Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gorge Waterfalls 50k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 8; 6th Edition 
1 mile skied, 5 miles biked and 80.4 miles run in 2013 races
Race: Gorge Waterfalls 50k
Place: Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, OR
Miles from home: 30 miles
Weather: 60-70s; sunny

As a resident of Portland for rapidly approaching a year (wow, really?!) I realized a bit ago I had not yet raced a single race in my new state. In addition, I had not taken advantage of the wonderful Columbia Gorge and all the gorgeous places one can run there. Not doing so is mostly because of my traveling schedule but somewhat because I hate driving to run. When there is so much awesomeness near your doorstep it is hard to justify driving 30 miles to find other such awesomeness.  I like my car but I like running more. However, I decided to remedy both of those deficiencies when I signed up for the Gorge Waterfalls 50k.

Given sort of a journalists entry into the race (which sold out in 75 minutes!) I wanted to do the best I could to describe the race for others while also looking to push myself to compete. As such, I going to break this recap into two different sections. The first will be to describe the race itself, and the second will be to describe my race specifically. I think far too many recaps for trail and/or ultras leave so much to be desired in terms of describing the course for those who may not be able to run on it beforehand, so I want to remedy that.

The Race Course:

My stance on beautiful vistas during races is fairly well-known: for the most part I do not care. If I am racing, I rarely see more than a few feet in front of me. In the Little Grand Canyon Marathon, a race I was fortunate enough to win (and a picture of the race around mile 25 graces the cover of my second book) I barely noticed the unbelievable beauty until post-race. Having said that, there are a select few races where I do indeed notice the scenery around me. As such, I can say without equivocation that the beauty of the Gorge Waterfalls 50k is jaw-dropping. In fact, there was no shortage of relatively competitive runners stopping mid-race simply to take picture after picture.With regards to eye-pleasingness, the race probably has few equals out there.

Of course, some of the beauty is hard to enjoy simply because of the nature of the course. While not an overly technical trail, it is run on a trail that does not exude the buttery smoothness of so many of Oregon's other trails. Rather, it is indeed tough on the footing in some areas. It is also rather twisty and turny through most of the sections, leaving runners with amply opportunities to twist ankles. In other words, one must be a little careful while enjoying the scenery not to become part of it. Granted this is true of virtually any race but is is even more so here.

The course is a simple out-and-back of ~15 plus miles. Different distances were accounted from different GPS watches and the race's stance on the absolute exactness of the distance of the course is wonderfully stated: "...if the course is not exactly 50k and this will upset you please do not do the race." That's exactly how I feel when a race has a cutoff time that some people feel is too strict.  If you don't like it, it is not as if it is the only game in town. Like just about everything the people at Rainshadow Running do, this is great.

The course can basically be broken into 4 distinct parts.

Part One:

Starting at the Benson State Park, the first section begins with a quick one mile jog around a pond fed by the Wahkeena Creek. A word of caution: about 100 yards into the race there is a small narrow footbridge.  If being in the first few to cross this unimpeded is important to you, I would sprint to the front. I got caught in a bit of a bottle neck that I never expected on a trail race. After this jaunt around the pond, you traverse through a parking lot and up onto a trail which runs parallel to where your car is parked. Enjoy this slightly rolling section because before long you will be hitting the biggest climb of the day (well, until you have to do it again coming back at the end, that is.) In the next mile and a half, give or take, you will go up ~1500 feet of switchbacks and climbs which bring basically everyone to a walk. Some people will still insist on doing that silly hopping-up-and-down-as-they-try-to-simulate-running-but-are-going-no-faster-than-you-walking-and-burning-three-times-the-energy trot. Let them. Save your energy.

Part of this section going up is on well-packed dirt, and some on a little more technical footing. You will be completely shaded against any sun, and probably most of any such rain that may fall by the abundance of glorious trees.

Cresting this mountain, you want to just let fly and for a while you can.  The footing is relatively fine and while the track is a bit narrow with some harrowing falls to the side, if you are vigilant you can pick up some time lost going up the mountain. Throughout the remainder of this downhill (and a short but slightly unexpected other set of switchbacks) is the area with both the beauty and the danger I mentioned above. Even with basically ideal footing conditions like we had on race day, there is a need to pay heed here. As you pass Wahkeena Falls, Fairy Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Falls and tons of other gorgeous rivulets which may not even have names, there are some tricky sections. I took a few sharp stones to the heels and balls of my feet that made me wince. Later on, thinking of the few brave souls wearing sandals or (I swear to god) aqua socks, I wondered how long they would be out of commission.

