28 July 2009
White River 50 Miler - Race Report
This past weekend I participated in one of the biggest fitness challenges of my life. I ran my first real Ultrarun - The White River 50 - 50 miles of technical trail running with over 19,000 feet of elevation change. It was an amazing experience, one that I am still digesting, but I can already tell that I will appreciate it on many levels for a long time to come.
I’m going to share with you some of the basic "race report" details, that true exercise nuts love to read and write about… how was I feeling, did I execute my race plan, what was the course like, etc. But I also want to share some of my thoughts about the experience and the process of getting there. Hopefully I can do both in this post and entertain a wide audience with my account.
First of all, the race. White River is an amazing venue. I didn’t realize it at the time that I signed up for the race, but it is such a great venue and course, that it hosted the USA Track & Field National Championship race for this distance. As our race director, Scott McCoubrey said at the pre-race meeting, the field was STACKED. There were elite runners from all over the country who came to race at the highest level.
The race was won by Anton Krupicka , who set a new course record and finished the race 5 hours faster than mere mortals like myself. Anton’s performance was clearly deserving of the National Championship status, completing the course with an average pace of 7:50.54/mile.
The course is basically divided into two major climbs. From the start you head north east and climb up to the top of Castle Mountain to a site called Corral Pass. Once at the summit, you run back down the mountain to the start point and then turn south west and head to the top of Fawn Ridge and Sun Top. Then you had back down to the finish. The big takeaway from this is that basically there are only about 9 miles total of the 50 miles that are flat. The rest of the mileage is either up or down. And aside from a 7 mile stretch near the end of the run, which is fire access road, the rest of the course is technical single and double track mountain trails.
Typical Section of trail on the White River 50.
(photo credit: Brad Hefta-Gaub)
Now, I’ve done a lot of pretty intense fitness challenges. I’ve completed five double centuries, three Iron distance triathlons, and several marathons. Most of my friends think I am one of the most "hard core" fitness guys they know. And while that might be true relative to most of the population, and mind you, I’m not saying this to either brag of be dismissive, I’m just trying to set the stage for what it’s like to run 50 miles, I must admit that I was nearly woefully under prepared for this challenge.
Thank goodness my friends Michelle and Tim put me through my paces a couple months ago , and helped me realize that I needed to get my head wrapped around the reality of long distance trail running. But more than almost being unprepared for the physical challenge, I can say without a doubt I was completely caught off guard the amazing beauty and power of the setting and experience that is a 50 mile ultrarun.
Me approaching Corral Pass, with Mt. Rainier in the background.
(photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama)
Sure, the course was challenging, but fortunately I have gone out on some solo efforts around Cougar Mountain and gotten a pretty good taste of what to expect from the trail. In fact, the trails at Cougar Mountain maybe more technical in most places than what I encountered at White River. But for all its beauty, Cougar Mountain can’t come any where near as close to the absolute spectacular beauty of White River. There were so many times as I climb those two summits that I would come to clearings or patches in the trail where the vistas stretched for tens or hundreds of miles. The views were simply breathtaking.
Me being passed by several elite runners at mile 16 of the course. That’s Pacific Northwest Ultrarunner extraordinaire Scott Jurek third back in this photo.
(photo credit: Brad Hefta-Gaub)
One of the things I love about endurance sports… especially the more "extreme" endurance sports like Ironman (and now obviously Ultramarathoning), is that the amateurs toe the same starting line as the pros, the elites. And, although I have an incredible respect for the amazing athletes that perform at the elite level of these sports, I am convinced that I have a unique perspective that I wouldn’t trade for all their skill, talent, and genetic ability. I have the perspective of someone who is there exactly for the experience , and not the race itself.
Wild flowers near Corral Pass.
(photo credit: David Harper)
Sure, I always want to improve my performance, and work on refining my fitness and skills. But I have come to realize that my motivation is not the competition but the experience. As I ran through these incredible scenes, I simply couldn’t help myself… I had to stop, and soak it in.
