White River start
Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
I’ve been thinking of this for two years.
When my friend Jim Sloan turned 50 I teasingly suggested that he do a fifty mile race to celebrate. Then I realized that my own fiftieth was soon, and I should start thinking of what I wanted to do. And it seemed an intriguing idea.
Why put so much effort into a piece of ephemora? No one else will care. It won’t last.
My life is equally ephemeral.
Just to see if I can run 50 miles. No one cares, but me. And what else matters?
It’s like cooking a good meal. The pleasure of the meal won’t last, but isn’t it still worth preparing something tasty?
I got recommendations from two other friends on what run I should do; they both suggested the same race — The White River 50 Mile Endurance Run. It wasn’t on my birthday (which would have been best), but it was close enough. Both said it was a really beautiful run.
A year later (on my birthday, of course), I started sending out invitations to my friends (especially those also turning 50) to get them to join me.
I waited impatiently for registration to open for the 2009 race.
When January rolled around I also registered with the USATF for the year. The race was the USATF National Championship for 50 mile trail runs, and they offered prize money to USATF members. Of course I was too old for there to be much chance of my placing even in the top 5 masters, but I might as well allow for the possibility.
Finally race registration opened. But now I had shin splints. I wasn’t running. Could I actually run for 50 miles? I signed up anyway.
I started training in April, still with shin splits, and found the splints weren’t an issue on the trails. Whew.
In May we had a big wildfire and they closed all the trails. Half of them burned up. How was I going to train. (People lost houses, and I was concerned about where I could run. My priorities are all wrong).
After what seemed like forever they reopened the undamaged trails — the ones furthest from my house. This doubled my bike commute.
My coach told me I should do a 50K as a training run. So I did the Blue Canyon 50K, a new race, just over the mountains from me. I loved it. And I felt great afterward, far less stress on the body than racing a marathon. Oh — and I came in second too, that probably helped (it was also a great surprise).
None of my running friends wanted to join me at the white river. Unfortunate. My parents, however, did agree to fly out and watch. (I wouldn’t want to watch an ultra☺— nothing interesting happens for hours). I got them to watch the start, and then drive around Mt Rainier national park.
The White River is an extraordinary color, not precisely white, but a kind of milky grey. It originates in one of the glaciers on Mt Rainier; the glacier grinds up the rock over which it moves into a very fine sand, and this sand becomes embedded in the ice. So when the ice melts the sand remains suspended in the water.
The race makes a figure 8 course. It starts down in the valley of the White River (right beside the river) at about 2000ft, climbs to the top of one local mountain (not Mt Rainier, something only about 6000ft) then drops back down to the start, heads out in the opposite direction to the top of another mountain (this one 5000ft), and back down to the start which is now the finish.
The route skirts the edge of Mt Rainier National Park and is in national forest. Strangely we did not see Mt Rainier when we drove to the area (perhaps lesser peaks blocked it, perhaps we weren’t looking), so it came as rather a shock when it appeared during the race.
When I checked the weather online the prediction for the area was for 81° F. That did not sound good. At the race talk the night before the organizers said that the prediction for the mountains was closer to 70° F — better, though I’d still have preferred something cooler.
I assumed this race would be like the Blue Canyon run — almost everyone would set out at a leisurely pace and I could keep up with most people. Er, no. People treated this as a real race. First four miles were beside the river and fairly level and we just zipped along.
The first aid station was in dense forest about 4 miles from the start. I’ve got a full camelback, about 20 GU gels, and some electrolyte tables. No need to stop.
As at Blue Canyon I’m eating one GU gel every half hour. I vary this slightly in that I got hungry early once and had 3 GU in that hour. I’m also swallowing electrolyte tablets, one every hour and a half (for the first three hours, when it’s cool and shady) and one every hour after that.
I had intended to set my watch so it would beep at me if my heart rate got above 80%. Stupid me and set it to beep if the HR was above 90%. Oops. I’d have to look at the watch currently I was running too fast. I slowed a bit. Then we came to the start of a climb. I slowed to a walk to keep my HR down — and 30 people passed me.
