White River 50 mile Race Report
The night before the race, I am having a beer with a friend, who is a very fast and accomplished ultra runner. We are sitting in the bar and he points out a very lean, fit, looking woman. "Know who that is?" he asks. I don't. "It's Ellie Greenwood - the woman who just smashed the course record at Western States and broke 17 hours." He continues: "She is a perfect pacer. If you want to run a very smooth and consistent race, just latch on to her." She is one of the best women ultra runners and one of the best ultra runners, period, in the world. I have no intention of being anywhere near her on race day but it's fun to think about.
Race morning presented me with a few curve balls. I woke up with a full on head cold. Sore throat, runny nose, watery eyes. I feel terrible. I took solace in the fact that it was better than being sick a few days before hand. This I could deal with. I knew once I got running, I would feel better. I got my pre-race breakfast down and headed to the start line with my brother and two friends. The next issue I noticed while jogging over to the woods for a last minute pee. My Fuel Belt water bottle had a hole in it (it had been punctured during air travel!) I had to quickly find my support crew (friends and husband and wife team, Matt & Robin,) change bottles and sort out the new fueling plan being down a water bottle. That sorted, I jog to the starting line and noticed the my HR monitor is dead. I reset it a few times but nothing. Oh well.....so much for the pacing by HR strategy.
The gun goes off and 400 ultra runners go out like this is the start of a 10K. Seriously. I've never seen anything like it. I'm about 100th at the mile as we enter the single track. However, I am right with Peter (my fast ultra running friend.) My other friend Billy and my brother Dan are right behind us. At this point, Peter starts smoothly moving up through the field and although the effort feels hard, I decide to go with him. I am breathing hard but figure we'll cool it once we get past all these 12 hour hopefuls who just ran the first mile in 6:30. We are passing, passing, passing and all of a sudden we hit an aid station. Shit! We've only been running for 15 minutes and that aid station is supposed to be at 30 min. The race director moved the aid station last minute to accommodate a change made in the course at the top of the first mountain. The only problem is that my crew had no way of knowing and I only have one 22 ounce bottle for the next 1:45. But the weather is cool and my legs feel good so I don't panic.
Peter is still passing people and I'm attached to his hip. Peter would say "coming up" and most of the runners would nicely step to the side of the single track. I would follow with "one more" and they would let me pass. The closer I stayed to Peter, the easier it was to pass. We are on the first climb now - 8 miles up to 5000' and we are still running. Many runners are now power hiking the steep upgrades. We are mowing down runners. The single track is beautiful. The most beautiful trail I have ever run on and we have sweeping vistas of the valley below. Peter is hooting and hollering every time we pop out on a cliff which makes it fun as we round the mountain. After 3 or 4 miles, we have spectacular views of Mt. Rainer. Awesome. We go through aid station 2 in 1:44. 13 minutes faster than plan. I refill my water bottle and mix in my electrolyte drink powder and we are off. A mile later, we catch a very fit looking woman. Shit! It's Ellie. I did not ever expect to see her.
Ellie is hiking a steep section of stairs and we settle in behind her. I am happy to not be running this section and I assume, given the pre-race beer discussion of Ellie's perfect pacing, that we are going to just settle in behind her. Suddenly, she steps off the trail and waives Peter and I through. Peter starts running and so do I. Ellie is still hiking. Once we are out of earshot, I ask Peter if it concerns him that we just blew through the course record holder for WS100. He says "yes, this is a bad idea" but continues to run. We hit a mile of downhill switchback and Peter opens a gap shockingly quick. Wow, he can run downhill. I have to work to keep contact and I decide, for the first time, that his pace is too fast for me. But we hit another uphill and I am right back on his hip. I feel great going up. We hit aid station 3, 11 minutes under plan. Luckily my crew is there and I get 2 new fuel belt water bottles and new gels. Matt and Robin had to ride their mountain bikes up a 5000' climb wearing backpacks with all of our gear in them. They were awesome all day. A huge part of the success I had on the day was due to Matt and Robin. Reloaded, we continue up to the top of the mountain. We are about 3 hours in now and I feel the first hint of fatigue in my legs. Given that we have been running for 3 hours and have already climbed 5000', I tell myself that a little fatigue is acceptable.
As we head back down the trail to the mile 22 aid station, I am flying. It's a blast. But Peter is way gone. In a blink he opened up 100M then 200M and then he was a round a switch back and that was it. Gone. I hit mile 22 and blow right through the aid station. I don't need anything. I am still 11 minutes under plan and feeling strong. The next 5 miles are switch back single track with 90 degree turns all the way back to the valley floor. 2 guys catch and blow throw me like I am standing still. Wow. At mile 25, I hear a runner coming up on my shoulder and I step aside. It's Ellie and she is just blitzing down the mountain. It was impressive. She had to be running 6 min pace. Gone. I go into the mile 27 aid station and my crew is there. It's warm now and I opt to put on my hydration backpack for the next mountain. (Robin had it open already so all I had to do was slip it on.) I know the trails are much steeper on the coming climb and its top is entirely above tree line and exposed to the direct sun. I still feel pretty good given that I've already run further than a marathon. I am out of this aid station 9 minutes under plan. There are two miles of single track to the base of Sun Top.