My fellow early starters: Andrew and Joe, soaking in the view along the Dalles Ridge Trail. We were in positions 2,3, and 4 of the early starters as we approached Corral Pass, but racing took a back seat to soaking in the amazing view. [Note: Big props to Andrew who came in first of the early starters and 58th overall, almost an hour ahead of all other early starters.]
(photo credit: Brad Hefta-Gaub)
Friends and Living Life to the Fullest
As many of you know, I was not always the kind of person who could complete, let alone attempt a feat like this. Only six years ago I was 60lbs overweight, 40% body fat, and really had never exercised a day in my life. I was really unhealthy, physically, but I’ll admit, I was lucky that I’ve always had great friends and family. When I lost weight, and finally realized I could be fit and healthy, one of the things I realized was how much of the world and the experience of living I had been missing.
Now I exercise — not to be healthy, or to lose weight, or to get lean — although that’s a nice byproduct — no, I exercise — for the experience, the experience of living.
One of the great experiences I got to live this past weekend was the fellowship and comradery of my good friends Dave and Tyler. Although the race was incredible well supported, and in retrospect I didn’t need "my own crew", the idea that my friends were there to support me was a great comfort. But more importantly for me, it gave me a chance to visualize sharing the experience with someone I respect and admire. I’m sure I didn’t really do a great job in telling them how amazing the experience really was, after all, how can you really express this sort of thing. But I hope they got a little taste of it. And based on their comments, and the photos and video they captured, I am certain they had their chances to soak in at least a little slice of the amazing experience.
A Video of My Experience
I wanted to capture my experience with my new VHoldr camera, which I mounted to my visor. It worked great for the first 5 miles, but then the memory card was full…. apparently I forgot to delete the video from my STP ride. Fortunately Tyler was filming video from the aid stations, and Dave was capturing photos from the same stations, and I had my iPhone to capture stills along the rest of the course. All in all, I feel like we got a good sampling of the experience.
Ok, so what about my race? Let’s get to the details!
My Race Results
My goal was to finish. My stretch goal was to finish in less than 12 hours. I achieved both of those goals, and so by all measures this race should be a wild success. Add to that the amazing experience, the memories, the pictures and videos, and well… what more could I want?
Well, the thing is, I am someone who likes to push myself. And so when I complete a challenge the logical next step is to say, "what could I have done better, harder, more challenging". And in this race, I proved to myself that I could finish… and I also highlighted the fact that if I executed a little better, I could probably finish with a lot better time. So to better understand how I can improve let’s look at the race itself.
Buck Creek to Corral Pass
This is the first uphill section of the race. My plan was to soak it in, run a steady pace, keep my heartrate relatively low (zone 2 and some small stints in zone 3) and make it to the top. I achieved this goal, and reached the summit with an average heartrate around 144, exactly in the middle of zone 2. I mostly ran this, with a few walk breaks on the really steep climbs. I took a slightly longer break at aid station 2 for bio and water refilling, but all in all I think my pace was pretty good. I reached the summit with an average pace of 11:08/mile.
Considering this was a good 10,000 feet of climbing, I feel pretty good about that pace. But the fact that my heartrate was so low means I probably could have pushed it a little harder and still made it to the top in good time. I don’t think I’d trade in my photos or memories of the views for another couple seconds per mile, but clearly there’s another chance for improvement. All in all, this was a great leg of the race — and although I made a big mistake on it — I wouldn’t regret anything about this leg until the next section of the trail.
First Leg Fuel
At Corral Pass I was met by Dave and Tyler. They had my food and gear, and I took the opportunity to replace the fuel I’d consumed in the first 17 miles. That meant replacing my flask of Hammer Gel and a baggie of Beef Jerky, and a baggie of Trail Mix. I also grabbed a Gluten Free Turkey sandwich. But I hadn’t eaten any of my Sports Beans or Cliff Shot Bloks. And although I’d drank a good 40oz of water and/or Nuun on the climb, that didn’t provide any calories, only electrolytes.