At the Blue Canyon run, the first place finisher was happy to take my pace for most of the race. Here everyone seems to be going faster. I told myself that I was doing the right thing. I tried to convince myself that everyone else was going out too fast and would fade. It’s really hard though when everyone else is passing you…
The forest is lovely though. Immense cedars, not much underbrush. Hmm. No wildflowers. That surprises me, I thought this was peak wildflower season… The trail switch backs up the mountain side, beside a stream. The hillside is steep and the stream is mostly waterfalls (well, we are in the Cascades). Sadly there’s too little light and none of my photos turned out.
People keep passing me.
For a while I was running behind a guy with a blue shirt. All USATF masters runners had pink ribbons with our age and sex on them. He was 60. He pulled away from me.
Some of the people passing me had stentorian breath. I kept thinking — you’ll never be able to keep that pace up for 50 miles, slow down now. But they didn’t. What did they know that I didn’t? Could I start out with a higher heart rate? I didn’t try but it was so tempting.
The guy behind me watches as I take a photo on the run, and says “That’s impressive, that you can do that on the fly.” Then he passes me.
A woman who has been behind me for about an hour passes me, and says “But, you’ll probably catch up with me again.” Politeness.
Her breath is labored — I consider suggesting that she should slow, as (I think) she is pushing herself too hard for an ultra — but that might be viewed as self-serving (telling the person who is passing you they should slow down for their sake isn’t likely to be believed), and she might, just possibly know more about what she’s doing than I — this is my first 50 mile race…
I don’t say anything.
Finally I start to pass people. I come upon a couple who are running (or, at the moment, walking) together and zip by them. Then I pass the woman who has just overtaken me, telling her that I’ll see her again as she told me (in fact I don’t). I’m counting the number of people I’m passing. Four so far.
I come to the second aid station. Earlier I was a little worried about checking in at the stations (each station is supposed to get a list of all runners to make sure everyone gets to every station and a) doesn’t get lost, b) doesn’t cheat). I wasn’t sure how this would work, afraid I would have to wait in line to be noticed, but it is all very efficient. Here there is someone sitting on a rock about 200m outside the station looking for bib numbers and writing them down. We call out our numbers as we approach to make life easier for him.
I don’t want anything yet, but I do want to get rid of my empty GU wrappers; I ask for the trash and someone points it out to me, and then I’m gone. I assumed the guy who showed me the trash was a volunteer but shortly afterward I see he’s running behind me and I realize I’m not going to be able to make an accurate count of people I’ve passed since when I go through an aid station I won’t know who is a runner and who is a volunteer. But we’re definitely up to five now.
I’ve got a lot of people to catch up with.
We’re coming into a more open area (hotter) but with wildflowers. I guess the flowers are altitude dependent. There are lots of lupin, and something that looks like the New England bunchberry (the tiny dogwood). There is a rather impressive flower which I have never seen before, bear grass
I’ve also managed to (almost) catch up with the guy in the blue shirt. There is one guy between us, all covered with tattoos. I start chatting with him and learn that he is Owen from Seattle. I explain that I am running this to celebrate my fiftieth year.
The trail becomes very steep and technical here. We are walking up it, of course, and we complain to each other how much more unpleasant it will be when we try to go down it.
We three pass several more people, and it suddenly dawns on me: There was an early start for slower people — I bet that most of the people I’ve passed are from that slower group. I’m probably not passing many of the people who have passed me.
This section of the trail is an out and back, and we start to see runners returning. The lead guys are really flying down this trail.
Lew, me and Owen at Corral Pass.
Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
And now we come to the third aid station, again we call out our numbers as we run in. We’re almost exactly 3 hours into the race and the station is at 16.9 miles, or almost exactly 1/3 of 50 miles. I’m on track for 9 hours. And we’ve been climbing all morning, maybe I’ll break 9? — but then I’ll be more tired later, maybe it will even out. It took us 25 minutes to get here from where the first runner passed us so we’re about an hour behind the leaders, or a little less.
