Yesterday was the 2011 White River 50 mile endurance run which I’m extremely pleased to say I completed. I could go on and on about this race (and probably will) but I’ll try to be kind of brief in this recap.
[edit: I failed]
Reaching the starting line
Getting to the race has been a long, long process. I was registered for the 2010 race and went to the course preview runs (2 and 3 weeks before the race, there are group runs of the two halves of the course) but then on the one off weekend before the race, I got bit by a raccoon in my kitchen in a story I’ve told a thousand times and it put me on the DNS list. This year I made it to the preview runs again and just kept saying “stay healthy – make it to the race…” I managed to do this, but yesterday morning on the way to the race I got a flat tire on Crystal Mountain Boulevard! I scrambled with Joe’s help to change the tire, he flagged another car down (a woman who probably thought she was on the way to be late for the start) and we got to Ranger Creek at about 6:32. This was just in time to hear Scott McCoubrey (the race director) calling out “40 seconds!”
Getting to the race and registration
I’m getting a little ahead of myself though…this year I drove to Crystal Joe Creighton (2 time finisher and still 8-hour hopeful) and Greg Crowther, Seattle Running Club president and 6th fastest WR course finisher. We met at Fleet Feet store where I learned Phil Kochik and Brian Morrison planned to run WR just to get the lottery time to enter Western States. It’s really amazing and inspiring to be in the presence of that kind of talent and from such genuinely nice people, but this probably the kind of thing you understand (if you’re a runner) or isn’t that interesting (for most people) and I probably can’t make it make sense.
So, we drove down to Crystal Mountain, arriving a little after 4PM and mingled for a little bit before the dinner. We got our bibs and goodie bags, which are refreshingly sparse for an event like this. For the past two years at White River, they’ve allowed runners to pick our bib numbers. I ran in 144, in honor of my grandfather’s record for points scored in a season when he was an athlete at the University of Iowa. We settled in to our room for a bit, got to the spaghetti dinner, I met Gary Robbins, and we listened to the opening music to the White River video DVD about 3,000 times as Scott told us about the course in the Snorting Elk Cellar.
Joe and I went back to our room for a long night of me crushing his head against turnbuckles in WWE SmackDown vs. RAW on the Xbox in our room and a little bit of Cabella’s Big Game Hunter (aside: is a hunting video game actually any different than a first-person shooter where you just go around and kill defenseless enemies?) and turned in for the night. We woke up bright and early on Saturday at 5AM for the 6:30 start. Joe had taken a shower the night before and I learned that morning that our shower offered temperatures ranging from “frigid” to “how does it stay a liquid form of matter when it’s this cold?” but still managed to get ready. We watched a little Fast Times at Ridgemont High and soon it was time to hit the road. We only got about 4 miles down the road from Crystal, though, when I noticed the car running rough. I pulled over and sure enough, my rear right tire had two holes and was flat. I panicked a little – we had been perfectly on track to get to the race, but now we were going to have to change a tire and I learned Joe had no experience with this. So I pulled out the spare, jack, etc. and got the tire changed in probably 10 minutes. During this time Joe flagged down another car and got a woman to presumably carry the message to the start that we would be late, but were on the way. In about 10-15 minutes, I had the tires swapped and we were on our way. As we pulled in to Buck Creek, we saw Trish Steidl walking Forest away from the start and figured we had missed the countdown, but then saw the mass of people on the road and knew we were going to make it. I hastily parked, heard RD Scott McCoubrey tossed a bag in the Buck Creek drop bag area, Joe got up near the front, and I went back to give Katie, who’d made it down for the race, a hug and moments later I was the last person to cross the starting line of the start of the 2011 White River race.
