Gorge Waterfalls 50K – My First 50K

As the title of this blog states, I write these for my own memories.  If you really want to know about the race, feel free to jump down to “Running the Gorge Waterfalls 50K” otherwise you can start here and learn about…

My History of Running

From the day I started running in the early summer of 2012, when I weighed 90 pounds more than I do today, my goal has been to run an ultramarathon.  This was inspired by two good ultrarunning friends who make doing ultras look easy.  While I knew that I would never be fast, I knew that with training I could keep going and going and going (take that Energizer Bunny!).  On Saturday, March 29, 2014 I completed that goal and finished my first 50K.

I had always targeted the Chuckanut 50K as my first race, both for my friends who ran it as well as it really being the premier race in the area.  Chuckanut has been around for over 20 years and has been run by, and still attracts, many of the best ultrarunners (I was going to say “in the region” but in the 2014 race it had runners from Canada, Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and so on).  It was also where I reconnected with Robert Lopez, a good friend I used to work with and prolific ultrarunner, who eventually took me under his wing, encouraging me to continue, inviting me to run with him, and introducing me to some of the most amazing runners in the area.

However, I have also fallen in love with Rainshadow Running’s race series, again having friends who have run it as well as thoroughly enjoying it’s billing as having the Most Beautiful and Most Challenging races in the region.  Beyond Chuckanut, my other goal race was the Sun Mountain 50K, which again friends had run and was known as being a beautiful course.  I ran it in 2013 as my first 25K, both enjoying the run as well as getting a picture taken by Glenn Tachiyama which became one of the reasons I ended up in a full-page ad for the ProClub in the March Alaska Air magazine (OK, losing 44 pounds, gaining it back and more, and then losing 101 had a bit to do with it as well).  It was also due to this race that I heard about the Gorge Waterfalls 50K which also quickly got onto my bucket list as

For 2014, due to some scheduling challenges with the amazing ultrarunner Krissy Mohel, it was announced that Chuckanut would be on the same day as Gorge Waterfalls.  While my heart had always been aiming for Chuckanut, Gorge was too tempting to pass up.  When I won the lottery to get into Gorge, it was a done deal.

Running the Gorge Waterfalls 50K

I headed down to Portland early on Friday afternoon in order to beat the traffic, which failed miserably as the entire Seattle area seemed to have the same idea and what should have been a 3.5 hour drive took over 5 hours.  But everything else went smoothly and I checked into my hotel for a good night’s sleep before the race.  Up at 6:15AM thanks to 2 different alarms (and no thanks to the Wake-up Call system which was an hour off time-wise), I had a relatively relaxed morning, getting my things together and having a light breakfast (typical banana, protein (yogurt this time), and some bread (bagel and a muffin).  The weather had been iffy all week but it looked like it would start in the high 30’s and get into the mid 40’s with only a slight chance of rain.  As well as could be expected and completely wrong in actuality.

Hopped in the car and headed to the Finish line where checkin was quick, I met up with friends Alley Kloba, Bill Sepeda, and Glenn before boarding the bus to the Start line at Wyeth Trailhead/Campground.  As Alley pointed out, it was a long, long bus ride.  We were pretty sure the bus had missed an exit or two given the length of time we were doing highway speeds, but sure enough we ended up at the Trailhead.  Oy we had a long way back.

Start Photo by Paul Nelson

Start Photo by Paul Nelson

After a short walk to the start line, which we were eventually told was back at the buses so after a short walk back, we got a quick course briefing and then the race was off.  After immediately crossing our first of dozens of foot-bridges, we were immediately on single-track up a gradual incline for the first few miles.

The course is one of Rainshadow’s easier runs although it has a surprising amount of elevation over the entire course and a killer of a hill at the end:

Cool elevation lamination by Alley Kloba

Cool elevation lamination by Alley Kloba

Elwah Falls

The course was beautiful and hard.  To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what was where but I have great memories of beautiful single-track, at least a dozen stream crossings (some of which I even made with dry feet, but most not so much), and past innumerable waterfalls that we ran past, behind, and under (no, truly, with all the rain and the wind kicking up the spray we essentially ran through one of the larger falls).