Here I want to fill my camelback with water, but they don’t seem well equipped for that. It seems to take for ever, and I don’t fill it full. I’m impatient. Then I’m off. After a bit blue shirt catches up with me (I guess he took longer in the aid station), passes, and I then follow him. The guy behind me chats a bit, and then passes both me and blue shirt. Then I chat with blue shirt. His real name is Lew, and he is 60. (And he’s been ahead of me for most of the race). This race is a good cure for hubris.
Lew has run this before. He explains how he has given up on short distances (like 10K) because he can’t go fast enough any more — a feeling I can sympathize with, and points out that at our age we have the patience not to go out too fast. Hope he’s right. Hope I will catch some of those people ahead.
But then Lew gets a stomach cramp and must slow until it goes away. I pass him, and now I’m by myself.
Running back to aid station 2 (which is also station 4) over the same trail. Now I get to see who is behind me.
There don’t seem to be many people.
Let see, there were 202 preregistered, and another 10 or 20 registered at the start. Maybe 50 people are ahead of me (I should have counted, let’s say 60)… I’ve passed 20? certainly less than 30. Where is everyone? There should be another 100 runners behind me. Have I totally miscounted? am I at the tail end of the race? How humiliating. Or are they so extremely slow that I shan’t see them at all?
Oh well, the scenery is nice. I see more patches of snow, which I missed on the way out.
I’m pretty much by myself now. Occasionally I pass people, but not often.
It starts to cloud over. Which is something of a relief, it will mean it is less hot when we tackle the second (and more exposed) portion of the course.
I get to the next aid station (#4) and do a proper job of filling my camelback. Then I’m off. As I head out I see a woman is just behind me and she doesn’t stop at the station. We’re on a downhill section, switchbacking among huge trees. The trail is good, and it would be easy to try and go fast here. But a fast downhill will make my quads hurt later, and we were warned not to go too fast. So I’m holding back, but the woman behind me isn’t, and she passes me. Again, I wonder if caution is the best choice…
Oh, I’m not going slowly, but I know I could go faster.
I pass a few people myself. As I get further down I begin to hear waterfalls, but there are no good views of them. Even further down and I start hearing road noises. There are two road crossings in this race, the first happened right at the start — at 6:30 in the morning there was no traffic, but we’ve been warned that there will be traffic for this second crossing, and we won’t have the right of way. We may have to wait for the cars.
But when I reach the crossing the only car is far in the distance and I can zip across.
Now I’m running beside the river again reversing the route I did early in the morning.
Into the fifth aid station. This is a bit over halfway, and I’ve taken a bit over four and a half hours. I seem roughly on track. One of the volunteers fills my camelback for me, but as I head out it comes undone and a great gush of water goes down my back. I stop and fix it. But not well, I get another drenching. This time I get it right.
A few minutes later I reach the start again (remember it’s a figure 8 course), and I am just congratulating myself on how cool and overcast it is, when the clouds break and the sun comes out. I’m heading to a peak called Suntop, and I wonder if the appellation is ominous.
But for now I’m still running in shade. Some nice wildflowers here, I resolve that after the race I’ll come back and take pictures (I don’t).
We’re climbing again, and I’m mostly walking. I’m playing tag with a guy in a light green shirt. Every now and then he’ll slow and walk and I’ll catch up and pass him, and then he’ll recover and run (ok, trot) ahead of me. This will go on for quite a while.
We’re in an area which was clear cut maybe ten years ago. The sun shines down on us and there is little shade. Still it could be worse; it isn’t as hot as I was afraid it would be. And there are some rather interesting cliffs on the other side of the valley.
As I was climbing I started hearing a distinctive cough behind me, after a bit the cough is close enough to talk to. It turns out to be Owen again, whom I haven’t seen since before aid station 3. We chat a bit, and then he passes me (telling me he’ll see me again — I run behind him for quite a way, but I never pass him again).