The first 27 miles of single track were buttery smooth and beautiful. These 2 miles are grim. Big rocks, roots, logs, etc. My feet hurt, my quads, hurt, my calves hurt. Jumping over logs and jumping down off rocks on tired legs is a challenge. A couple of runners pass me on this section including the 2nd place woman. I finally hit the climb and I feel much better. This climb is much steeper and I am doing a fair amount of hiking with my hands on my knees while making sure to run any less steep sections. I feel good. I am sticking to my nutrition plan perfectly and I'm now hitting the 2x caffeine gels which make a noticeable difference. I catch the second place woman again and we chat for a bit. She says she is looking forward to the 6 mile descent off sun top on a dirt fire road. I am definitely not looking forward to that descent. Eventually, she lets me go as we near the summit. I know I'll be seeing her again soon.
The rest of the climb up sun top is very hard but finally I hit a nice flat section of single track. I'm rolling pretty good and feeling good - glad the climb is over. But where is the aid station? Then I remember, Sun Top has a false summit. A mile later, I am climbing again. The final push to the top of Sun Top is steep and hot. A very tough section. I catch 3 guys on this section who had blown through me at mile 23. I reach the aid station, refill my camel back and I'm told I'm in the top 20 overall. As I round the first bend, there is Matt. He rode up the second 5000' climb just to cheer. He tells me I made up time on Peter and I look great. He gives me some data about the coming descent and I get a nice boost of adrenaline as I head down the mountain. After running for 6 hours, the familiar face, at that point in the race was a huge boost. The road down is really hard on my tired quads. I am trying to keep the cadence up just focus on getting down the mountain. I'm running 7:15 pace which is great but again, the more experienced runners blow by me at 6 min pace or better. Amazing. The 2nd place woman catches me again and disappears around mile 40. I finally hit the bottom and run into the final aid station at mile 43. I am still 8 minutes under goal pace. Robin & Matt are there and I am psyched to see them. I am still feeling good. I drop the camel back, grab a new Fuel Belt and 2 gels from Robin, and head off for the final 7 miles of single track buoyed by the fact that I am in 20th place. Matt yells down the trail that there are guys ahead who are faltering. I am committed to catching them.
I have not had a real low the entire day. In the first mile of the final stretch of single track, I have a huge low. This trail reminds me of the White Mountains. Rocky, filled with roots, and uneven. It's 2' step ups and 3' drop offs which are just crushing to my already abused quads. I am not making forward progress. I need to run this section at 9:30 pace and I'm running 12 min miles! Runners go blowing by me effortlessly and for the first time all day, I am completely demoralized by this. But there is nothing I can do, my legs are toast and I just can't bound off the rocks and roots like I need to. I power in another caff gel and but it doesn't really help my legs - my energy level are fine. I'm losing a lot of time gingerly climbing down 3 foot rocks. Another bunch of runners come blasting through hopping over the rocks. 5 miles to go. 5 mile seems interminable. After not paying attention to distance all day, I become obsessed with distance. I am constantly looking at my garmin. Make forward progress I keep telling myself. More runners pass. 3 miles to go. 3 miles I think, lift the pace! I try jumping over a log, catch my foot and do a full face plant. It knocks my wind out and my hamstrings and quads all flirt with cramps. Keep going! 1 mile to go and I am at my goal finish time. Bummer! I was under it all day. More runners pass. I dig down and try to go with them. Finally, we pop out on the road for the last 800M - no more single track of death. Up one last little climb, down the road and into the finish. Done.
Nutrition was spot on all day: 1/2 powerbar at 30 and 60. Then 4 gels for next 2 hours. 1 more Power Bar for next hour then gels every 30, without fail, all the way in. I ended up eating about 6 or 7 salt tabs as well. I took 2 or 3 in the first 2 hours when I knew I was going to be short on electrolyte drink and then I kept getting a cramp in my lower stomach while running down on both descents. Popping a salt tab got rid of the cramp - not sure if it was a placebo effect or not but it worked.
Not having the HR data was a bummer but I did pretty well with perceived effort. I was definitely high z1 low z2 for about 10-15 minutes while we were passing all the runners early but once on the first climb, I was probably very low z1. I took back 5 minutes on Peter on the Sun Top climb so I bet I was mid z1 up that climb, late in the race. My real weakness was the down hills. My quads could not take the pounding to run faster than I did and the more experienced ultra runners kill the down hills. Peter ran 2 sub 6 miles then sub 6:20s all the way down off Sun Top. Even though I ran pretty well down Sun Top, the descent was the icing on the cake for my quads and left me with nothing for the technical single track final section even though my energy levels were fine. Overall, I am pretty happy with the day. I felt like I executed well all day. I ended up finishing 20 minutes behind Peter and he said he had a great race. If the last 7 miles had been anything other than technical single track, I would have easily beat my 8:17 time goal. But, that's trail racing...
I'm not sure what I am going to do next but I really enjoyed this race. Thanks to Jesse Kropelnicki of QT2 systems for getting me to the starting line fit, healthy, and with a dynamite pacing and nutrition plan. When I started running again after 6 years completely off, I was 50lbs overweight and felt like a pile of mush. In a relatively short time with Jesse, I lost 50 lbs, gained fitness and durability, ran a 2:48 marathon and an excellent first ultra. Thanks to Fuel Belt for the Slice Bottle carrier and hand bottles - the most comfortable bottle carrier I've found for ultra running.