Memorable moments

After we spread out a bit from the start, I was fortunately in the right section of the pack, (near the back : – ) so not much passing going on.  We quickly came upon some rock slides, which fortunately were very run-able unlike later ones which were not due to more ankle-twisters than trail.  Also got my first taste of the many stream crossings, most of which went “Yeah!  I made it three steps across without getting wet Oh CRAP I MISSED THE LAST STEP” and ending up with one soggy foot.  I made a half-hearted effort to switch up which foot got the dunking so the other foot didn’t feel left out or get too warm.

The first climb was slow but not that bad, comparable to many at Cougar Mt which is my usual hilly-trail stomping grounds.  There was the full gamut of trails, ranging from nice single-track, clean dirt through rock-slides, annoyingly rocky and non-runable through rockslides, fire roads, real roads, streams, waterfalls, and occasional stretches of mud.

Some good mudThe mud was the bane of my run.  My first wipeout was due to a muddy-slide about 1/4 of a mile before Aid Station #1.  I was plowing down it when my right leg didn’t stick and slipped out in front of me, doing my best imitation of a slide into home plate.  My whole right side was covered in mud.  Fortunately, I just felt a touch sore so hopped up and continued on to the aid station where they had plenty of water enough for me to wash my hands.  The Project Talaria videographer strongly suggested I wash off my leg, which I wasn’t planning on until I looked down and there was a bit of red mixed in with the mud.  Upon washing it off, sure enough I had some pretty good, bloody scrapes.  Fortunately they weren’t too bad (dripping just a bit 🙂 so after some quick snacks I headed off out of the aid station.

It feels worse than it looks.

It feels worse than it looks.

My next wipeout really took care of my leg.  I’m not quite sure what happened, perhaps I was leaping over a boulder on the trail (which was likely closer to a tiny rock) but the next thing I knew I was doing my very best tuck-and-roll coming back up into a sitting position with my feet dangling down the side of the hill (not quite a cliff fortunately).  Two guys in funny hats (literally one said “Goofy”) immediately came up and asked if I was OK.  After patting myself down and thinking for a minute, I decided I was indeed fine and they helped me back up.  Of course it was then that I realized I’d ripped a good chunk of skin off of the same knee as before and now had a far more impressive amount of blood showing, although not enough to stop me.  I got back going behind the guys, who I’d run into again later on.

For this run I was rockin’ a new Garmin Fenix 2, something I had picked up in the past week because I knew I’d be pushing the battery limits of my Garmin 610 which lasted less than 8 hours.  I also needed something far better for the Volcanic 50 which is likely to take me 11+ hours.  I like the watch, although it was on this run that I discovered something is up with it’s GPS distance calculations.  I didn’t note the distance at Aid Station #1 but I kept watching the distance as I started to look for Aid Station #2 and the aid station just never came.  Half a mile past the distance, no aid station.  One mile, no aid station.  Two miles no aid station.  At this point I figured they set up in the wrong place or I was off the trail, which I wasn’t since I was still following the flags.  Finally when the watch showed 2.5 miles late, I did indeed hit the aid station which both they and other runners assured me was in the proper 18.2 location.  My watch was 2.5 miles off at the 18.2 mark.  Ug.  I also accidentally hit the Split button so it now beeped at a random offset rather than on the actual mile mark.  I obviously have some investigating to do and if I can’t figure it out quickly, the watch is going back.  Bummer, I like it otherwise.

DCIM107GOPROWaterfalls.  Did I mention the waterfalls?  The waterfalls were numerous and stunning.  There were a couple memorable ones, Elwha Falls.  Elwha has a low bridge running in front of it.  However with all of the rain along with a stiff breeze, the falls was now blowing well over the bridge.  It looked exciting enough for me to turn on the GoPro and shoot this fun video of me running under the falls.  It was really cold, but at least I’d dry off soon and be able to enjoy the rest of the run.  Not.