When you get over the most technical portion of this downhill, you are treated to some screaming downhills on asphalt.  These are also a tad bit tricky for two reasons.  The first being that the switchback nature of them rarely allow you a chance to build up a full head of steam before needing to break your ankles a bit to go 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Also, even at this early in the morning, if you are blessed with beautiful being-outside weather, you will have a plethora of hikers and tourists "clogging" the path a bit. Many are courteous but the random dog on a long-leash not being paid special attention to can make for a quick end to your race. Lots of credit to the pedestrians who made an effort to allow runners to pass and for those cheering us on as well.

Part Two:

After finishing the switchbacks, you pop out onto a short trail before running down onto the road to the first of two aid stations which you will hit twice. Very adequately stocked with all sorts of food you would expect at an ultra there are volunteers more than willing to fill your bottle or pack or what have you to speed you on your way. There is also a portapotty here and a place where you could leave a drop bag if necessary. All top-notch stuff here.

Photo by Takao Suzuki
Just as soon as you enter the road you leave it again and head back to the trail. The next four miles contain some of the most runnable sections of the trail that you will encounter all day. While the footing can be a little dicey in spots (e.g., you cross what appears to be a rock slide in one 25 yard section) the vast majority of this section allows you to thoroughly enjoy the woods. There are some places where some well-grown moss can make the footing a little slippery and I imagine on a wetter day some of the mud would be less than forgiving.

The first part of the course is known for its waterfalls. I would say this portion feels much more like a jaunt through the forest.  There are no large waterfalls in this section but there are places where the water trickles down the rocks from above. Soon the run turns into the aforementioned twisting and turning. No switchbacks to speak of but a pure trail run, leaping over a downed tree here and there, barely feeling like you are disturbing nature or that you feet are leaving any mark. Again, not a buttery smooth trail but easier to traverse than earlier.

As with the last section, this part of the course is almost entirely shaded from the sun's rays. It is also slightly cooler in the forest than it is just a few hundred yards away down on the road so it is about the best you can ask for.

After a slow but gradual downhill section you get spit out onto the road for what I think of as the third distinct part of this course.

Part Three:

This was absolutely nirvana for me. After carefully picking my way down trails and waterfalls over hill and dale, a 2ish mile section of road awaits runners before they hill the next aid station.  Mostly flat with one small rise near the aid station, this is a chance for road runners to really stretch their legs. Nothing much more to say about this other than it is a nice road with very little traffic on it. A welcome respite for some and for those who do not like road, well, you won't have to worry about it for too long.

Part Four:

After hitting another aid station as fully stocked as the first, runners will take off for the last section before turning around. This area will contain some climbs but the footing is very forgiving. This section combines the wooded wonderfulness of the second section with the waterfalls of the first.  After climbing gently for less than a mile, runners will begin a nice little section of downhill.  Before long, a quick series of switchbacks down a hill will lead to the turnaround in front of Elowah Falls. I am unsure if the race offers different ways to mark this turnaround each year so I will keep it a secret.

That's it.  Now just come back the way you came. 

Mid-Recap Thoughts:

As I mentioned, the aid stations were great. Would it be nice to have another one somewhere? Sure. Is it necessary?  Not at all. There were only a couple of places where I can see a solo runner may have taken a wrong turn but for the most part the pink ribbons denoting where runners should go were fairly well marked. I was a little bummed not to receive even a token medal for completing the race but I quickly got over it. It would just go on a shelf anyway.

My Race:

I knew this race would be challenging.  If not for the elevation change alone, the less than stellar footing would make a road enthusiast like myself hesitant to say the least.  However, I wanted to test my physical fitness in my first ultra race since the Graveyard 100 over a year ago (N.B.  If you say you'd prefer a slightly nicer finish line at the end of the GY100 in your recap, the RD gets all snippy with you. Well, not you, but behind-your-back-you on a listserv. Classy, really.) Bestest buddy Shannon was running the race, as were a veritable cornucopia of friends from near and far. On top of that, there were going to be some real trail running studs and studdettes running, which took any pressure off of trying to place high in a race completely out of my element. Nevertheless, I was anxious to start.

After the bottleneck on the bridge and a little bit of jogging around the lake I felt like I might be in for a good day. The climb up the mountain soon took any spunkiness I had in my legs and shoved it way down inside. I simply am not a good climber and I am also not any good until I have a solid 4-5 miles of running in me.  With the rise of the mountain starting barely a mile into the race we were definitely taking on my weaknesses head on.