To Ranger Creek
The White River course is simply some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve ever run. You can see a map I made of the course here, but it’s essentially 1/2 mile on a road alongside the Ranger Creek airstrip followed by 37 miles of dual and single track trails, then a 6 mile downhill on the gravel Sun Top Road, followed by more single track trail back to the finish. The first stretch of the course winds along the mostly flat Dalles trail. Through this section I was just trying to stay relaxed and stay slow. The course splits I had projected (and the split projections from the website) advise reaching to the first aid station in about 43 minutes, but I got there in 37 and still felt like I’d been crawling. I kept trying to remind myself of this as we made the turn to the Palisades trail and started the first climb. I love this section of the White River course. The switchbacks in those initial climbs, the waterfalls along the route, and the section you reach shortly after with stairs followed by sharp switchbacks is incredibly fun and beautiful. Whenever we reach the stairs, I always look up and am reminded of Donkey Kong, with the ladders, repeated cuts back and forth in the trail, and seeing the people who are ahead on the course weaving along the path.
The viewpoints from the points that jut out from the Palisades trail are all breathtaking. I made the mistake of stopping to admire one yesterday and was pretty intimidated by what I’d signed up for. I could see the Ranger Creek airstrip miles and thousands of feet below. Further in the distance, I recognized the mountain I’d climb in the second half of the trail and identified Sun Top a couple miles further north – the peak in the second half of the trail. I was only about 6-8 miles into this and I extended my appreciation of how long and hard this day would be.
Except for the initial climb through Palisades, most of the rest of this is pretty straightforward, beautiful trails – almost all perfectly runnable and so that’s what I did. Having started at the very back of the pack and knowing my goals were pretty modest, I just tried to slowly reel people in and take my time at the aid stations, which I felt successful at throughout the day.
Ranger Creek to Corral Pass
Two weeks ago stretches of this part of the course were really impassable. We got a little way up Noble Nob trail, but in the snow it was impossible to identify the trail at all – the only thing that was possible was to slide all over the place in the snow, so we cut the training run short of the trip all the way to Corral Pass and turned back. Before race day, Scott and Eric had gone out with shovels and cleared a lot of the trail and I found the conditions totally reasonable. I really love running with some element of danger, though, and I didn’t mind slipping in the snow at all. On the way through some of the snow (we were on the “out” in the one “out and back” section of the course), I asked another runner for odds on how long until we would see Uli, and sure enough, he came leading the field a few minutes later. This is probably a double-edged section of the White River course. Just about every runner gets to see just about every other runner on the course, but the narrow single track can make some passes tricky. Still, it’s within the first 20 miles and most of us are fresh enough to avoid most real danger.
So, Uli passed, Tim Olson wasn’t far behind, and I made my way to Corral Pass, congratulating returning runners and telling people I passed “good work” on our way. At Corral Pass, I saw Katie again, who was politely staying behind the “crew” line and got some information about the course splits (which I’d intended to bring with me but forgot in the scramble to make it to the start). At this point I was about 10 minutes ahead of pace for the 10 hour finish, so I took my time here, said hi to Greg and thanked him for volunteering, filled my bottle and Hydrapak bladder and tried to eat as much as I could before I was back on my way.
Corral Pass to Buck Creek
Exiting Corral Pass I ran past tons, and tons of runners on the out and back and eventually got back to the clearing where I wasn’t seeing regular or early start runners. I knew I was way ahead of where I needed to be and had a *lot* of race to go, so I started to walk for a bit and got my ipod out of my backpack, which I’d run with for the next ~7 hours of the race. This whole time I was still feeling good and relaxed and knew that the really hard part would be the climb up to Sun Top, so I was just taking things easy. I retraced the path through the snow, definitely passing some people there who were probably wondering “what the hell is that idiot doing?” as I flew past in my road shoes and got back to the Ranger Creek boyscout hut. There, I met Josh Barringer who was using WR as a warm up to his first 100 miler at Cascade Crest in less than a month. Josh was battling some dehydration and working to get the wheels back on, which he did over the course of the next 30 miles.
The descent from Ranger Creek is where I started to notice a problem. I’ve been wearing a patella strap since about March when I developed a knee problem that stopped me from starting Chuckanut and put me on the DL for a month. I wore it yesterday during White River as a preventative measure but on that pounding downhill (you lose about 3000′ over 7 miles) was taking its toll. I wasn’t positive how bad this was, but was definitely getting worried.