Shortly after “Yeon” Aid Station #2, there is a 2 mile stretch of road before heading back into the woods.  While it had drizzled a touch up to now, as I left the aid station onto the road it began to come down in buckets.  And then almost immediately turned into hail.  Coming sideways.  I must say that this was the most miserable run I’ve ever had; I was just soaking and cold.  The hail stopped after about 5 minutes but the temperature was dropping and the rain didn’t let up until after I was back in the woods.  For the remaining 5 miles to “No Name” Aid Station #3, I have never been so cold.  My normally hot hands were freezing and shaking so much that getting into my pack for munchies just wasn’t going well.  It was ugly.  By the time I hit the aid station, I had dried off enough that I could start to feel my fingers again and the rain had completely stopped.

Aid Station #3 is the final aid station before the big climb up over Multnomah Falls and back down Wahkeena Falls where Glenn takes his amazing finishing pictures.  It’s only 5.5 miles to the finish so I was surprised and a bit disheartened when the volunteer said it would take about 2 more hours to get to the finish.  I’d been hoping for less than an hour and a half which would give me a finish time I would be quite proud of.  However, he was right and it actually took me a bit longer due to an unfortunate encounter.  From the aid station, we continued on the trail with a gradual climb until hitting the paved switchbacks that went to the top of the falls.  It was amusing to see that where I started on the switchbacks was right where my family and I had stopped as we were too tired the last time we had visited the Multnomah Falls.

After about 900 feet of gain, I ran into my “Goofy Guys” again who had just come upon a runner who was sitting down on the trail.  She had literally passed out and they had just gotten her up into a sitting position.  She was in bad mental shape, and was just “checked out” in terms of responding to requests.  Her brain was elsewhere.  She was also shaking uncontrollably.  We were able to get some water and salt tablets into her and then some food.  One of the guys had some spare mittens which was also got onto her hands.  After about 10 minutes, she was able to stand and we decided to proceed forward rather than going back as we thought it would be quicker.  I’m not sure it was the case, but it was close enough that we all, including her, had a chance to finish.  She wasn’t steady getting up but once she got moving, which meant walking which we were all doing anyway given the steepness of the hills, and warming up, she rejoined the living and you could see she was getting her mind back.  Scary stuff.  Once we neared the crest of the hill (aside: my watch measured elevation perfectly, it showed the crest at 1510 which was almost exactly on according to the course elevation profile), I took off ahead and dashed down to base where I was pleased to see that someone had called ahead and EMS and police were waiting.  I spent another 5-10 minutes with then telling them her state and where she was (15 min back I figured).  They started up and I headed off to the finish which was a mile away.

It was on the downhill where I ran into Glenn towards the bottom of Wahkeena Falls.  I worked hard to make sure I looked great for the photo but ended up hitting my shoulder on the pillar on the turn where he takes his shot.  Fortunately, Glenn is a star and we got the photo below.  While I was excited about the shot, the best part of it, and probably the most supportive comment of the entire race, which had tons of great volunteers at the aid stations cheering us on, was Glenn shouting (and I do mean shouting, something I’ve never heard Glenn do before) “All right!  You made it!  Great job!”  I’m not sure he’ll ever understand how much that meant to me.

