightly dizzy, perhaps from the elevation. I continued to take in a gel or some other form of food every 30 minutes, as well as a salt tab every 45 minutes (I sweat profusely). I saw my darling coming toward me a couple of miles from the aid station, but since I was in the zone I breezed by him, blowing an air kiss. I felt bad for doing so soon after; would it REALLY have thrown my race to stop and give him a real kiss? I hoped he would forgive me. (Truth be told: I also didn’t want to stop since I wanted MY prediction to come true as to when he’d overtake me). I got some karmic retribution as I slipped coming down the snowy section, once again scraping my right elbow (still only a flesh wound, thankfully).
Back at the Ranger Creek aid station I stopped again to fill my bottles and take in another gel. I was looking forward to the switchbacks down to Buck Creek as they were much flatter than the route we took up. Based upon my training runs there I knew I could make up a lot of time. Just as I was heading down I spied who I thought was my darling coming down the trail to the aid station. “You can’t catch me, Hagen!” I yelled, pleased I had beaten him to that point. However, when another runner sporting a white hat passed me, I realized I had been mistaken; it wasn’t my Pooky 🙁 I started to get a bit worried, but figured he’d be passing me any moment.
Soon after another friend shared the bad news: my darling had rolled his ankle and was gingerly making his way down. I was devastated. I could only imagine how disappointed he was, especially since it could mean having to drop out of the Cascade Crest 100. I tried not to dwell on it too much, but the worry definitely messed with my head. After a couple of near falls, including a pity roll of my own ankle, I stopped briefly to clear my head. I knew my darling would want me to continue the race no matter how he was faring.
About a quarter mile from the Buck Creek aid station there was a significant blowdown we had to duck under. I maneuvered underneath just fine heading out, but after running 26+ miles my ability to duck had diminished. I clonked my head good, laughing at my klutziness. But just in case I put my hand to my head; fortunately the moisture I felt was simply sweat, not blood.
I entered the Buck Creek aid station (which is also the start/finish) in just over 6 hours — well ahead of the cutoff. My friend Jess Mullen, who my darling had just paced at Badwater, was there to take care of me, filling my water bottles once more. She also followed me to our tent to help me put on some sunscreen. The bottle was upside down in my darling’s pack, and since it had been sitting in the hot tent for hours it started splooging all over once she opened it. (You can only imagine what it looked like on the sleeping bag). We both doubled over with laughter as her palm became filled with a goopy mound of sunscreen. But she managed to get some on me, then helped me fill my pack with some more gels, pork jerky and a couple of mini Snickers bars (I figured the latter would be a nice treat and much more palatable in the later hours of the race than a Powerbar). She bid me adieu, saying she hoped not to see me again until the finish (she was the sweeper for the second half; if I saw her before the finish it meant I wasn’t going to make the cutoff). Just as I was heading out my darling was coming in. Although he was able to run 18 miles on the bum ankle, he and Jess were going to assess his condition and make the determination of whether he should continue on.
While the climb for the second half isn’t as steep, I knew it would be tougher due to fatigue and the fact it’s mostly exposed. It was definitely a slow slog, and I found it harder to run the flatter sections, even for a few steps. I started leap-frogging with several runners, including two brothers who were not only running their first 50-miler, but their first ultra! The older brother, Bryce, was struggling with cramps, so I offered him some of my salt tabs. I also told both of them how important it was to eat and drink, and they assured me they had that covered. I little later I heard the younger brother saying something about oatmeal and figured he was talking about his breakfast. But after eavesdropping some more I realized he was THE Oatmeal: Matthew Inman. How exciting to have a celebrity in my midst! I told him how much I enjoyed his site and we continued to leap-frog our way up to the Fawn Ridge aid station.
My friends Laura Houston and Christine Ballard were a welcome sight at the aid station, bedecked in their Hawaiian garb (Laura serenaded us with her ukelele). Christine swiftly filled my bottles as I gobbled down some more watermelon, potatoes and pb&js. I resisted the urge to join a few other runners who were sitting in the camp chairs, fearful I’d never get up. Turns out they had decided to DNF and were waiting for a ride back to the finish.
