The day had finally arrived for Cindy and I to head over to Greenwater nr Enumclaw WA. A good friend and one of my athletes Joe Silvernale had kindly offered us the use of his cabin for the weekend which was perfectly located and in an idyllic location overlooking a river. We arrived mid afternoon after a stop in Enumclaw to grab some lunch, a rather sloppy (but tasty) Panini from a little Italian place downtown. I enjoyed mine, Cindy, not so much.
After arriving we unloaded the car, made ourselves at home, dog proofed the cabin (don't worry Joe, Hawi did not chew anything up honest) and drove to Crystal Mtn to register and enjoy the pasta dinner provided by the race organizers. Simple fair but more than adequate and plenty of it. We sat down to dinner with three other first timers, Joel (Seattle), Pablo (Bellingham) and Nicholas (France, yes the European one). They were great company and we all chatted about a variety of topics mostly ending up back on the task of getting through 50 miles of running on some of the more challenging trails in the PacNW. I bumped into another friend and former coached athlete Win Van Pelt at dinner and chatted to him about strategy etc. Win has done several ultras including two White Rivers so has a lot of experience. He is also a true mountain man so always worth listening to. I knew Win had a sub 9 hour goal so I was intrerested to see if our paths crossed on raceday!
Just as the race briefing was starting Cindy and I left!! We had to get back to the dogs and have a pre race glass of wine and piece of chocolate to feel truly ready for what the morning might bring. It's funny but we both went into this Ultra Marathon adventure very relaxed and laid back. In no way were we being complacent but just having so many years of endurance racing in the bank and countless races under our belt provides a kind of confidence that you know, come what may, you will get the job done. After getting back to the cabin and walking the dogs we packed our drop bags, drank our wine and settled down for a short fitfull night of sleep.
I awoke at 3:30 to my alarm, damn no way was I ready to wake up so I reset the alarm for 4am knowing that my digestion window would be reduced but given the low relative intensity of the event this was a risk I was willing to take. 4am rolled around and I headed downstairs turned on the coffee and woke Cindy, in that order. I drank a liter of water immediately after waking and then consumed 2 cups of coffee, one and half bagels with butter and honey and a banana. I also drank 750ml of nuun, took three sports legs and one salt tab. I continued to drink water/nuun in the short car ride to the race start (about 15 mins away). After arriving we checked in to register ourselves as starters and then did the usual porta potty line thing. I realized I had left my vest and visor back at the house leaving me with only the Brooks long sleeve tech shirt that I threw on in the morning. Solution - Cut the sleeves off the top and turn one of them into a headband, perfect! I bodyglided my toes and all the other areas that were likely to rub/chafe and tied up my Brooks Ghosts. I was unsure what shoe I was going to wear for a few weeks leading into this race, i could not have chosen better, they worked like a charm.
So 6:30am rolled around and one last pit stop before wondering over to the start line. A quick kiss and good luck to Cindy and I lined up on the right hand side toward the front of the pack. The usual suspects were there, Scott Jurek, Greg Crowther, and Anton Krupicka plus many other esteemed trail runners who being so new to the sport I don't know by sight. The race starts and the first 3.9 miles is somewhat flat, a touch technical but generally just a nice soft compliant surface. I went out very relaxed and just let the 'pack' sort itself out. I was very conscious to not over stride, spot clean foot placements, not get boxed in and to generally run this section as easy as I could given the excitement factor of being in a race. I went through four miles in about 35 mins feeling super smooth and easy. The group had formed a long Conga line that stretched about 30-50 meters long up the trail. Everyone seemed happy to do their own thing and not make any moves. Seemingly everyone was running conservatively however sometimes its tough to tell.
