White River 50 Miler 2014

For many years, I have approached races with caution. My mantra has been ‘conserve for later’ and, with about 30 ultra distance races in my wake, I dare say that it has served me well. I have completed all races that I have started, save for one, and I have usually finished feeling like I could carry on beyond the finish line. But I have found myself wondering if I have been holding back too much and if I am capable of more than my mantra allows. Having just completed the Knee Knacker 30 Miler with slight disappointment in my result, I decided that a change in mantra was in order.

Right Now.

How do you feel right now? What can you do right now? What do you need right now? Is this the best you can do right now? Can you push harder right now?

If I push too hard and end up crumpled on the trail side then I will take it as a learning experience and perhaps go back to my conservative ways. When the start of White River 50 came, the limit of my expectations was to improve on my previous finish time but that was it. Oh – and I wanted to enjoy the final 10 km section on Skookum Flats this time (which are not flat BTW).

As the mass of racers headed out along the airstrip and then along the beautifully rolling downhill single-track section to Camp Sheppard, I ran a comfortably swift pace, wanting to get ahead of the mid-packers before the switchbacks began. I found myself among a number of triathletes and road bike riders who were giving subtle hand signals every time we approached roots or rocky sections. I commented that their hands and arms would be pretty tired by the end of the day if they were going to point out all the obstacles along the way.

I arrived at Camp Sheppard Station (6.3 km) in 32 minutes. I hadn’t felt like I was going so fast and decided that the mileage was incorrect. As we started up the 3000 ft climb to Corral Pass, I settled into the switchbacks and the people around me. Although there were some steep sections and tight switchbacks, I was struck by how run-able the whole climb was. The trail would bring us time and again right to the edge of the rocky bluffs where you could look down on the airstrip where we started. Soon enough we could see the peak of Mount Rainier and it was an effort to pull myself away from that glorious view. As we climbed higher, more of Rainier would reveal itself and it seemed close enough to touch.

I found myself alone for most of this climb – out of view of any other runners – and I reveled in the feeling that the trail was mine alone. I was truly able to run my own pace, putting aside all chasing and hunting instincts. There was the occasional pass-and-chat with individuals along the way but then I would be alone again. A cramped belly had me visiting the little girl’s room a number of times and I made a mental note that a Buffalo Chicken Wrap is a poor pre-race meal choice. Luckily my stomach issues resolved themselves and didn’t impact my nutrition plan. I pushed myself to run most everything. I would equate the trail to Upper Queso or Mt Nikkei or Furtherburger and remind myself that I run this kind of grade all the time in training so don’t hold back now.

After I left Ranger Creek aid (18.8 km), I expected to see the returning front-runners coming down towards me but it took a long time before that happened. My memory of hurling myself into the bushes to allow them room was not accurate this time. They did come down fast and I had to step off the trail to make way but I had much better sight lines this time and there were far fewer since I was ahead of my previous pace.

Right before Corral Pass, the ‘photographer  ahead’ signs came into view and I was delighted to see Glenn Tachiyama and Ross Comer seated among the Paintbrush wildflowers, taking photos of all the racers with Mt. Rainier as an incredible backdrop.

With Glenn in the foreground and Mt Rainier in the background, this is the shot of the day in my eyes!   photo credit: Ross Comer @ http://www.comerphotos.com

Corral Pass (27.2 km) was a full-0n, Cowboy-themed, hoot’n’holler experience. I filled my bottles and got out of there before the two-step dancing began. The trail took us on a lollipop loop up to the high point of the course before it began descending and meeting up with the ascending runners. The addition of the loop meant that I didn’t get to see my friends Marie and Carie all day and I wondered if they were ahead or behind  me.

The following 16.5 km, 3000 ft descent of single track is the crowning glory of this race. The trail is soft underfoot and mostly shady through the forest. It is such a well-established trail that there are very few rocky and rooty sections with almost no alder stumps reaching out to grab trailing toes. I ran hard because I felt great Right Now. I saw almost no one for that whole time except for a few downhill specialists that I had met and passed earlier on the climb. I pushed myself to accelerate and lean downhill because Right Now I wanted to go fast but all the while I was wondering if this would destroy my quads for the next huge climb and descent.

I spent a short time at Buck Creek aid (43.7 km) making sure I got all the food and electrolytes from my drop bag for the second half. As I got back on trail and headed on the flats through the campground, my legs felt heavy and I shuffled a bit. But as soon as the trail began heading up, my legs fell into the rhythm of climbing again. For the next 2800 ft climb, I took small, high cadence steps and passed other runners who were taking big, deep-knee steps. I thought of my legs as efficient pistons on some sort of robotic machine and I was able to run some of this shorter but steeper hill.