The beef jerky was a spontaneous idea for fuel on the run that I had the night before, and honestly I think it was a great idea. It has some protein and salt, and you can put it in your mouth and just chew and soak it in. I had no issues with digesting it, in fact I loved it, I just didn’t have enough of it. The trail mix, tasted great, and had more calories per once, but it was a little unweildy and I didn’t have much of that either so I didn’t get a lot of fuel from that. The flask of hammer gel went down ok, but wasn’t my favorite, and so although I finished the first one, I stopped drinking it after the first leg.
As I look this over, it’s clear that I was way under fueled. The jerky, mix, and gel is probably 300 calories total. Which is enough to get me to the end of 17 miles, it doesn’t leave me much left in the tank for the next 34. I was in desperate need of the solid food, and the turkey sandwich really hit the spot.
Corral Pass to Ranger Station to Buck Creek
On the way down from Corral Pass I was in desperate need of a bathroom, and I was slowly starting to feel the effects of my low fuel situation. I ran the 5.2 miles from Corral Pass to Ranger Station without eating anything or really drinking much. I was totally preoccupied with getting to a porta-potty. In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. If I had started eating my sandwich at that point, I would have been clear headed enough to eat more on my way down the mountain.
Ranger Station - Mile 11 and 22.
(photo credit: Brad Hefta-Gaub)
Eventually at Ranger Station, I stopped, collected my thoughts and realized I had to eat some solid food. I opened up my turkey sandwich and started eating it. As soon as my lips touched the sandwhich I realized (intellectually) how hungry I was. I devoured half the sandwhich in one breath. As I stood there, the aid station workers gave me an ecouraging shove out the door. "You can eat that while you walk down the hill. Don’t stand here, keep moving. You’re not welcome here!"
Good advice… now get going.
The decent from Ranger Station to Buck Creek felt ok, but in retrospect I was beginning to fall apart. I took alot of this section pretty slow, for a down hill, because I was worried about tripping or twisting my ankle. I was also really eager to get to the bathroom, which was only available at Buck Creek, I still had another 6 miles to go before I could go. I was also starting to realize that I was likely developing a blister on my right foot.
I didn’t eat at all on the way to Buck Creek. That was a big mistake.
Buck Creek Aid Station - 27 miles
When I rolled into Buck Creek I had only one thing on my mind. After taking care of that, I also took a chance to change my shirt and and restock on food. The thing is, I hadn’t eaten any food… so really this was a mini exercise in Dave and Tyler trying to get me to eat something. I downed a Gluten Free muffin, and a bottle of vitamin water, and then insisted I was good to go. But really, my stomach was gurgling and I was so low on fuel I wasn’t really thinking straight. About half a mile out of the aid station I was really aware that I had bonked.
Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge to Sun Top
This stretch of the course is the second major climb. It’s also another 8,000ft in 11 miles, but it includes a lot of exposed trails which by now are in full afternoon glare. It was brutal. I walked the whole way. It seemed to go on forever.
The aid station at Fawn Ridge is a good one. No crew support is allowed, but the official volunteers are full of energy and good spirit. I downed 12 dixie cups of Mountain Dew and it really hit the spot. I grabbed a Gluten Free Peanutbutter and Honey sandwich for the road, but I really should have eaten it there. Instead it just sat in my pack getting smashed up.
At that aid station I ran into another runner I had been running with in the early part of the day. He looked like he was in good shape but he was sitting in a chair in the aid station refusing to continue. One of the aid station workers (who looked like a nurse) encouraged me to encourage him to continue… but he had already resigned himself to pulling out. In retrospect, I’m not sure if that hurt me or helped me. I sort of felt a burst of energy to say "I’m not going to stop" but at the same time it seemed like the first real sign that even the non-competive athletes could be taken out by this course.
Another lesson from this leg of the run is that Chamoise Butt’r won’t last the distance of a 50 mile run. Nope, I need something more durable like Body Glide or Aquaphore to prevent chaffing. Fortunately I had a small tube of Aquaphore with me, and although it would have been better to have had it applied in the first half of the race to prevent chaffing, it was somewhat helpful to relieve the effects in real time. No more details are needed about this, but suffice to say that when you’re going the distance — you need industrial strength body lube!