The climb up to the Ranger Station began in earnest. Early sections of this are to most of us mortals not really runnable. We were all pretty much power hiking this section until we climbed the log steps to some slightly less steep terrain. A couple of movers were evident trying to leapfrog people up the mountain but for the most part status quo was maintained. I passed a couple of people and was hydrating and eating according to my plan (300 cals/hour, 2 bottles every 90 mins). I reached the 11.7 mile Ranger Station at about 1:55 feeling like I had run/hiked very conservatively until that point. Here is where I began to make some moves. I quckly refilled my bottles and headed out, passing three or four people immediately. I then saw Win ahead of me by about 100 yards, gradually reeled him in and we chatted a bit, mostly just checking on how we were feeling etc and dealing with the terrain. We caught Arthur Martineau on this section to Corral Pass which concerned me a little. I know of Arthur and have tracked some of his results and knew him to be a very solid trail runner. I was confident he was probably going to pace this pretty well so I was a little concerned but took confidence in how I was feeling and how well I had been managing my hydration/nutrition. Both Win and I passed him wishing him well. It was at this stage Win (who had been leading) hopped off the trail for a bathroom break. I took off and continued to build pace continuing to pass other runners.
It was about at this stage that the leaders were returning from Corral Pass so it was very cool to see how they were looking, who was winning etc. Not sure who was in the lead (sorry) but Anton was in 2nd looking super relaxed and Scott was running with another guy in 3rd/4th respectively. I gave way, literally stopping on the trail and moving over as it was very narrow single track at this stage. They were all super appreciative and everyone of the top 10 or so guys had a smile and nod or a few words which was very cool. What was weird is that very few people extended me the same courtesy on my return from the Corral Pass aid station, not sure why as it was very clear you were to give way to runners returning from Corral Pass!! Slighly annoyed by this but not enough to influence my day.
Reached Corral Pass (16.9 miles) in around 2:50 not really caring how long it took or what pace I was on, more concerned with how I felt and managing my calories, fluids and electrolytes. Eric Sach of the Balanced Athlete helped me refill my bottles and handed me some s-caps while I necked my RedBull, very refreshing. Back down (with some up) to the Ranger Station the way we came, very beautiful section this, with simply awesome views of Mt Rainier, it was a joy to be running. Passed Cindy who looked great and we stopped for a quick kiss (with each other ;)), feeling rejuvenated I continued on my way.
I was back at the Ranger Station (22.1 miles) in about 3:29 feeling good and looking forward to the descent back to Buck Creek. I had run this once in training with Cindy although relatively fresh as we just headed up from Camp Sheppard to the Ranger Station and then down again and ran very smooth and fast, not so much today. I struggled a little into and out of the hairpins which were very sandy and loose. Essentially I caught the 3rd place female here and thought it best to hang back and follow her down. I figured I was probably in the top 30 by now and did not want to be 'that guy' that has to walk the last 10-15 miles due to poor pacing and execution. I kept Amber (3rd place female) in sight, took a pee break and ended up at the bottom of the descent in good shape. Passed Amber, the 3rd place female and a couple of guys going into and heading out of Buck Creek which i felt good about. I got to Buck Creek at about 4:20 into the race (27.2 miles and a whole lot of elevation gain) again feeling good and running all the descents and flat to rolling sections.
Here is where the fun begins, the climb to Fawn Ridge and Sun Top!!! Definitely more of a hike than a run for me (and most I think). I still felt pretty good at this point, legs good, mind good, hydration etc spot on. Just could not carry any speed on the climbs. In my mind this climb was much more challenging than the first. I caught some guy who was struggling on the climb, offered him some cals but he simply said his quads were killing him, fair comment thought I! I also got repassed by eventual 2nd place female Amy Sproston, we went back and forth a little but after the aid station at Fawn Ridge I never really saw her again, she seemed to be running a lot more of that climb than I was that's for sure. Amber Monforte also passed me again here but I could at least keep her in my sights. Again what stood out to me was that she too was running sections of this climb that I simply could not (or would not). Maybe my 45miles/week (biggest run mileage of my life) for the last six months without any really specific hill work other than the ones encountered where I train was simply not enough. I sometimes rely on my overall leg strength and 20+ year endurance base as a triathlete to get me through, it does not always work ;). On the plus side I felt great and I mean that. Legs were doing what they were told, mind was strong and I was looking forward to the long descent to Skookum Flats even though I knew it would hurt. I reached Sun Top 6:37 into the race. I repassed Amber here and took off on the descent on a mission to 'make up' some lost time.