Fawn Ridge station (51 km) came up quickly and I knew that there would soon be a brief break in the climb as we reached the ridge line before continuing up to the false summit. I continued pushing my pace and I plugged in one ear bud so I could listen to my playlist of upbeat latin, big band and folk tunes. There is nothing quite like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Basement Jaxx to get me grooving!

Getting close to Suntop with Mt Rainier behind. photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama @ http://www.tachifoto.net

Suntop station (59.5 km) was filled with enthusiastic volunteers who knew exactly what to ask a runner. My pockets were emptied of trash, my cap was soaked in cold water, my water bottle was filled with ice and they watered down cola exactly to my preference. I took a section of PayDay bar from the food table – my only aid station food indulgence of the day – and headed down the road. The gravel road descent is a mentally tough 10 km section. It is hot, exposed, dusty and covered in – gravel! It curves this way and that way and is graded consistently until the final kilometer. I passed 3 or 4 runners who were all walking and feeling too demoralized to exchange pleasantries. I found a comfortable rhythm that wasn’t fast but it didn’t ache either. The time went by quickly.

I had been dreading Skookum Flats since I signed up for this race. When you look at the race profile, your eyes are drawn to the two huge climbs and you forget to pay attention to the final 10 km of gentle up-river single track.

Yowza! Look at those 2500+ ft climbs! But don’t forget to save something for those last “flat” 10 kilometers!

From the Skookum Flats aid station (69.8 km), the trail winds up and alongside the White River and there are many little rocky ascents that are tempting to walk. In fact, the whole trail cries out for you to walk, enjoy and meander. But by this time, I had studied my watch and knew that I was headed for a big PR. The aid station volunteer warned me that this final section would take 1 hr 30 min but it fell on my deaf ears. I pushed myself hard here and passed a number of runners who were caught off guard by this tricky section. I even passed two women – the only women I had seen since leaving Corral Pass – and one of those women had a non-racer friend who was both pacing her and muling for her (arg!). I tried not to let this minor rule infraction bother me and focused on trying to run my own race.

There are three new wooden bridges along these ‘flats’ and the final bridge is the marker of about one mile of trail to go. No sooner had I gone over that bridge when I caught my trailing toe on a root and did a full Superman flight into the bushes. Not only did I re-open a knee scrape from Knee Knacker two weeks ago, but I landed right on my recently injured and stitched up knuckles. It took me a minute or two to stand up, deal with the ensuing calf cramps and inspect my former injuries before I was able to find my pace again and push on.

Madonna was singing Die Another Day in my ear buds as I exited the trail, which seemed fitting. The long gravel parking area seemed to lengthen as I ran towards the finish line. I turned the final corner and was shocked to see my time – 10:15:01. This was a full 60 minutes faster than my time here in 2010! This finish time placed me 84th overall (out of 248) and 13th woman (out of 64) and I was first in the women’s 40-49 age group. My friends Carie and Marie took 2nd and 3rd in our age group, making it a clean Canadian sweep! Pretty decent results for a course that offers 17 400 ft of elevation change!

So I think my new mantra is here to stay. I felt like I pushed myself hard and my body responded. I had no muscle issues or fatigue during the race and my recovery has been better than I ever remember. Perhaps all that ‘conserving’ on the downhills was causing more quad damage than leaning in and flowing through. Right Now is the mantra I will take with me to Italy next month for the Tor des Geants.

As for the White River 50 Miler, it is a phenomenal race that I hope to return to many more times. Not only is the terrain unbelievably spectacular and challenging, the organisation is flawless. There was never a moment where I questioned where to go, even though the trail markers were minimal. The volunteers were helpful, enthusiastic and obviously runners themselves. It was the perfect place to throw caution to the wind.


Knee Knacker 2014

How is it that I grew up with the Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run practically in my backyard yet I have never entered the race? I can only surmise that the lure of exotic landscapes and unfamiliar trails has been more of a driving force than the desire to run through the easements where I hung out, tried smoking cigarettes and giggled about ‘going around’ with boys.

But upon moving to a new town and trying to find my place in the local running community, I have been asked over and over,

But have you done the Knee Knacker?

No matter that I have run numerous 50 km races, a handful of 50 mile races and even some multi-day stage runs. No matter that I have traveled to run in the heights of Colorado, New Mexico and Macchu Picchu. No matter that I co-race direct the Diez Vista 50 km trail run. It simply seems that my race resume is incomplete without this local favourite.

So I signed up, was selected in the lottery and ran it this year.

