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.
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.
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!
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.
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.