A month and a half ago I ran my first double
(two marathons in two days). Afterwards, a number of people told me that meant I was ready to run a 50 miler, and in particular the White River 50
was a local favorite (near Mt. Rainier) coming up soon.
OK, I thought, I'll consider it... then I looked at the elevation profile:
!!!! Um. And by the way, that's mostly on technical trails. 17,400 total feet of elevation change. Yeah, nice joke. But then I asked around some more... folks in Extreme Running here seemed to think it was doable and offered training tips, and many had run White River for their first 50. Huh. I thought about it some more, and with some trepidation I registered. I checked out the previous years' results for people I knew, and decided that a 10-hour target seemed in the right ballpark. And the race website conveniently lists target splits for 10- and 12-hour pace at each aid station. Nice. Cutoff is 13 hours, BTW. Remember that. 10 hours would put me smack in the middle of the pack, a place I'm not used to; I usually finish in the top 5-10% in marathons. But this would be my first ultra; also, WR50 is the USATF National 50-mile Trail Championship race, so it's a very competitive field. OK, fine.Training
In the time I had left to train, I focused on increasing my long run distance, running slower, walking hills, and eating on the run. I had never run longer than a marathon before, and never longer than 3:43 (though that included 10 minutes in a med tent, so not time on my feet!). This would be a whole new regime. Unfortunately I would be traveling most of that month and a half, so training was not ideal; I didn't get in as many miles or as many long runs as I'd have liked, and spending several hours per day driving was not so great for my legs either, no doubt. The best run was a slow 28-mile run with moderate hills (which I walked) in 4:40. Well, it was something. I'd been running a lot on hills in New Hampshire, and the double itself I figured was excellent training, so I thought at least I probably wouldn't crash and burn. It would also be my first trail race, but at least I usually train on trails.The race: Buck Creek Campground to Ranger Creek
Saturday the 26th finally arrived. I was up at 4 for a 6:30 start, and at the start, Buck Creek Campground, by 5:45. I'd written the aid station distances, 10-hour target times, and corresponding paces on my right hand and arm. I felt pretty good, I guess, a bit undertrained, but I wasn't really going to sweat that 10-hour target if it looked like it wouldn't work out. sub-11 would be great, and all that ultimately mattered was beating the 13-hour cutoff. I had no previous time to try to beat. The weather was beautiful, clear, mid 50s, with a projected high of 70ish.
Oh, the start is where I made my first mistake. (Actually first two, but we'll get to that later.) I wore sunglasses. I didn't even think about it: it was clear out. Problem: they're prescription. I couldn't take them off during the race. The race is mostly on steep technical trails. And they're mostly in the shade. Doh!
The first 4 miles were fairly flat. Everyone was passing me... why? I was in no hurry. I'd written 11:32 on my wrist, and I was running 9:30ish per Garmin. (Yeah, the Garmin might die; supposedly good for 10 hours...) At the first aid station, 3.9, I checked my time: 37:34. I'd written 28:05 on my hand. Why did I think 28:05 / 3.9 = 11:32? Great, already 10 minutes behind. But who starts a 50-mile hilly trail race at 7 min. pace, anyway? I just now realized: 28:05 was the 3.9 time for the winner in 2004. That's who. 45:00 was the 10-hour time. I wrote down the wrong time, not the wrong pace. So actually I was ahead of pace, but I didn't realize it.
At this aid station there was only water. I had three 10-oz bottles of Gatorade in my Nathan belt, which I figured would get me at least to the next aid station, at 11.7, so I didn't stop.
Now the hills started in earnest, very steep. Even some stairs at one point. This was single-track trail, so not much passing going on. Basically it was walk until the guy in front of you gets to some flat and opens some space, jog to catch up, walk. It stayed bumper-to-bumper through mile 6 or 7, which surprised me. With only 238 starters, I guess I expected it to spread out more quickly. I thought maybe I'd made a mistake by letting so many people pass me: the segment from 3.9 to the first peak at 16.9 was supposed to be at 12ish pace, but I was averaging 14 or 15. OTOH, I wasn't itching to pass anyone either, so I didn't sweat it. I did start catching many rocks and tree roots, thanks to my trail racing inexperience, and especially thanks to the shade and my sunglasses. But I avoided taking any tumbles. Finally the race opened up. Pretty quickly, I was running with only a few people around me.
At 11.7 we hit the second aid station, Ranger Creek, again only water available. I filled my bottles and got going pretty quickly.Ranger Creek to Corral Pass
Now, the second mistake I mentioned. Most people run ultras with handheld bottles. I had a waist belt. The pressure of it around my waist may or may not have contributed, but I started having GI issues that basically didn't let up the whole day. No portapotty at 11.7. Eventually, mile 14 or so, when we came to a patch of snow, I detoured off the trail behind some trees and took care of business.