As I commenced powerwalking up the mountain I just kept telling myself I would make it up on the downhill.  Fortunately my ignorance of how I wouldn't be able to run like I thought I would on that downhill kept me from getting disheartened.  More than a few runners passed me as we traipsed to the top but once there I was ready to go. One thing I am very proud of is how from that point on, virtually no one passed me.

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
In hindsight, it is amazing to me how much that climb took out of me. I was winded, my calves were strained to the point of potential concern and my lower back was on fire. I thought "I'm 3 miles into this. How bad is this going to hurt?" But it just took a little bit more before I had the fire burning and I was running. Through the forest and under waterfalls I pranced. Until the first aid station I spent the vast majority of the time taking in views and loving the weather. While the temperature was far from "ideal" for me at 60+ degrees (and climbing), the lack of rain was very appreciated.

After a quick break at the portapotty at the aid station I headed out to the trails, happy to be able to get some ground under my feet. I traversed the large portion of this gallop through the forest with a runner from Seattle named Michael. He was leading the way and while I could have possibly gone a little faster, I was enjoying the company. Right before we hit the road section, we were joined by a nice young lady named Shamai who confirmed what he had been thinking all along: "Good course to turn an ankle on, huh?"

When we did hit the road, I felt like a runner for the first time all day.  I thought I might regret it but decided to spin my wheels a bit and see what I could do.  You can see a decided pick-up in my pace in the elevation chart above with a nice 6:19 peak in the middle. Here was where I left Michael behind and began to try and track down as many people as I could. I may pay for my hubris later on the climbs but I figured wasn't going to really save that much energy by not taking advantage of my strengths.

I was in and out of the aid station lickity split and off to the last turnaround. On the road prior to this I had seen some of the ridiculously fast runners but the bulk of the runners I had seen throughout the race were now heading back toward me. I knew this section was not all that long which meant they were not very far in front of me. This only invigorated me. Jumping down the switchbacks to the turnaround, I was on a mission.

Back on the road I could see no less than ten people in front of me all ripe for the picking.  One by one I was able to put them all in my rear view.  I lamented the fact that I had to get back on the trail again but that is what the race called for. Through the next wooded trail running I saw the remainder of runners who were still on their way out.  The layout of the race allowed you to see every runner in front and behind you which was extremely pleasant. I also used this time to slowly but surely track down a runner or two here and there.  Two guys I had passed on the road were using this time to catch up to me as well.  Tim and Adam were stellar climbers and I simply couldn't keep up. Into the final aid station I went and asked the volunteers to fill my bottle.

I was using a bottle I had never used before as I was the unfortunate victim of a robbery recently.  I hadn't made the time to replace my bottle so was using one larger than normal.  I was glad to be using this because while the forest was cooler than the rest of the outdoors, the greater Portland area had temperatures reaching 80 degrees or more. As such, I was plowing through the water in my handheld. Here, as I filled my bottle a girl I had been playing cat and mouse with all day came in behind me. Alicia was her name and she could run downhills like few people I have ever seen. Conversely, she was not adept whatsoever at climbing them. I said we shared a kindred spirit in that sort of running.

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Over the last section, as I met, chatted with and passed a few more runners, Alicia and I continued to stay in sight of each other.  Finally, when we got the the last set of switchbacks, she bounded past me and was gone. It was a cruel finish to get off these downhill sprints and then go back onto the trail to circumnavigate the pond to finish where we started. When I crossed the line in a time of 4:39, I can say it wasn't what I wanted.  However, the course wasn't what I expected so in the end all things even out.  I figure, in running close to even splits (about 5 minutes off total) I passed no less than 25 people coming back. I think that I timed my running very well. Heck, just 90 seconds faster and I would have passed 5 more people. 

Shannon kept going in spite of missing one of those few turns that could be missed and adding at least a mile of uphill climb to her overall time. I am not sure I would have had the intestinal fortitude to continue on if I had done that on such a difficult course. As we all munched on pizza hand made on a portable pizza oven by an eclectic group called Doughnations, we reflected on what a wonderful day it had been. I told James Varner he put on a great race and if he added just a few more miles of road running I might come do it again.

And maybe some medals. Heck, tree bark with ribbon would do. Nevertheless, I like where this puts me in coming back from a down second half of last year.  My fitness is returning as is some foot speed. Now I just have to keep it rolling into the next few races.


Becca Jane said...

I've never run in the Gorge, but I grew up backpacking there. 40 miles around Mt. Hood in 4 days....which would be an awesome run!

.n. said...

i've been reading all sorts of recaps about this race. i think i'm going to run a 50K (my first)next summer and now i'm definitely putting this one on my bucket list. you're recap was great so thank you for giving a description of the course as well as your own race.