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.
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.
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.
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.
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.