The last few miles of this segment included some pretty tough stretches, very steep hills, up and down, with the down so steep it was hard to walk down, and now we were often in the sun as well. The leaders were coming back down the trail; over this one stretch the course doubled back. Annie, a fast marathon maniac who'd been one of the people to suggest WR50 to me, passed me on the return trip maybe a mile and a half before the top, way ahead of me. "What are you doing way back here?" she said. Heh. Well, a good-natured dig. (Somehow, I'd managed to barely beat her for 1st OA in a tiny marathon last year. Never again.)
Most of this stretch I was thinking I was already well off 10-hour pace. I wasn't really sure; the Garmin had been losing signal in places, so the pace and distance were off. But once someone mentioned we were about a mile from Corral Pass, mile 16.9, I realized I was actually right on pace. Here's a pic, taken by Glenn Tachiyama, with Mt. Rainier in the background:
Yes, it was that beautiful. The whole course was beautiful. I can see why it is a favorite of many people. (But most of the trail is a lot messier than that.)
I rolled into Corral Pass, the first major aid station, at about 3:26 elapsed; the 10-hour target time here was 3:25. Great! Next rookie mistake: spending way too long in aid stations. Here there was some excuse; still no portapotty, and I still had issues, so more trees. Still, I stood around sampling various food items for quite a while, and spent nearly 10 minutes in (or near) the aid station overall. Volunteers filled my bottle with Gu2O, I took a salt pill and stuffed some banana pieces in a pouch, and I finally hit the trail again.Corral Pass to Ranger Creek
This next stretch is where I really began to slow down, I think, relative to the field. Generally I found I'd pass most people, especially the women, in the running stretches, and be passed by most people, especially the women, in the walking stretches. This was in theory a nice downhill stretch, but there were several miles near the top that were up and down before we got back to downhill in earnest. It may look smooth on the profile, but it's anything but. Gradually I realized I was already getting tired, and falling off pace. It took me almost as long to get back to Ranger Creek as it had to get to Corral Pass from there, not even counting the aid-station time, if my Garmin data is to be believed. Wow.
At Ranger Creek, mile 22.1, again I refilled my bottles with water and headed out quickly. This time we took a different trail down than we had up.Ranger Creek to Buck Creek
Most of this stretch was fairly nice downhill, technical but runnable, with lots of switchbacks. Here I was very isolated; I went a few miles without seeing anyone at all. I kept tripping and avoiding tumbling, but I thought it was probably only a matter of time until I took a nasty fall. Again I cursed my decision to wear sunglasses.
At one point the trail was blocked by a recent landslide. In most places, the course was very well marked with red tape in the trees and white markings on the ground. But here it wasn't clear how to detour, and I think the markings there were sent me out of the way. I lost several minutes here; my right quad was already starting to be a problem, and it did NOT want to move the way it had to while scrambling over fallen trees and underbrush. Lots of people passed me here. After I was back on the trail I yelled back to a woman just arriving at the detour to go high rather than low. She thanked me -- and caught up and passed me soon thereafter.
The numbers on my hand and wrist were getting illegible because of sweating, but I remembered that I should hit the next aid station at 5:09 elapsed for 10-hour pace, and I could tell I was way behind. Well, OK. I would do what I could do.
Finally I came into the next aid station, mile 27.2, at 5:43: farther behind than I'd thought. At least I'd managed to run almost all of this last segment. Here again I took my time standing around and munching; I decided bananas were working best for me. Volunteers refilled my bottles. I spent about 5 minutes here, though it seemed longer.Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge
Now, time to start in on the second major peak. The first one was higher, but it was done on fresh legs.
For the first mile and a half this next stretch was mostly flat. I was running, and passed several people. I still felt pretty good when the hills started. And boy did they start suddenly. It was pretty much a constant, steep grade. And here it was exposed, so heat was getting to be an issue. There was really no way to run here, except maybe for the winners. The whole stretch to the next aid station was walking terrain. My right quad was getting worse; it reached the point where every once in a while I would have to sit down to give it a rest to keep it from cramping. Also it was aerobically tiring; I couldn't have gone a whole lot faster even with the quad working. Lots of people passed me. By about this point I'd run farther than I'd ever run before, let alone the elevation.
I was doing math in my head, and getting pretty depressed. The next station was at 31.7, about three miles of this hill. But it seemed to keep going on and on, with more frequent rest breaks for my quad. The peak was at what, 38? I didn't remember, and the numbers had completely worn off my arm. I didn't think I could manage this kind of hill for that long, even walking.