One uplifting story from this descent – as I passed a female runner, I was told “you’re the first guy to pass me who hasn’t had terrible BO!” I thanked her for the kind words and then realized I was reeling in Minimalist Ted who had probably passed her a few seconds earlier. He was probably still within earshot.
I got in to Buck Creek at about 5:04, so I was still feeling pretty good about my goal. I was still ahead of pace and feeling good (though worried about my knee) and – most significantly – had not yet experienced the debilitating cramps I’ve had every other time in my life that I’ve run that long and far (every other ultra or marathon, I’ve gotten terrible cramps between 60-80% of the way through the race). Katie was here again and incredibly eager to help and incredibly helpful. I was difficult because despite the race going well, I definitely was tired and needed time to figure out what I needed. So, I ate, chatted, drank (a lot), filled my bottle and bladder again, ate some more and after what was somehow nearly 15 minutes, got back on my way.
Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge
I thought the flat trail section exiting Buck Creek should be a good place to run, but I’d drunken too much Gatorade to execute on this. Plus, maybe since I’d stopped so long at Buck Creek, my knee was really starting to hurt. After winding through the rolling trails to the Sun Top trailhead, I saw Katie again before that turn off and was so happy to see her, but was starting to feel demoralized about my knee. I told her (somewhat ridiculously, in hindsight) that I thought I might run the course limit – my knee was in a bad way, but I was determined to finish. She told me I was a stud and wished me well as I went to the second climb.
This is where the hard part came in. In past ultras, I’ve gotten to a point of exhaustion where my approach is to try to run as much as possible, but just get through the race. Often this has meant that if I can get 5 steps in running on a flat or downhill section, I’ll do it, but a lot of the uphills I just have to power walk. I realized yesterday that with my knee, that would not fly, because running on downhills was just impossible. I could try, but the pain was definitely getting worse with every mile and a lot of the downhills were slower than the climbs. This put me in an interesting place, though, where I actually still had strength to run and any time I passed anyone, it was on an uphill. A small group of us made our way through the exposed switchbacks on this section of the course. When I caught a group, I felt content to stick with them for a while because I expected to lose time on the Sun Top Road and wanted to keep something in the tank for the Skookum trail (the final leg of the race). Eventually I made it to the Fawn Ridge aid station where the excellent volunteers have a luau themed party. This was really fun and uplifting (they had decorated the last ~1/10 mile before you pop out on the road with inflatable pool animals) and I was glad to get there. I was struggling to get here, though, and still demoralized about my knee, but surprised that despite making, I though, terrible, terrible time to get there, that I was still on or close to 10 hour pace. I took a long time at this aid station again, though, and talked briefly with Brian, who had decided to drop at that point. I was a little freaked out, too, because one of the volunteers came up to me and said “you’re Patrick, in 144?” – “Yes” – “We had news that you’d dropped – you’re still in the race?” – “Why yes I am!” I did not want to move up from last year’s DNS to a DNF…
Fawn Ridge to Sun Top – the death of a dream
This is definitely where things started to take a turn for the worse. There are a couple false summits between Fawn Ridge and Sun Top and my knee was killing me with every one of them. I was losing a ton of time on each downhill where I would basically walk and, for the first time in the race, get passed by a bunch of other runners. Once or twice I actually had to stop and step off the trail. Once I stopped to pee and realized that I was very dehydrated. So, I forged ahead as best I was able, but probably lost 15-20 minutes in this leg from my planned pace. Despite this, I was happy with the fact that I did keep going and was able to replan my strategy around trying to stay strong on the climbs and lose as little on the descents as possible.