It was a hot day – tipping the thermometer out at 29° C – and the skies were bluebird blue. The course was both challenging and incredibly beautiful. There were thousands of trail marker ribbons, hundreds of volunteers and dozens of photographers. There were eleven aid stations, equipped with everything from food-stylized race snacks to pre-snipped freezies to water served in wine glasses and even a cellist. Super-soaker water guns and two-person sponge baths were welcome treats in the second half. The trails were mostly double-track, often groomed, but with plenty of rocky river bed and rooty toe-grabbers. There were countless non-racer, trail enthusiasts along the way. Mountain bikers, bus loads of tourists and dog walkers all shared the trails with us.

I was intimidated with all the talk of huge, relentless climbs and the course offered all of that, and more. I held back as much as possible on the first climb, chatting with others and staying well-below my threshold. In fact, I spent the entire day conserving energy and shying away from any fatiguing effort. I didn’t push hard, I didn’t chase and I didn’t suffer.

I was caught off guard by two sections of the course:

1)  After the Cleveland Dam, we climb up Nancy Green Parkway on the pavement. But the climb becomes pretty nasty once you re-enter the trail beyond where the Grouse Grind begins. It is a steep traverse where the footing is sketchy and where big, sapping steps are required to get around tree trunks and rocky outcrops. This section goes on and up for much farther than I had realized from the course description.

2) After Indian River Road, there are only 2 or 3 km left until the finish but it is a very challenging section. The course goes steeply down slopes and stairs to cross a creek and then it steeply climbs up out of it – approximately 9 times (hence the 9 Bridges name). That itself would be challenge enough at the end of a 30 mile run but now add in hundreds and hundreds of people out for post-picnic walks. There were small children and off-leash dogs everywhere with very few people aware that there is a race going on. I found I had to holler “Runner Up” most of the way down this section. Don’t underestimate the difficulty here!

I had hopes of finishing in 7 hours, mostly due to UltraSignUp’s finish time prediction, and I was fairly close, with a time of 7:21. The heat was a factor for everyone, causing the median finishing time (7:50) to rise to the highest point in 25 years. I finished 61/192 overall; 20/77 in the women’s race; 7/26 in the women’s 40-49 age group. But most importantly, I finished. And now, when someone asks me if I have done the Knee Knacker, I can reply:

Yes. Yes, I have. Isn’t that some superb race? Can you believe those mountains? Isn’t it incredibly well-organized? I loved every step!

But enough with the chatter. Here is my day as recorded by the many course photographers:

Start  line contemplation photo credit: Ken Blowey

Start line contemplation
photo credit: Ken Blowey

Climbing Black Mountain photo credit: Karen Chow

Climbing Black Mountain
photo credit: Karen Chow

A spectacular view of the freighters in English Bay, Point Grey, Richmond and Puget Sound beyond. photo credit: Herman Kwong

A spectacular view of the freighters in English Bay, Point Grey, Richmond, Southern Gulf Islands and Puget Sound beyond.
photo credit: Herman Kwong

Summitting and taking it all in. photo credit: Herman Kwong

Summitting and taking it all in.
photo credit: Herman Kwong

The sounds of the oboe and cello carried a fair ways down the climb. photo credit: ?

The sounds of the oboe and cello carried a fair ways down the climb.
photo credit: Karen Chow

You thought I was joking about the wine glasses, didn't you?! It was full black tie service on the top of Black Mtn. photo credit: ?

You thought I was joking about the wine glasses, didn’t you?! It was full black tie service on the top of Black Mtn.
photo credit: Ivan

The congo line of runners heading down Black Mtn towards Cypress aid station. photo credit: Ivan

The conga line of runners heading down Black Mtn towards Cypress aid station.
photo credit: Ivan

Arriving into Cleveland Dam aid station (half way) photo credit: VFK

Arriving into Cleveland Dam aid station (half way)
photo credit: VFK

Enjoying a freezie on my way out of the craziness of Cleveland aid station. I regretted having that freezie for many miles. photo credit: Bettie Neels

Enjoying a freezie on my way out of the craziness of Cleveland aid station. I regretted having that freezie for many miles.
photo credit: Bettie Neels

Zipping along the wide groomed trails around Lynn Creek and Seymour River. photo credit: Karen Chow

Zipping along the wide groomed trails around Lynn Creek and Seymour River.
photo credit: Karen Chow

Climbing up the Seymour Grind, knowing that the worst climbs of the day are behind me. photo credit: Karen Chow

Climbing up the Seymour Grind, knowing that the worst climbs of the day are behind me.
photo credit: Richard So

Just when you think the race is in the bag, they throw a section called "9 Bridges" at you and then fill it with day hikers and off-leash dogs! This was a very mentally challenging piece of the day. photo credit: Salvador Miranda

Just when you think the race is in the bag (28+ miles done), they throw a tough little section called “9 Bridges” at you and then fill it with day hikers and off-leash dogs! This was a very mentally challenging piece of the day.
photo credit: Salvador Miranda

And done. Now I can answer "yes" next time someone asks me if I have done KKNSTR.  :o) photo credit: Mike Jones

And done. Now I can answer “yes” next time someone asks me if I have done KKNSTR. :o)
photo credit: Mike Jones

For many years, I have plateaued at a comfortably fit, but soft, weight. Weight loss has never been a concern of mine. I realise that I am in the minority of women who don’t think twice about a second serving of dessert. (I can just hear you saying “Binny Skitch”!) I admit that I still have clothes in my closet that I wore 15 to 20 years ago and I’m pretty sure my wedding dress would still fit.

