Through a stroke of wild luck at the Rainshadow Running traveling trail running film festival late last year, my good friend (and frequent fun-runner) Marisa won a free entry into any trail race in 2017 put on by this organization! All the Rainshadow Running events are based in the Pacific Northwest and are known for having some of the most beautiful locations and challenging courses while being incredibly professionally run. Their races also tend to draw a large number of professional and highly competitive trail runners with sizable top-performer incentives. The race director, James Varner, really does put on a great show and collects some of the finest volunteers to help him. Through a stroke of unfortunately wild bad luck, Marisa has been plagued with tendonitis since this November. That being said, I was presented with one of the best Christmas presents on recent memory and we began planning our trip to Oregon.
The Gorge Waterfalls 100k is a race that has been on my short list for a little while now for the views, the fact that you run past (or under!) nine waterfalls, the fact that it’s not at high altitude and for the fact that it is a Western States Golden Ticket race. Pretty much, the top 2 male and top 2 female finishers are offered entry into the big dance.. the Western States 100 in June! With the competitiveness of the race I didn’t think there was a shot in the world I’d qualify. But if there was a chance, I’d make an attempt.
Marisa, my mother and I traveled out to Benson State Recreation Area outside Portland, OR in the early morning of April 8th. The 3:30am alarm didn’t seem to bother me since my race day routine has become simply methodical. The periodic rain we expected held off a bit and the briskness of the morning seemed mild without the wind. I stood in split shorts and a tech tee with an ultralight Craft jacket, Buff headband and little stretchy gloves clutching my handheld bottle. James Varner hollered out prerace instructions. My Feetures wool socks were already feeling the dampness of the grass through my Nikes. Ahead of us stood 62 miles of mountainous terrain with 12,000 feet of cumulative gain and equal decent that would test grit and fortitude.
Start to No-Name Aid (mile 6)
As we began moving I replayed the discussions I’d had with people prior to the race, formulating a plan. Headlamps all around me ebbed and flowed and jockeyed for position but I made an effort not to get sucked into the speed of it. Nothing faster than a 6:20 to start. It’s a long day. Save it for the road. We loop around a pond and begin the climb up Multnomah Falls, which takes a series of 11 switchbacks up 1500’ in about 2 miles. Run if you can, walk if it feels better. I’ve been practicing my hiking to prevent the hamstring tightening of the past. Easy does it. Cue off these guys. They’re all hiking too. I know a few athletes that I would be of a similar fitness, so I made a little attempt to find them. One or two are very smart runners so it would be my attempt to use them to my advantage. I found myself in a little bit of no-man’s land bouncing between small packs of guys, running down hills quicker than most but up hills less efficiently. One guy led me into the mile 6 aid station and hopped into the bathroom while I just took a quick bottle refill and jumped back onto the trail.
No-Name Aid (6) to Yeon (13)
The morning was only just starting and we were already an hour into the day. The sun poked through the clouds and shone through thee trees. I took a few miles to meditate on the task at hand and prepare my mind to make something big happen. The trail reminded me a lot of what we have in the northeast in the more technical parks. Lots of loose rocks, quick turns, abrupt drops. The longer sustained climbs made things tricky but I felt right at home dancing around the rocks and icy patches. I became the kid who fell in love with trail running in rural Connecticut all over again! Even on more than a handful of occasions we had to climb through and around some downed branches and trees and I’d just smile. Through the woods it was incredibly winding but a few straighter stretches allowed me to see a couple bobbing heads in the distance. It took a couple miles of chasing but I made connection with the group feeling smooth and starting to really warm up the legs. About time these quads woke up! It’s only been 10 miles. Ugh. This extra burn better not turn into fatigue. Three other guys, all chatting, welcomed me to the group and I hung on as the caboose until we linked up with one other and all hit a long road section. This is where I know my legs will allow me to loosen up, thanks to many miles all around the flat North Shore. I shook my arms out and got into my typical road running pace. The couple miles that followed were very steady but were probably faster than they should have been. Coming into the next aid there was a little time gap before the others would roll in and my crew seemed anxious. I need to slow the **** down. I’m burnin’ it too hot. There is no need to be in 4th place right now. It’s a long day. The next section will be a LOT slower.