After more than three hours (3:11:37) I finally reached the summit of Sun Top. My pace for this section was a snail like 19:33/mile! Sure, the terrain was hard, but the truth is, I had bonked! This was 100% related to a messed up fueling implementation.
All smiles as I approach the summit of Sun Top. Don’t let the "stride" fool you, I was vougeing for the camera. I didn’t want to be caught walking.
(photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama)
Sun Top to Skookum Flats
At Sun Top I took another chance to refuel. I ate a bunch of potatoes with salt, some watermellon, and a bunch more Mountain Dew. I was a little worried about what lied ahead for me. The big 7 mile down hill that everyone talks about. I was nervous, but eventually I headed down the mountain.
It turned out that this section of the race was not that bad for me. Well, I know that it’s what took my blister from being a small blister on my heel to being the entire bottom of my foot, but the good news is that my quads handled the downhill quite well.
Most people struggle running downhill, and when you make it 7 miles of straight downhill (no switchbacks, no flats, no uphill sections) and then you put it at mile 37 to 44 of a 50 mile run, you’re basically asking people to cry in pain. Maybe it was because I had great form, and hadn’t pushed myself throught most of the race, or maybe it was that I’d just done 10 miles of near slow walking pace, but my legs felt pretty fresh. Sure, I was passed by several other runners who were less tired or more skilled at running fast down hill. But I kept a solid pace and made up a little time.
At the bottom of the hill I was greeted by Tyler and Dave, and a full car of gear and food. I downed two vitamin waters and reapplied some body lube (note: don’t apply chamoise butt’r to already chaffed skin, trust me!).
Skookum Flats to the Finish
It’s kinda funny, because on the video, I don’t look very energized, but I know that after leaving Dave and Tyler at Skookum Flats, I had a real burst of energy, and I started running a lot faster. I had been running with another runner Jason for many parts of the run. I had spoken with him at the start of the race, and then joined him coming into the half way point and after leaving Sun Top. But Jason didn’t stop with me at my crew stop, and so I had a sense of purpose to catch up with him on the last leg.
Dave and Tyler had parked outside of the aid station, and so when I came through the aid station the volunteers really wanted me to stop and get food and water from them. But I was already flying and had to yell out to them, "I’m ok, I had a crew right out there!" "Ok" they let me pass. I caught Jason about a half mile down the trail and encourage him to keep up the pace.
Jason enjoying the view of the White River with only about 4 miles to go.
(photo credit: Brad Hefta-Gaub)
Jason had done the race the year before and really wanted to set a new PR. We had more than 90 minutes to run the last 6 miles in order to achieve his goal, a task that seemed very doable. We kept the pace high but the trail was very technical with lots of rocks and bridges and root stairs, so although we ran as much as we could it was hard to keep a steady pace.
Eventually, as we got closer and closer to the finish Jason started to fade. I did my best to encourage him, but about a half a mile from the finish he dropped back and I didn’t see him again. I wish I could say I’d helped him get a new PR, but since my time was a couple seconds faster than his last year PR, I wasn’t able to achieve that goal. He eventually came in about 5 minutes behind me.
Me flying across the finish line, in 11:45:48.
(photo credit: David Harper)
As I came around the corner off of the Skookum trail, I saw a volunteer and asked how much further I had. He said "About 200 meters around that corner!" So I poured on the rocket fuel and jetted around the corner. As I ran across the finish line I could hear the people cheering and clapping and several of them say "look at that strong finish". Well… I guess I had that going for me.
Footnote: Injury Report
If you watched the video, then you know I got a huge blister and stubbed toe nail. Now a couple days later, the blister has already dried and is starting the heeling process quite nicely. I’m told the toe nail is definitely coming off, but I remain hopefull that it will somehow manage to stay put. I have it wrapped though so that I don’t accidentally snag it on anything.
I’m still a bit stiff and sore a couple days later, mostly in my calves. But I’ve managed to put in my daily run to keep my running streak alive. I’m not moving fast, but I’m keeping things moving and I’m sure that will speed my recovery.