Then all of a sudden I was at Fawn Ridge. I was very surprised, and encouraged: my Garmin said 30.88, and it had somehow gotten to right on when I left Buck Creek at 27.2. So I thought I still had another mile to go.
Here, I actually sat in a chair, for quite a while, to rest my quad. I drank a whole Coke, ate more bananas, and did a lot of chatting. A guy covered with tattoos sat next to me. I'd also seen him in Corral Pass, then passed him coming out of Buck Creek. So he had also started on 10-hour pace and slowed down. We'd windup playing leapfrog the rest of the way.
I spent way too long here, 13 minutes. The volunteers gave me some conflicting intel for the next stretch. Sun Top was at mile 37, so 5.3 to go. But one volunteer said there was a false summit in a couple of miles, then some downhill; another said no, it was more of the same as the last stretch all the way. I was confused; I was pretty sure I remembered the actual peak coming before Sun Top; everyone said no, Sun Top is the peak. Well, whatever, I would find out.
Fawn Ridge is where a lot of people tend to drop out, convinced they can't reach the summit. I think they need to give better information here. (OTOH, others have told me how the volunteers here pulled them through, and convinced them to keep going.)Fawn Ridge to Sun Top
Well rested, I thought, I finally got back on the trail, same grade up the hill as coming in. But my right quad immediately started yelling again, with a vengeance. ****, this was not going to be fun. However, it began to settle down, and the grade moderated a bit. After a mile or so it became more rolling, and I ran a fair amount of the flat to downhill. This seemed to go on for quite a while. Finally, though it wasn't that distinct, I guess we must have reached the actual high point, because there was a loooooong stretch of downhill. I ran it, and passed several people back. By this point my downhill running involved shortening my stride and increasing my turnover, to minimize the eccentric contractions my quads were having to perform. I think a lot of people don't know to do this, even here.
I was watching my Garmin, getting jazzed, and more convinced I'd been right about the terrain. Still going downhill, and only a mile to Sun Top? Then the uphill into Sun Top can't be that bad. Finally we crossed a road and the hill started up again, with 0.75 mile to go per Garmin. Here, again, my quad was a problem and I had to take a few short breaks from walking to rest it.
Finally, near the top, Glenn was set up again with his camera. I waited for the woman in front of me to walk up the hill, gathered my strength, and trotted a bit for the photo:
Great pic, but it had gotten overcast by this point, so Rainier is not visible here, as it usually is. Well, overcast was fine with me.
Now, at Sun Top, mile 37, we're at the top, and there's "only" a downhill half marathon to go. I must not have hit my lap button on the way in or out, so I don't know how long I spent here, but again, I sat in a chair to rest my quad for quite a while, and also took another potty break (in an actual outhouse, for once). So it must have been at least 10 minutes. I ate a fair amount here, maybe a mistake. Tattoo Guy came in behind me, left ahead of me. As at Fawn Ridge, saying his body was basically done.
Next bit of good news: the next stretch, 6.4 miles, is not only downhill; it's all down a fire road, at a constant grade. I had been dreading trying to make my quads handle more steep, technical downhill.Sun Top to Skookum Flats
Out of Sun Top, at about 9 hours on the clock, I immediately hit a major roadblock. I started trotting down the road, but now both quads started seizing up. OK, walk -- nope, quads still seizing up. Stop and wait. Try again. Still seizing up. Hmm, not good. Again, I started doing math, figured that even walking the rest of the way at 15:00 pace would put me over the cutoff (bad math; I had 4 hours left). And I couldn't walk at all at the moment. It was weird; yeah, all that downhill *should* have trashed my quads, but usually my calves go first. And there was nary a twinge from the calves.
As I was standing there trying to come up with a plan, a woman ran by and asked if I was OK. I said, well, my quads are done, constantly cramping. She had an extra salt tablet, which she gave me. Everything I've read says that, contrary to common belief, there's actually no evidence implicating electrolyte balance in causing cramps, but it certainly didn't hurt to try. After another 30 sec. or so I cautiously tried again, and what do you know -- I could run! So -- I ran. I didn't dare stop and take a walk break, because the motion I was doing was working; I was afraid a different motion might upset my quads again.
I don't know whether it was the salt tablet, or just needing a few minutes to get my muscles going again after the break at the aid station, but I was "flying" down the hill now, at a sub-10 pace. Woohoo! I tried to keep it under control, still with a shortened stride. I didn't like to think about what would happen when the hill ended and my quads had to work on the flat after 6.4 miles of running downhill on the verge of cramping. I won't say it was comfortable; it hurt. But it was sustainable. Also on this stretch my stomach was pretty upset, maybe from eating too much at Sun Top. I hardly touched my bottles.
