Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gorge Waterfalls 50K. A gem of a race!

I signed up for this race a few months ago, partly due to the fact that my sister and her family lives in Portland, and I imagined a nice long-weekend road trip.  I’ve been using these early-in-the-year 50k trail races as long training runs for the real long stuff this summer, so the plan has been to minimize taper, and maximize recovery.  They are not focus races, but I still like to compete!  Unfortunately, about a week prior, I came down with a cold that just wouldn’t quite go away, so the taper became sort of enforced, and I missed a couple of important runs.  No problem, I’ve got enough base built up, and there’s no crying over spilled milk right?!
The drive down was easy, and we had a spacious hotel room for the five of us plus mother in law.  Then our three year old decided to stay up all night making crazy requests.  Can you tuck me in?  I’ve got a runny nose!, I’m thirsty!, I’m tired… mommy I’M TIRED!, and on and on.  All.  Night.  Long.  Two hours of sleep, and we’re all off to the start!
This race was kind of a ‘who’s-who’ for big name ultra runners.  Max King (three time XTERRA world trail marathon champion, and world mountain running champ), Ian Sharman (fastest trail 100 mile ever run in the US), Jen Shelton (fastest trail 100 mile ever run in the US), Erik Skaggs (multiple course record holder and super fast guy), Stephanie Howe (trail 50k national champ last year I think), Yassine Diboun (super fast guy about to break through in a big one), Jeff Browning (won tons of ultras, and always near the front), Seth Swanson (less known, but just won Orcas 50k in a very fast time).  I’m sure there are a few others out there, but suffice it to say that I was out gunned, and just hoping for a good smooth run, and to be near the top ten!  The course its self changed a couple of times due to unforeseen circumstances, and tons of snow at higher elevations.  We ran it as a simple out-and-back that began with a big hill and subsequent descent, and then about 10 miles of rolling hills and difficult terrain (and a two mile road section).  Total climbing was right around 6000 feet.  James Varner and Candice Bert did a good job rolling with the punches (all the way up to the start when he was delayed with a flat tire and malfunctioning jack!), and delivered a great race for everyone to enjoy.  Many thanks James and Candice, you are delivering really wonderful experiences for all of us!  Even the road section was good, since it allowed the front runners to pass a lot of the middle of the pack on the road, vice head to head on the single track. 
Unfortunately for my story there was no major drama as far as my run.  No mind bending bonks, no falls, no blood!  I felt good, but not great, possibly due to the lingering head cold and lack of sleep, and that lasted the entire way, until the end when I did feel great (probably because I just felt good earlier, and didn’t push too hard!).  The weather was near perfect, and after a delay (due to the afore mentioned flat tire), we were off.  A little mess up by the lead pack right at the start, and I decided to double back about 100’ to get back on course while they cut through the woods back on.  Mistake.  That put me WAY back in the pack, and in the middle of a bunch of slower runners.  At this point Jen Shelton came flying by, and I ran in her draft at a fast clip trying to reel in the front a bit.  We ran up to about 15th spot by the first climb, and Jen kept pushing ahead while I ran with Ian Sharman for a while.  I passed Ian near the top of the first big climb only to see him disappear as soon as the trail turned down a minute later.  Amazing, I wasn’t running slowly, but I felt like I was watching my footing for a second and then Ian was just nowhere to be seen!  This was a steep, snowy, and dangerous descent, and I was able to use that to catch back up to and pass Jen.  The next few miles I ran right behind the lead woman, Stephanie Howe.  I just concentrated on a sustainable pace, a gel every 20 minutes, oh, and the incredible views and stunning waterfalls.  This is a fantastic place!  We literally ran under a couple of really huge falls, and we were constantly crossing bridges near smaller rivers.  Add to that some pretty narrow single tracks right on the edge of killer (literally) steep slopes, fairytale forests covered in moss... I wasn't bored for a moment!
I passed Stephanie on a short road section, and pulled ahead just slightly.  She rolled into the next aid station right after me, and at the turnaround I had about a 30 second lead.  For the next several miles I would get ahead a bit on the climbs and descents, only to notice her catch back up to within a minute on the flatter but more twisty sections of trail.  Coming into the last climb I was about to justify a bit of a hike since there was no one ahead to catch, but just then I caught sight of Stephanie several switch-backs down the hill.  It was good to have her there to push me a bit when I got lazy!  I ended up running the entire climb, and flying down the other side.  It’s actually nice to do that and feel good at the end of several hours of running at a faster-than-training pace… it proves that proper calorie intake can be the difference between feeling terrible at the end, and feeling pretty strong. 
I ended up 12th overall (out of 212 finishers, and a few DNF’s), in a time of 4:06.  I’m proud of the run, I felt great at the end, and I think I met my goal of a competitive training run that I can recover from quickly!  Running is humbling and empowering at the same time.  I’ve gotten much faster over the last few years, and my endurance is improving constantly.  A run like the one I had here would contend for the win many of the smaller races (depending on who showed up of course), but at the same time, Max King took the win here in 3:19, proving that 1:30 min/mile advantage on the road (he just ran 2:14 at the Olympic Trials Marathon) does equal 1:30 per mile on the trails (for him at least).   There were several other fantastic runners about 35 minutes ahead of me (out of reach even on my best day currently), and there were several about 10-15 minutes ahead (I think I could have done that with a slightly more aggressive approach).  More work to do, but I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t fun!
Another highlight of the weekend was making the trip with my beautiful family.  There is nothing  better!  This trip was capped by a wonderful stay with my sister Ghretta, her husband Rick, and their beautiful daughter Macy.  We had a great time catching up (it’s been way too long), and enjoying a really cool city.  We’ll definitely be coming back to Portland!
Now I’ll be attempting to progress in my training while I spend a little over a month flying out of Sicily.  That will be challenging, and I suspect I may have to get friendly with the treadmill in order to get the miles and vertical in.  May is the Sun Mountain 50 mile, and my brother is coming out to run his first 50k… should be a blast, but I gotta run smart since the San Diego 100 is just three weeks later.  Let the fun continue!!