First mile according to my Garmin 6:54, a little hot maybe but felt okay, the remaining miles all ticked by in the low to mid 7's a little more sensible, I walked a couple of times just to give the quads a little break before the last section of the race. Can't say I enjoyed this part of the course but I think I probably made up some time on the folks in front of me here and made a top 20 finish realistic. I reached Skookum Flats in 7:38, wow I had been running for over seven hours, this is simply crazy stuff, my previous longest run was the 50km I did at Soaring Eagle State Park as a prep race for this in the middle of July, that took me 4:24......the body is amazing and continues to surprise me!
The Last 6.6 miles along Skookum Flats are probably the most beautiful. They are also arguably (given the fact it is so late into the race) the most technical. Here is where I nearly had my first serious fall. I had left the aid station (huge thanks by the way to all the volunteers, you rocked all day) and was running, not fast but I was running. They had told me at the aid station I was 22nd male, that gave a little incentive to at least 'try' and run this last section so I did. I caught and passed two guys, cool I am in the top 20 of the USATF 50 Mile Champs in my first ever run over 31 miles. My feet I guess were getting heavier and heavier, I kicked something (likely a root, maybe a rock) very very hard with my left big toe and tumbled toward the floor, arms outstretched a lunge forward and somehow I managed to stay upright. This was a blessing in disguise as it sure focused the mind for the last several miles of single track. During this section I was caught yet again by Amber just as we were exiting the woods, funny thing was my Garmin only had 48 miles on it at this stage yet Amber's Suunto (I think) had over 50 so I was thankful to know that it was highly unlikely we had two miles to go based on the fact we were back at Buck Creek. We ran in together and I did the chivalrous thing (I think) and slowed up at the line to let Amber cross in 22nd overall good for 3rd female overall. I later found out Amber is a bit of a legend having won Ultraman Canada, placed very highly overall in a number of IM's and raced in Kona several times, wow!
For me to take my minimal mileage approach to an Ultra Marathon of the magnitude of White River was a risk. It worked out. I felt great all day. Yes there were times I wish I could have run some of the steeper climbs, and times when perhaps the 'power hiking' was not necessary but to go 8:30 and place 23rd overall (20th male) in a field of stud athletes is very very pleasing. It has given me a new found appreciation of running and during this process both Cindy and I have come to truly love trail running in all its shapes and forms whether running through a PacNW forest or cruising a desert trail in Tucson. I will continue to race the occasional ultra, maybe not another 50 miler for a while but probably a couple of 50km's. I will also use this deep running base to have a crack at a fast open marathon (never done one outside of an Ironman) in January and then do my best to rock Ironman St George in May which I signed up for a couple of weeks ago.
Huge thanks to Cindy for putting up with me and for being my partner out on the trails on so many occasions. To Hawi for getting me out for a run more because he needed it than me. To Brooks, your shoes and equipment helped me enjoy the training process and stay healthy, to GU huge product (Gu Chomps and GU Energy Gel) got me through the day with energy to spare and nuun for the active hydration along the way. I could not have done it without you guys. Also a big thank you to Joe and Beth who trekked over to Greenwater the week before Cindy and I to clear up the dead mice from the cabin and ensure we got no 'surprises' when we arrived at the cabin, you guys are awesome. It goes without saying that everyone associated with the Performance Center and Team Vo2Multisport has also provided inspiration and kind words over the course of the last six months that I know Cindy and I have both leveraged during some of our more challenging weeks when we wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. I can't believe we got away with it ;-) and live to tell the tale.......
To more amazing adventures for us all.