Aid station 6 is at 31.2 miles. Almost exactly a 50K, and it has taken me just under 6 hours to get here. Sounds about right for a 50K. It’s not quite 2/3 of the course, so I’m still roughly on track for a nine hour finish.
Now that we are in tree shade, the sky has become overcast again.
We’re on a ridge now with nice wildflowers. There are plenty of bear grass (I think, these seem thinner, perhaps something else). A little thistle, and a lovely lily.
Now a long downhill under forest canopy. My quads are very unhappy. Perhaps I did go down the long hill after aid station four too quickly. Owen is out of sight. The guy in front gets closer and then further off as we use different strategies coming down.
I don’t have much energy. I worry that I’m too tired — will I be able to finish. Perhaps it is altitude? But we aren’t really very high, probably 5000ft or so. Owen seemed to have no problem, though the guy in the green shirt is obviously suffering too.
We start going up again, the final climb to Suntop. There is a dirt road which also makes this climb and the trail crosses the road a couple of times (this isn’t a significant road, essentially no traffic, so there’s no worry about these crossings). I finally pass the guy in the green shirt. I tell him I’ll see him again, but I don’t.
I pass another guy on my way to the summit, and then I see Mt Rainier again. This time it is hidden in clouds, and the clouds and snow blend together and it is hard to see where the mountain is and where the clouds are.
Me, at Suntop (¾ done)
Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
And here is the penultimate aid station. I fill up my camelback (and seal it properly), and then head down. Now I’m going down the dirt road. It’s a good level surface, and I’ve been told this is where I should try to go fast — if my quads cooperate, if I can get over the exhaustion I felt earlier.
Let’s see the last station was at 37.2 miles (almost ¾ of the way done) and I got there at 7:08. I’m going to have to pick up the pace if I want to break 9 hours. Um. Going down this road will have to be fast, it’s 6.5 miles and I’ve got to do that in considerably under an hour to have any chance at all.
My quads hurt.
But I can still run on them.
They seem to warm up after a bit and become less painful. I remain aware of them, but they aren’t preventing me for going “fast” (“fast” turns out to mean 8 minute miles — on a perfect downhill road, normally I’d be ashamed, but now it seems good). I’ve lost the sense of exhaustion I had earlier.
I see two guys ahead, in matching yellow shirts.
They were running together, but one has slowed.
I pass him.
Then, slowly I catch up on the other guy. And once I do that I see a third guy off in the distance. I keep getting closer, and eventually pass him too. This is great! If I can just keep passing people that will give me the boost I need to go faster…
But those three are the only ones I see on the road.
Cars occasionally come by — one every 10 minutes or so. The road is very dusty, and they stir up the dust which I have to breath. Yuck. Sometimes the wind blows it away, sometimes (more often) not.
My heart rate seems to be hovering around 75%, which is a good hard push on a down hill, so I think I’m doing what I should.
Then the road levels out.
I try to keep up the same pace (8min/mile remember) and find I’m gasping. I look at my monitor 82%. Oops. Too high. Slow a bit. Hmm. 80% actually seems comfortable, so I push at that level.
And here is the end of the road, someone directs me on to a trail, and there is the last aid station. I don’t need anything. It took me 50 minutes to get down the road. I’ve got another 6 miles to go. I need to keep going at the same pace to break 9 hours. That seems unlikely (it isn’t downhill any more), but I’m going to try.
Once again I’m running beside the river. This means a mild uphill. Doesn’t look good for maintaining the pace. And then I see a real climb. I have to walk. I know I won’t make 9 hours.
But on the other side I run down again. Heart rate still at 80%.
I manage that for another half hour — and then something gives. I can’t keep going at that level. I trudge on. I find myself running uphill and walking down. That’s backwards. I’m really tired.
Someone passes me.
I can’t keep up with him.
I suppose I probably should not have tried to run at 80% for so long this late in the race. On the other hand, a 9 hour finish required that (and more probably). I’m glad I did my best to achieve that…
I pass someone and he cheers me on. Congratulates me on my birthday. How did he know? “Oh, I ran with you earlier.” Did he? I don’t remember. (Perhaps he was behind me, then I wouldn’t recognize him).
