I was travelling down to Washington with Alicia - the first time we'd attended a "destination race" together since last year's Cougar Mountain 50k. As usual, we stopped off as soon as we'd crossed the border to stock up on pre-race essentials: beer, wine, cheap lawn chairs, chocolate and smoked salmon. Realizing that it was already getting a little late in the day, we elected to have dinner in the mall parking lot; not the most scenic location and the cause of some consternation to our fellow shoppers, but we had a great little feast before hitting the road again for the remaining few hours that would take us to our camp ground in the shadows of Mt Rainier.
|Nope, we're not running up that mountain. Photos courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama.|
Except that by the time we'd arrived, the only shadows were those cast by our headlamps as it was now pitch dark. Still, the tent seemed to go up without too much trouble, and following a quick snack of chocolate and a relaxing mug of wine we turned in, hoping to get maybe four hours of sleep.
It's one of the highlights of this race that it starts and finishes in a state forest camp ground, so many of the racers choose to camp here both before and after the race. It engenders the run with a great sense of community and only being a few hundred metres from the start line in the morning is one less source of anxiety. The downside is the complete lack of bathroom facilities, but at least we're all in the same (stinky) boat.
After a minimal breakfast and some alarmingly sweet instant Mongolian coffee, we assembled at the start line. There were a few familiar faces; Ather who I'd been in a couple of close battles with already this year; and Ed McCarthy, a fellow Vancouverite who was no doubt one of the pre-race favourites. It was one of the bigger 50-milers I've been in; there were around 400 starters and the field was decently competitive.
|But I think we do climb up that one.|
The race starts off pretty flat on a gravel road next to an airstrip. It's ideal for spreading the field out, but there's the temptation to start out too quickly so as to avoid getting held up behind slower runners once the trail narrows. As we entered some classic Pacific Northwest single-track I couldn't help but feel that the pace was a little on the brisk side; and there were already a lot of people ahead of me. Still, there wasn't much I could do except go along with it.
We all went straight through the first aid station at four miles before starting the first of two big ascents. White River only has two major climbs, but they both involve around 3,000 ft of elevation gain. Which is substantial. As I'd more-or-less expected, the group I was running with attacked the climb a little more enthusiastically than I'd like, so on a few occasions I stepped aside to let people pull ahead of me. The changing gradient - some parts runnable, some not so, made it difficult to find my rhythm, so the stunning views of Mount Rainier that casually presented themselves were a welcome distraction.
More people passed me, including Ather who I'd been expecting to see for some time. There was an aid station at around 10 miles into the race, but I opted to continue, eager to keep moving while I still felt relatively fresh. As we climbed higher, we emerged from the forest into lush alpine meadows. The scenery was magnificent, the weather perfect, yet the climbs were unrelenting. I pushed on, managing to smile for Glenn Tachiyama who'd found a perfect spot for some amazing photography. There's a sizable out-and-back portion in this section of the race, so it was fun to see the leaders flying past. Ed was hanging on tightly in 2nd place, right behind, I believe, Max Ferguson.
At the next aid station, Coral Pass, I decided it was time for a short break. The course was so beautiful and the volunteers so cheerful that it seemed wrong not to spend a few moments soaking up the atmosphere. So I grabbed handfuls of various foods before heading out - and up - wondering if we were ever going to get any downhill. After the final couple of ascents, the trail started to drop down again. Now I was having fun. The trail was fairly non-technical, but was made entertaining by the sharpness of the switchbacks, some "interesting" drop-offs and the fact that several hundred people were running up the trail in the opposite direction.
Despite not pushing the pace too hard, I passed at least a dozen people over the 10-mile descent. This section was probably my favourite of the whole race, as the trail was deliciously runnable. Exactly how I like it, I reflected, as my foot caught on a root and I sailed spectacularly through the air before landing in a dishevelled heap. I looked around. No-one seemed to have seen me, so I quickly picked myself up and carried on, wondering if I'd ever learn to stop doing this. Don't hold your breath.
Eventually, just as I was starting to tire of the constant downhill pounding, the descent came to an end and we entered another aid station, roughly half-way through the race and cruelly close to the finish line. I wolfed down a questionable assortment of food items - who says fudge isn't a good running fuel? - before launching into the next couple of miles of trail that weaved around the camp ground before the next big climb started. This was the part of the day I was least looking forward to - the arduous steep climb up to Sun Top. Everyone's legs were feeling a little worked by this point and the temperature was creeping up quickly. I passed a couple of other runners who were looking desperately unhappy. I also passed a pair of horseback riders - twice, because my legs unexpectedly and painfully cramped up as soon as I'd overtaken them, so I stood sheepishly stretching while they casually cantered past me.
After a gruelling few miles of steep climbing, the next aid station was a welcome sight. It was around this point, that ultra-legend Megan Arbogast passed me, oozing class and professionalism. All except for her failure to sound genuinely upset when someone told her that Ashley Arnold, who was wining the race, had rolled her ankle. She efficiently exited the aid station while I spent a little longer there trying to compose myself and prepare for the rest of the climb.
After a couple more miles, the trail suddenly dropped down, but I had at least been prepared enough to know that this was a false dawn. There was a final steep half-mile of uphill to go. Just before emerging at Sun Top, Glenn put in another appearance, although this time I don't think I managed to look quite so spritely. Again, the views this high up were absolutely incredible, but their uplifting effect was less pronounced than earlier. I knew there was a pounding downhill to come and I'd been telling myself on the climb "Just stick to water for now - you don't want to feel bloated when you're hammering it down that road". Sounds like a plan? Of course, as soon as I saw those delectable little cups full of Coke and Mountain Dew, resolve went out the window and I went about quaffing sugar, caffeine and carbonation with alarming gusto.
|No Glenn, I'm not going to start running.|
Dropping back into the trails, the staff at the final aid station told me, as they are contractually obliged to, that I was looking great. I remained skeptical and pleaded for an exact breakdown of what was left. About six miles. On the elevation profile, it looks pretty flat, but I'd been warned beforehand, that it's no such thing. The trail rolls along the banks of the eponymous White River, gradually climbing as you head upstream. It had been described to me as "technical", but fortunately it wasn't as severe as I'd feared and the first couple of miles clicked off fairly quickly. But I could feel myself rapidly running out of gas. With the steep descent from Sun Top and my slightly dodgy stomach, I'd not consumed many calories over the last hour and it was starting to catch up with me. I began walking sections that I had no business to be. Eventually I pulled out a pack of jelly beans and munching on a few of the tangy delights gave me a small boost. Still, I was probably passed by five or six people at this stage. I kept repeating the "Just keep moving forward" mantra, and after an eternity of glacial progress, I finally popped out of the trail on to the road that marked the final few hundred metres of the race.
|Yep, it's a picture of me running. Thanks to Ather Haleem for this one.|
As I flopped over the finish line, the race director handed me a water bottle filled with ice-cold water, a nice touch. My time was around 8:48, for 24th out of 286 finishers. A little slower than I'd hoped for, but at that point I was just glad to be done. Before long, Alicia crossed the line looking a whole lot more lively. She'd snagged third place, a fantastic achievement against a strong field. We spent the rest of the afternoon cheering other runners in, eating and drinking in the sunshine, and then as darkness descended, eating and drinking more around the campfire.
White River's a tough race for sure, but it's more than made up for by the fantastic setting, a great atmosphere and superb organization and volunteers. I'd highly recommend it. As usual, I'd like to thank FITS Sock Co. for their support and kitting me out with their amazing Performance Trail Socks which cushioned my feet admirably on a pounding course.
Official Web Site
Alicia's Race Report
My run on Strava