With a reassessed game plan, it wasn’t long before the guys close behind cruised past. Their plan was nothing to be concerned with. Run your race. Get back on track. Eat more. Then eat again. Athletes will joke that longer distance trail races are really just eating competitions with some running thrown in. That is what this needed to become. Already behind on fuel intake I started to double up on gels. A few Gu and Honey Stinger flavors would be the poison of choice for the day. Having dropped my jacket, the intermittent rain had a chance to cool my body temperature. Things were starting to look up but climbing was becoming increasingly more difficult. Only a third of the way through the day, staying smooth was the goal. I shouldn’t be feeling this bum this early.
Cascade Locks (22) to Wyeth (31)
Nine miles is a long way between aid stations. That’s a lot of time for something to go wrong, to lose focus and to drain your water bottle. Especially with a more conservative approach it can feel like an endless amount of time. Another young guy, Anthony, and I began walking the long hills and getting to know each other. We joked about how soon our quads would blow out (it was more real to me) and when we’d see Jim Walmsley coming back the other way. The out-and-back nature of the course can mess with your mind. Mile 25 seemed to never come around. As it finally did we separated a little and it felt like I had finally dug myself out of the hole from earlier on. I see someone headed towards me up a hill faster than I was going down it. Ayyyeee! Keep it up, Jim! Looking great! That guy brings a totally new meaning to “Time to fly” by his sponsor Hoka One One. He was totally locked in. There were still a couple miles of rolling downhill to the aid and I took time to do a systems check on my legs, gut, gear effectiveness and headspace. I cruised down the hill into the aid to see my mom and Marisa chatting with my old friend Duncan that I used to work with in Connecticut. It was uplifting to say the least, but something still felt off.
Wyeth (31) to Cascade Locks (40)
Timing could not have been any better. I hit the turnaround within 2 minutes of my projected time. It was 4:40 on the way out, and the goal was to do 5:10 on the way back, ultimately finishing under that 10-hour mark. As the race goes along my time at aid stations tends to increase to methodically work through the needs and changes to be made. The motive was to take in fuel. Things had been feeling better but I was noticing fatigue far earlier than expected. The few minutes spent eating a banana, slamming some RedBull and restocking my Nathan Hipster belt (which is flawless, by the way) were well worth it. I set out with high hopes and a smile knowing the course and what needed to be done. A few miles were steady, relaxed effort as I dodged runners coming back the other way. Just another challenging element of an out-and-back course. As the miles went on, it seemed to get exponentially more challenging to maintain a running state. There wasn’t so much cramping as there was just extreme fatigue. My quads were blowing out. The uphill sections I shuffled and the downhill sections I began to walk. And it was painful. The few flat sections were mildly manageable but was still a shuffle. Each step felt like trying to lift bricks and the impact felt like dropping those bricks on my quads. After five consecutive miles worth of suffering, the aid station appeared in the distance. My crew could see the disappointment and pain in my eyes (see right. click to zoom in.).
Cascade Locks (40)…
I can’t pick up my feet! I can hardly shuffle. Been doing like 13 minute pace for an hour and it hurts. I don’t know what else to do.. You know I don’t want to drop but… My crew corrals me over to the aid station captain who convinces me to give it some time. He generously prepares a plate of food while making me sit down. It was first time ever sitting down during a race and just felt wrong. PB&J in a tortilla, a shot of pickle juice, bananas, grapes, Oreos and some Gu recovery drink mix. The acute pain began to fade but the pure muscle exhaustion took over as the quads still wouldn’t respond. It took a feat of strength to stand back up and try shuffling around. It was no use. Even after nearly 30 minutes of resting and trying to bounce back, it seemed the mountains had claimed a casualty.
So as to not risk potential long term damage, and from sheer inability to effectively move forwards, I decided to pull the plug on my race at this point. All I could think about was the wind in my hair on all the training runs of the spring, the rainy nights when I still had to get out and do a speed workout after dark, and the hill repeats in the snow because the work had to get done and there was a race coming up. We never expect to have a bad race. But when it happens the important thing is to respond logically and not emotionally. No part of me wanted to stop. I’m still beating myself up about how everything went down, trying to figure out where it went wrong. But even with precision preparation sometimes we hit that low point and can’t climb out. All I had left was 22 miles and couldn’t make it happen. It was a heartbreaking experience, but one that will make for a better future.
I’ll absolutely be back to that area soon. Very, very soon in fact.