OK, it’s gone 9 hours, the finish must be near.
On, and on, and on.
Up hill and down.
The trail was washed out. I get lost, and wander a bit. Finally I see a couple out walking their dog. That’s the trail. Back on track.
Come on, I must be nearly there. Where is it?!?
Heart rate is below 70%.
Of course I’m worried that someone I’ve passed earlier will pass me.
It’s actually a rather nice area, with some nice falls. I’ll come back here after the race and take some pictures (I don’t). Very nice views of the river, I really would like some better pictures of the odd water color.
Where is the end?
I see someone, standing by the trail. He tells me, “Just a quarter mile, follow the arrows once you get to the road.” I thank him. I am so grateful the end is close. I think about what a wonderful person he is. (But — how long will it take me to run a quarter mile now? 10 minutes?). Winding around on the roads. A maze of cones. Where do I go in? There. The chute. Clock 9:21:51. The line. Done.
They give me a bottle of cool water, which I drink.
My parents lead me off into the shade.
I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been after a race.
I’m not ready to leave yet. I wait a bit and stumble over to the results poster. They have little cards with people’s names, ages, sexes and finishing times (ordered). I wait until they bring out mine. I’m 45th overall, time 9:21:58. I’d hoped for better, but it will do. Hey, I finished! That’s the important thing. I count finishers in my age group: I’m second! That’s great! I can leave now, a shower calls.
Parents drive me to the hotel. I feel awful. I should probably eat something. A GU and an electrolyte tablet. And more water. I haven’t used a bathroom in 11 hours. I haven’t needed to, but now I do. I feel awful.
In the room. In the bathroom. Rather impressive. I still feel awful. I need to eat more. I go toward some raisins. Suddenly I know I’m going to vomit, and I run (OK, hobble) to the bathroom. I reach the bathroom (good) but not the toilet (less good). I’ve eaten nothing but water and sugar and salt for the last 11 hours, there is nothing in my stomach but sugar water. Oddest vomit I have ever cleaned up.
I’ve never raced so hard I vomited before. I don’t want to do it again, but I’m sort of proud to have pushed myself that hard.
Cold. Curl up under the covers and nap for half an hour. Better.
Actually I’m feeling pretty good. Quads still hurt, of course; going down hill/stairs is painful. But I’m cheerful again and have some energy.
My mother tells me that my problem was that I raced to win. I shouldn’t do that any more. If I hadn’t tried to win I might not have been so beat up afterward.
I feel as though we’re from different worlds. Of course. So what?
(And I don’t really try to win, that’s neat, but I’m trying to do as well as I can. Doing my best depends on me. Winning depends on who shows up (and what rules are used 🙂 ))
Back to the finish line for the awards banquet. Can’t bring myself to eat. Wait for the awards. There are several sets of awards, one by USATF rules (this is the national championship for 50 mile trail runs) and one for the race itself.
The guy who finished ahead of me in my age-group was not a USATF member. So he didn’t count (according to the USATF) and I’m first in my age group — I’m the national champion! (And I have a patch to prove it).
OK — I know I don’t deserve it… but I must admit I am extremely pleased to be called a national champion. And actually being a national runner up is pretty neat too. I’ve never been either one before. Come to think of it, I don’t even know anyone who has been a national champion…
Lew comes up to me and congratulates me. He got over his cramps, finished and won his agegroup (really won it, not like me). Amazing man.
As far as the race is concerned, I’m second in my age group.
I’ve got two sets of awards, one saying I was first, one saying I was second.
Only time I’ve ever been first and second in the same race. Then I remember that Yasso was first, second and third in one race and realize I still have something to strive for.
Approximate locations of the Aid Stations
As determined by GPS under trees (so not the most accurate measurements).
|Aid 3 = Corral Pass||47.015354||-121.467130||5650ft|
|Aid 7 = Suntop||47.039815||-121.597047||5190ft|