The section from Fawn Ridge to Sun Top would be uncharted territory for me as we had to turn around due to snow during the training run. I somewhat knew what to expect: climb another 1,000 or so feet over three miles, get to the false summit, head downhill for a spell, cross the Sun Top Road (where you’ll most likely see runners heading down), then push the final mile to the true Sun Top summit. While my body was still holding up, my mind was starting to falter. I glanced at my Garmin to see the “low battery” warning, which obscured the time elapsed. I had a vague recollection of the cutoffs for each of the aid stations, and at first I thought I was at risk for missing them. Turns out my ultra math was way off and I actually was well ahead of Jess, the Grim Sweeper.
I saw The Oatmeal coming out of the woods after making a pit stop and asked him how Bryce was doing. Apparently he planned on bailing, either at Sun Top (mile 37) or at Skookum Flats (mile 43). I told him there was no way I was going to let Bryce do that, especially since we were no where near at risk for getting swept (I had to explain what that meant).
The final push up to Sun Top came as advertised: steep, hot, but well worth the effort. Seeing Glenn again was a welcome sight, as I knew I was almost to the summit. I saw Bryce at the aid station and gave him a pep talk, encouraging him to finish (he did, although he had to spend time in medical tent since his legs had locked up). I grabbed more food, filled my bottles and wrapped some ice in my bandana to tie around my neck. I was thankful the climb was over.
I’d soon realize I should be careful of what I wished for.
I had only experienced the Sun Top road via car and despite hearing several horror stories, one can’t truly appreciate how grueling it is to run it until you’re actually doing so. It’s steep, hard-packed and relentless — all 6 miles of it. While I was able to pick up my pace, after 2+ miles I was forced to take a walk break to ease up on the constant pounding. Several runners passed me, including my friend Karen Wiggins who had DNF’d the previous year. (I was thrilled to see she was having a great race). I also took my first bio-break of the race; while I was grateful I hadn’t needed to stop, it concerned me a bit. Was I not drinking enough? As I squatted I observed the color of my pee: dark, but no cause for concern. (What — TMI?) I vowed to drink even more as I gingerly made my way down.
After running for what seemed FOREVER I spied someone coming up the road. “Only (mumble mumble) mile till the next aid station!” I had hoped he said “only 1 mile,” but when I asked him to repeat it he said, “3 miles.” RASSENFRASSEN! Will this infernal road ever end? After what seemed like an eternity the road leveled off and I made the turn onto the Skookum Flats trail — only 6 miles to go. Kevin Douglas, who also crewed at Badwater, helped me fill my bottles but gave me a hard time when I asked for more ice for my bandana. “What do you think this is, Badwater?” I shot back with a steely glare.
Although the first couple of miles on Skookum were an unknown, I had run the final four. It’s a very fun, runnable trail, but has a tendency to trip up those logy from running 45+ miles. However, this is where I found my second wind. I started passing several of the folks who bombed by me on the Sun Top Road, including Craig (we saw each other several times during the race; just when I thought I’d get ahead of him he’d power on by me). He was clearly spent though, so I wouldn’t see him again until the finish line (he would come in in just under 13 hours). My Garmin had died by then, so I have no idea how fast I was running. I still took a few walk breaks, but continued to shuffle along. I kept hearing what I thought was another runner overtaking me, only to find I was running alone (must have been the rush of the White River).
During our training runs Tracy had recommended identifying certain landmarks at various spots along the trail so that during the race I’d know how much farther I’d have to go. Great in theory, but once I got to them I couldn’t remember if it was the .25 mile-to-go bridge or the mile-to-go bridge. And did I have to add the .25 miles to the aid station? Nothing I could do but soldier on.
Just before the turn onto the Buck Creek campground road I passed two more runners; the horse clearly could smell the barn. The road had a slight ascent, but I forced myself to run all of it. Soon I was turning into the campground and saw the finish line. HALLELUJAH! I pumped my arms in the air as I heard several people calling my name. My darling was at the finish to hand me my water and give me a great big hug and a kiss (he had made the wise decision to drop at the halfway mark). My time: 12:53:43!!!
The finish line video my darling captured says it all:
While this was indeed the toughest race I’ve run to date, I had an absolute blast. I’m sure I’ll toe the line again next year!