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

From the parking lot where I met EMS, it was another mile or so around the lake and back to the finish line.  This is one of those annoying times where you see your car and then have to run away from it before running back.  Ug.  While my nutrition had been great up to now, I was now starving.  I figured it was too late for a gel to matter and there was pizza at the end so I pushed through.  I passed one couple as I started around the lake and they kept a good pace which pushed me far faster than I would have gone otherwise.  I was able to stay ahead of them and finished strong, plowing through the finish-line mud and into the waiting arms of James, the Race Director.  I was all smiles and Trey Bailey of Uphill Running took some photos and did a post-race interview.  It would have been a much better interview an hour later; I was just brain-dead at that moment and just wanted something warm in my belly.  A quick dash to the pizza trailer (best invention ever, a clay, wood-fired pizza oven on a flatbed trailer) for an amazing piece of pizza (I have no idea what I ate.  It was hot and therefore amazing) and I was done.  I saw Glenn again as he had finished up (yeah, I was that late in the race.  He also didn’t have to run around the lake.) who congratulated me again before I headed off to my quickly warming car and headed back to the hotel.  Bill Sepeda and Alley Kloba were staying in the same hotel and were kind enough to offer me more pizza and swap stories until I couldn’t keep my eyes open (which wasn’t very long) and I crashed for a very short night.

I finished 216th out of 233 with a time of 8:51.  Given how much fun I had, how many pictures and videos I took, and how good I felt about helping another runner in need I am thoroughly proud of my race.  And now I can look forward to going faster next time.  🙂

Volunteering at the Gorge Waterfalls 100K

I had offered to help Glenn on Sunday with shepherding tourists during the few seconds runners were running by Wahkeena Falls.  This is always an amazing shot and I was happy to help make sure it turned out as well as possible.

One thing I didn’t realize when I volunteered however was that it was going to be easiest for me to meet up with Glenn in the morning and stay with him until we got through the Falls which would happen at the end of the race.  This meant getting up at 3AM so I could be at the 4AM start.  Glenn has a great photo of the headlamps at the start.

We hung around for a bit before heading to the first aid station where we watched the first few runners blast by before we headed on to our first location.  James had suggested a trailhead that lead to a footbridge over a stream on one path and some cool looking rock-slides in the other direction.  We tried the footbridge first and it just didn’t have the visual pop that Glenn loves so off we went in the other direction in search of rocks.  We went.  And we went.  And we went.  It was our understanding that the rocks were just a bit from the trailhead, where “a bit” was something under a mile.  2 miles in we began to wonder.  3 miles in we had serious doubts.  4 miles in we were beginning to question our sanity.  Finally at about 5 miles in we came upon a rock slide.  Concerned we were on the wrong path we started texting and calling folk to figure out where we were but before too long the runners started showing up.  Glenn took pictures and I played around with time-lapse on my GoPro.

One surprising thing was that the first runners came back to us in under 30 minutes, meaning the turn-around aid station was only about a mile away, far closer than the trailhead we entered on.  We called and arranged transportation from the aid station and then hung around as long as possible until we had to leave to get to the next spot.

After some debate on trying something different, we ended up going to Wahkeena where we knew we could catch the front-runners and get an amazing shot.  This is where I finally got to add some value and helped usher the few tourists who braved the weather out of the pictures.  Waiting for runners

I had some fun trying out my GoPro with high-speed video.  Here’s one of Jess Mullen:

And I must now say to Van Phan, I am so sorry I failed you.  I truly did my best to have these folks pause while you ran by but they were having none of it.  I won’t show it here but if you really need to see it, you can view it on Glenn’s Site.  I hope you are able to laugh at the goofiness of it.

I should state that while I have always had great respect for Glenn, that respect absolutely soared after watching him stand and brave the elements and waterfall spray for 6+ straight hours.  The man is amazing and does everything in his power to get the best picture for every single runner.  Truly awesome.

We finally left around 7:45PM and headed to the finish for a quick bite of pizza before I headed home having to work on Monday.  This was a horrible idea.  I had 5 hours of sleep the night after my first 50K and then was up for 17 hours before starting a 4 hour drive.  Bad, bad idea.  I made it 2 hours to Chehalis before giving up and finding a hotel for the night.

Couple more videos and images

Running under Ponytail Falls: http://youtu.be/VfY9iridivA

Compilation of other waterfalls: http://youtu.be/poesvRRVTfk


2 thoughts on “Gorge Waterfalls 50K – My First 50K

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