I passed lots of people on the downhill, including the woman who'd given me the salt tablet; naturally I thanked her. I also passed Tattoo Guy, who was walking. He warned me to save some for the last 6.5, which "totally sucked". (He had done the 2nd-half group training run on the course.) Uh oh. They looked flat on the course profile. What am I in for?
I did slow down a bit, but I didn't dare stop and walk. Maybe I would be toast at Skookum Flats, but I would go with what was working for now. As the miles wore on I began to feel little twinges in my hamstrings and calves as well. My legs didn't have a whole lot left in them; would it be enough?
Finally the road turned a corner, and I was directed off the road and back onto a trail, where the Skookum Flats aid station was, mile 43.4. Here I again sat in a chair, this time for 8 minutes, while getting the lowdown on the final stretch (and two salt tablets). Yes, it was messy. No big climbs or descents, but pretty technical, more so than the rest of the course. I didn't know whether my quads would be up for that. Tattoo Guy came in not long after me; he'd started running again. Again he said he was basically done. This time I left the aid station before him. I wasn't doing math too clearly, but I was thinking 11:30ish for a finish time. Or a DNF, if the cramps came back as before.Skookum Flats to Finish Line
Back on the trail, I felt pretty good. Yes, there were rocks and roots and stuff, but it wasn't too bad, and my legs seemed to be handling it. I settled in at a decent running pace. But gradually, I got more and more tired, aerobically and in my legs. Also gradually the trail got more technical. There were stretches of sand. Uneven stairs, tediously navigated, sometimes backwards, to keep my legs from cramping. A stretch on cobbles right alongside the roaring White River. At mile 45 I started counting off miles to the finish, excited, but still daunted by the remaining distance. Then half miles. I kept wanting to walk, then telling myself aloud, "if you walk, you won't beat 12 hours". Not that that really mattered, but I had that time in my head as the last shred of dignity I could maybe pull out. As long as I mostly ran I'd beat 12. By about 3 miles to go, I was definitely winding down. I was going through the Gu2O in my bottles very quickly, too. Was I bonking? I'm not really sure what that feels like. But I was definitely ready to be done, more than I've ever been before. This was my limit. If the course had been any harder I could not have gotten this far.
Tattoo guy came flying by me. He'd gotten reenergized at the aid station, and was cranking to the finish. We chatted briefly; I was going to tell him how far we had left -- and then I noticed my Gamin had finally died, at something over 11 hours. But I was pretty sure it was right about 3 miles. Salt Tablet Woman passed me next. From here on there was a lot of walking, and my bottles were nearly empty. Now it was harder, having to guess distance, not getting my half-mile rewards. I did a fair job guessing, though. When I passed someone and told him I thought we had about a mile left (which didn't seem to cheer him up) I think I was right. Thinking I was right, I somehow managed a bit more running. But I figured I was now almost surely going to be over 12 hours.
Finally there was an opening, road ahead! The final stretch! There was maybe a third of a mile to go, now on mostly flat gravel road. I tried to run the whole way, but walked a bit of the (very slight!) uphill. After the final turn I managed to get a pretty good pace going, and ran across the finish in reasonably good form (for someone who's just run 50 miles). Lots of applause; most people had already finished, and we were coming in a few minutes apart.
Finish time: 11:47:32. Huh! I did beat 12 hours. I placed 168th of 202 finishers; 36 dropped out. Other stats:
Time in aid stations: 45-50 minutes (missed timing one)
Number of falls: 0 (not sure how I pulled that off)Denouement
I hung around the finish area for a bit, chatting with friends, watching others finish. I couldn't stop shivering, though it wasn't all that cold. Walking was painful; my quads hurt quite a bit, and I was badly chafed, though I'd used lots of Bodyglide. There was lots of food, but I couldn't stomach anything solid. Finally I made my way back to my Jeep, veeerrry slowly, put on a jacket, grabbed my recovery fluids (Boost and Ultragen), and called my wife on my cell phone to let her know I'd finished.
Eventually I made my way back to the finish line to watch the rest of the people come in. Another Maniac friend, Robert, came in at 12:30. He'd been very concerned about the course; we were all hoping he'd make the cutoff. Two people beat the cutoff with less than two minutes to spare.
And still I couldn't stop shivering. Eventually I made it back to the Jeep, got my legs to work the pedals, drove the 6 miles back to the ski lodge, and hopped -- um, crawled -- into a hot bath.
Now, 4 days later, I think I may go out for a short run. Stairs no longer hurt much, anyway!
Will I keep up ultra running? I don't know. Part of me wants revenge on this course. But it's a whole 'nother world from marathoning, not just beyond, but different. I'm not sure what I think of it yet. Also not sure I'm up for the training required, even for a flat road ultra. We'll see.
But I am glad I did this one, and thrilled I was able to complete it. Looking back, it's almost incomprehensible.