Thursday, August 5, 2010

White River 50 - Race Report

After soloing the multi-sport Mountains to Sound Relay, I was looking to dip my feet into ultrarunning with a "pure" trail race. My favorite runs are on trails, but only the mountain bike leg of MTS was on one. The running leg was 20 miles on the Burke-Gilman - flat and urban, running 2 blocks away from my apartment by the university!

The White River 50 caught my eye - a local 50 miler in the foothills of Crystal Mountain and Mount Rainier, with two big climbs totaling 9,000ft of gain over single-track trail. Since 2001, it has hosted the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship, attracting a swathe of high-profile runners like Scott Jurek and Anton Krupicka.

Elevation profile with aid stations.

Arriving on Friday afternoon, I checked in and headed to the pasta dinner. I tend to do my carbo-loading leading up to the day before - it's no good to be greeted in the middle of a run by last night's big meal - so I ate a modest portion and used the dinner as an opportunity to talk some other runners. I met a few veterans, most of them twice my age, who kept passing on the same pattern of advice: take it easy on the first hill or the second one will destroy you, don't be afraid to powerwalk the steep uphills, and Sun Top gets hot.

I awoke at 5:00 after a solid night of sleep and ate my tried-and-true pre-race breakfast: an artisan flour tortilla with peanut butter and honey, calorie-dense and quick to digest.

 Chilling at the start with my mom; I think my parents were more worried than I was!

Start to Camp Sheppard (0 - 3.9 mi)

Unlike in previous races, I felt surprisingly calm as we all toed the line. The gun went off and the mass of humanity rumbled down the airstrip. As the pack thinned out over the first several hundred meters, the famous Barefoot Ted McDonald rolled up alongside me and struck up a conversation. Last year he had been testing a prototype of the Treks and this year he was testing a pair of his Luna huaraches with a new lace. Born to Run was accurate in its portrayal of Ted: he likes to talk! We had a good conversation over the first 4 miles and kept our pace conservative. Just before the first aid station, Ted stopped to kick off his sandals for the climb up the first hill, and with that I started to move up through the pack.

Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek (3.9 - 11.7mi)

Not long after Camp Sheppard, the trail turned from soft dirt to hard-pack and climbed steeply up switchbacks, imparting views of a waterfall and the competition below. At the top of the switchbacks I ratcheted up my speed and kept the pace to Ranger Creek. The trail would occasionally break from the trees and scurry along a rock precipice, giving a breathtaking view down to the valley below.

 Coasting down a short hill on the ridge to Corral Pass.

Ranger Creek to Corral Pass (11.7 - 16.9mi)

Due to its remoteness, the Ranger Creek aid station had limited amounts of pure water and gel packets. I let a volunteer refill my half-empty bottle of CLIP2, grabbed a Carb-boom! gel, and rolled out for the second half of the climb. Over the next 3 miles of switchbacks, the forest broke into meadows and rock screes as we crested the ridge to Corral Pass. The rolling hills and gentle turns of the double-track were a welcome respite from the climb, though there were numerous rocks that I had to be mindful of. By now, I was periodically stepping off the trail for Anton, Dakota, and the other top runners making their way back down. At the aid station, I had my bottle refilled with Ultra and grabbed a peanut butter sandwich and some M&M's for the road.

Corral Pass to Ranger Creek (16.9 - 22.1mi)

Now it was time for runners to yield to me! I tucked in behind the two runners I had followed up to Corral Pass and we cruised back over the rolling hills along the ridge. We attacked the first set of switchbacks fairly hard, skating around the corners and bounding over rocks and logs. The second set of switchbacks were mild - perhaps 200 meters between turns rather than 50 - and not particularly steep. I topped off my bottle at the aid station, grabbed another gel, and headed out faster than the others. The aid station captain warned me that "the next five miles are all downhill."

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (22.1 - 27.2mi)

He wasn't lying. On the way out, it took 8 miles to climb up to Ranger Creek - the descent was squeezed into nearly half of that distance. The trail jumped into short, steep switchbacks alongside another waterfall, with some turns ending in a sheer drop. I enjoyed splashing through the stream that crossed the trail several times, cooling and soothing my feet. After running alone for several miles, I caught up to and passed a number of other runners, including one of the veterans I met the night before. "Remember, the race starts at the second climb!" I was feeding off of the excitement that I got bombing down the hill and passing these folks and used that to coast into Buck Creek. My average pace over this section was 6:30 and the Treks held up beautifully. I was able to nimbly bound over boulders and root-ridden sections with ease.

Rolling into Buck Creek.

Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge (27.2 - 31.7mi)

After the long, wicked downhill, my eyes were still darting back-and-forth as if I was still on the switchbacks. My parents passed me a fresh bottle of CLIP2 and within a minute or two I was off. We cruised through the moss-laden forest to the start of the second climb and began our ascent. At this point, I decided that I couldn't keep pace with the other two guys, so I let them go and hitched onto the back of another pack. This part of the hill sucked, there's really nothing else to say. It was steep, and while the wooded sections were cool, all of the switchbacks left us exposed to the intensifying sun, although on the positive side there were some great views. By mile 29, our pack had lost two younger runners and gained two veterans (both 50+), and we all shared the misery.