One more note: more than most sections of the course, this part really rolls a lot. I could manage decently on fairly flat sections, but this part is usually gradual climbs or descents which were either challenging (but semi-doable) or too painful to attempt to run. Eventually, though, I made it to the Sun Top road crossing, and lumbered up the 1/2 mile to the top. As happy as I was to see Katie at every other point on the course, seeing Glenn Tachiyama was possibly the happiest sight on the course that far because I knew “Glenn is here at the top of Sun Top to take our pictures and I have finished climbing the second mountain in White River.” It was awesome.
I stayed a while at the top of Sun Top getting sprayed, eating, drinking, and putting off what I knew was going to be a torturous descent to the last aid station at Skookum Flats. I also basically knew there was no way I would make 10 hours, but knew I would finish and also knew I would finish in the qualifying time to enter the lottery for Western States. I doubt I’ll ever run a 100 mile race and I’d still like to run a regular marathon that would qualify me for Boston some day, but in terms of running accomplishments, I’m proud of this, even with my eventual 10+ hour finish.
Sun Top to the finish
The descent from Sun Top was brutal. I started running and made it about a 10th of a mile before I had to walk. Then I walked backwards. Then I tried to walk forwards and then walked backwards some more. I tried a lot of things with varied success (shorter strides, only running on the shallower parts of the descent) but I basically walked for four miles. All the while, I’m getting passed by people I’d seen on the course who I didn’t want to be passed by and who I’d last seen a long, long time ago. But there I was, so I just resigned to the realization “OK, I may as well rehydrate now, relax, and just do the best I can and plan on running the flat section in Skookum…” I got through the first 5 miles of the descent (the real “hill” portion of the descent) in about a 13 minute mile pace. On the course preview run I did this descent in something under 6:30 miles, and I didn’t expect that yesterday but it was still disappointing to know I was so close to the finish and I couldn’t run – I wasn’t missing my goals because I was giving up, but I just had no choice.
Eventually I got to the flat section though, and now I was ready to tear shit up. I ran well to the Skookum aid station. I stopped, met Josh again and a couple others I’d met on the preview runs, looked around for Katie but realized she was probably at the finish because Joe may have finished then or earlier, and I was on my way. Once I got in to Skookum I was totally invigorated. I couldn’t believe I was running this well 45 miles into a race – still no real cramping and basically managing well. This high didn’t last all the way in Skookum and I walked in a couple sections, but I did far less walking than many people who I reeled in on the way through the trails.
Having done the course preview runs twice now, I realized at one set of turns that I was finally getting close to the end of the trail where you turn on to the road for the last ~1/4 mile to the finish line and once I got there, Glenn was trumped again for “best sight on the course” when I saw Katie in her green top standing up on the road back to Buck Creek. I knew where the guys in front of and behind me were at this point, so I took a short breather to tell her how happy I was to see her, ask how Joe and Uli finished, and enjoy the moment. Eventually the next guy behind me popped out on the road and I said “ok, I have to run now – he can’t catch me” and I must have been tearing up the road to the finish at at least a 9 minute mile pace. It felt good to run, good to be so close to the finish, and incredible to not just feel my whole body breaking down after such an incredible event.
I crossed the finish line in 10:41 and change and someone (Crowther?) gave me a bottle and Scott trucker hat and the race was over.
I socialized for a bit, ate, Katie gave me a daisy, I met Neil and his wife who were there hanging out with the McCoubreys, congratulated Uli (actually, I interrupted him as he said he was “teaching Forest to dumpster dive”), ate potato chips, iced (thanks again, Katie!) talked with Josh and Paul about their races, cheered as more finishers came through, pet Jack, and filled myself to the point of explosion on chicken, salad, and really-not-very-much-food-but-all-I-could-handle. Katie offered to leave early and bring Io home from the dog boarding. Later, Joe, Greg and I started the ride back to Seattle on my spare tire. We stopped in Enumclaw where I checked the bolts on the spare at a McDonalds where I treated to Rolo Flurries (which, by the way, McDonalds does not offer in 32oz size) and were back on the road. I got home about 9:30, hobbled up the stairs and Io, Jupiter, and I told each other how much we missed each other before I ate a few more snacks and hit the sack after the most physically demanding day of my life.