But seven months ago, when I suddenly became sick and soon-after treated to surprise intestinal surgery, I predictably lost some weight. As my surgeon said “we cut you open, pumped you up with drugs and starved you for more than a week” so I wasn’t surprised that the scale numbers dipped down about 10 lbs.

But those pounds never came back. As soon as I was given the green light, I ramped up my training, trying to regain my baseline of running fitness for the busy summer race schedule that I had fantasized about during my bed-ridden days. My weight stayed steady at 10 lbs lighter for a few months but recently it has dropped even more (consistent 60km/week might have something to do with it). None of this was alarming until I realised where this weight is coming from.

I have dropped a full bra size. My little As are now AAs! No more Victoria’s Secret for me (since her secret is ‘size-ism’).  I will now have to shop for undergarments on websites like littlewomen.com and ittybittybra.com. Those sites seem like kiddy porn with all those tiny young girls and their tiny double As. I think I’ll settle for my trusty high school training bra instead.

I am trying to come up with perks (excuse the pun) for my new-found svelteness. If nothing else, it makes the search for a hydration backpack all the easier since I no longer have to figure out whether the chest strap goes over or under!

Should the strap go under to lift up??

photo credit: Karen Chow

Or up above?

photo credit: Karen Chow

Or right over top to add extra support?

photo credit: Karen Chow

Or way up high, like a necklace?


A bunch of us were traipsing along on a trail last week. The route meandered mostly upwards for about 15 kilometers before we reached our high point and headed mostly downwards for the remaining 15 km. As the trail dipped slightly before resuming its upward trend, a question was posed:

What makes you start running again after you have been walking?

We all chattered about different motivations that get us going again but I found myself thinking on this question all week. I am not questioning what makes us slow to a walk in the first place: there are countless reasons that make walking (or stopping) a viable option. I am only interested in the thought process behind starting to run again.

Grade – I have a mental picture of my runnable grade. If the trail grade relents to something within my ‘runnable’ zone, then I somehow convince myself that walking is no longer an option.

Catching My Breath – After a big climb, I am often breathing too hard, feeling winded, to begin running. I need to spend a few moments/minutes allowing my cardio system to recover before I can run again. But once my breathing is back in control, I am usually easily persuaded to run again, especially if the climb is over.

Being Hunted – I only encounter this motivation during a race and, even then, it is rare for me to ever feel competitive. But, for many runners, the thought of being passed by another person is a strong motivator to begin running again. For some men, ‘being chicked’ falls into this category and I believe it is even more motivating! If I feel that my gains are soon to be lost, my shuffle will become slightly more determined when I think about those pursuing me from behind.

Reeling Someone In – Again, this is a race day anomaly. If I can spot someone ahead of me, I can usually find the strength to push the pace a little higher. I attach my mental bungy cord to their shorts and pull myself through the distance that separates us. If I had slowed to a hike, the mere thought of reeling someone in is enough to get me going again.

Keeping the Group In Sight – Many, many times, I have been the caboose in a group run – since I tend to surround myself with greatness – so I have to work hard at keeping up with the group. Fear of making a wrong turn and being left far behind (or worse – the beer supply being finished before I get there!) forces me to keep the legs turning over.

A Fabulous View – Standing back and soaking up an amazing view is one of the key reasons that I run. Although it would be luxurious to flake out on a hot granite slab and soak in the view of the valley below for a few hours, I get motivated to get going again in hopes of finding something even more spectacular atop the next summit.

Staving Off the Chills – No matter how warm the day (in the pacific northwest mountains), I get chilled as soon as my effort declines. I have to be moving and exerting myself to a fair degree in order to stay comfortable. After the effort of a climb, I can enjoy the view for only a few minutes before I need to get going again or I need to instantly don an extra layer or two for the descent. The fear of being cold is enough to put some speed in my turnover.

A Change in Muscle Groups – Any repeated movement is going to become tiresome. I embrace the idea of being able to change my pace and engage different muscle groups. Running feels freeing after hiking or walking for long while. To me, a flat road run is torture because the same muscles are in demand the whole time.

These are the ideas that have been churning through my mind. What makes you speed up to a run? Please comment and add your own.

The Happy Wanderer

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