Fawn Ridge to Sun Top (31.7 - 37.4mi)

We rounded a corner and were greeted with a luau! The volunteers at Fawn Ridge had island music playing and were festively dressed, which gave all of us a good laugh and lifted our spirits. We dove out of the aid station, headfirst into the last 2/3's of the hill. This part of the race was mentally and physically brutal. The climb up to Sun Top was filled with false peaks - we'd ascend, and think we were making vertical progress, only to go down another hill. Jason, the leader of our train, was orchestrating the pace, powerwalking up the steep sections, jogging on the flats, and romping down the hills. There was a lot of bantering - "these uphills aren't bad" while going downhill, "it's only another half marathon after Sun Top". After a while, I stopped giving myself false hope, gritted my teeth, and said, "I'll get there when I get there."

My ears popped as we descended a particularly long hill - at this point, I was pretty sure we had reached the false peak. Sure enough, we erupted onto a meadow bathed with sunlight, crossed the fire road, and made our final ascent. While I could feel the hot earth baking beneath my feet, a cool breeze kissed my face and gave me the final bit of energy needed to make it to the aid station.

 Making the last push to Sun Top.

Sun Top to Skookum Flats (37.4 - 43.4mi)

The volunteers at Sun Top were awesome. They filled my bottle with Ultra and ice, misted me with water, gave me a shot of Mountain Dew, fetched my drop bag and handed me my burrito, and hustled me out as fast as they could. I was treated to a panorama view as I curled around the backside of the craggy peak. Jason and the others had left the aid station, and I wouldn't see them again until the bottom. The section was run on a gravel fire road, which descended at a steady 10% grade for five miles before flattening slightly for another mile. It sounds like a break, but it wasn't. My quads were pretty fried at this point, so forward motion was severely limited. As a consequence, the first several miles were jarring on my knees until I was able to adapt my stride. I was thankful that the trees shaded the road from the now blistering sun. I passed a good number of people on the way down and ran with Nicolas, a runner from France, from mile 41 to the aid station. As we reached the bottom of the hill we picked up the pace and tore it up.

Skookum Flats to Finish (43.4mi - finish)

Everything except crackers and potatoes tasted too sweet at this point. It's amazing what you start craving late into one of these runs. I could have done with a turkey sandwich or grilled cheese - anything with some fat and protein. I think my body's gag reaction to simple carbohydrates was giving me a few hints!

This section of the course was riddled with short, steep hills and hairpin turns. My training on Cougar Mountain prepared me well for handling this type of trail, especially on tired legs. I met up with Jason again, and after a few miles we happened upon another runner who looked like he was heading off the trail. When we asked what he was doing, he pointed to the orange ribbons leading to a makeshift trail along a hill. We waited for two more runners, but neither of them had run this course before, either. At this point in the race, we were tired and not quite thinking straight, so we followed the markers for a while, climbing over logs and balancing on dangerous slopes, until we saw runners on a trail below. Uh-oh. We rounded the next curve and saw freshly cut trees with ribbons. Those weren't race markers, they were markers for the forest service to cut down trees! We had to backtrack and lost a good ten minutes on that diversion.

Jason needed a break from the bushwhacking, so I ran on ahead. The next section took an eternity, and soon Jason caught back up to me. I latched onto him and we powered through what was to be the last half mile in the woods. We broke onto the gravel road with only another half mile to go, and he waved me up alongside him. We spent the worst of the race together, so why not make it a team finish?

 At this point I'm swimming in adrenaline and endorphins.

With the finish line in sight, I felt a rush of energy. As a former teammate in high school cross country said, it was like "angels massaging your legs". The pain disappeared as I cruised into the finish chute and crossed the line. 9:22:30, 48th out of 226 starters, 194 finishers. Not bad for my first 50 miler, especially for such a hard course.



I would've done well to take the first downhill less aggressively and keep up with my nutrition better during the first half of the race. Those were mistakes that I'm sure all runners have made in their first ultra, and while they didn't result in serious pain, they might have granted me a faster time. I admit that I don't have many long long runs under my belt (nothing over 30 miles), so my fat-burning capacity is probably not much better than that of a marathoner.

I used one hand-held bottle for the entire race, and that was enough to keep me hydrated. Also, I think I'm a Carb-boom! convert - they go down easier than a Gu late in a race, and hey, they're made with real fruit. As far as my next ultra, I will probably use CLIP2 or Perpetuem and not rely on aid station mixes. I like to get protein, fat, and a lot of calories out of my sports drink.

 Yes, I am floating. Also, look at those biceps - I bet I could beat a fourth grader in arm-wrestling.

The Treks were pretty damn good. I hit a few rocks late in the race as a result of sloppy footing but the pain was fleeting (just like hitting stones while barefoot). I was pleasantly surprised that I had no blisters or hot spots, too. The wicking inner and kangaroo leather upper dried out quickly after getting soaked in a few of the stream crossings and they kept all rocks and dirt out, as well. They were indispensable over roots and logs, granting much more control and stability than a shoe would. The trail was primarily dirt, and while the second downhill was gravel, I have doubts as to whether Vibrams would be fit to handle trail ultras over very rocky trails (think Leadville or, worse, Hardrock). I may pick up a pair of Inov8 F-Lite 230's - they've been getting rave reviews from folks who wear minimalist shoes.

All soreness disappeared by the third day after the run. The only thing still sticking with me is a bit of pressure near the tuberosity of the 5th metatarsal on my right foot. It seems to be subsiding, and an easy 4 mile barefoot run today loosened it up.


  1. Nick, This is a simply awesome account and I think you should submit it to a running magazine for publication.