Friday, April 1, 2011

Gorge Waterfalls 50k — 32 Miles of BadAssness!

I used to be afraid to run without listening to music on my iPod. I’ve never been comfortable being alone with myself or my thoughts. They have a tendency to run amok and music helps drown out the internal chatter. A little over two months ago, my coach had me do a 6.5 mile run with no music, no Garmin, and even no water. At first it was scary, but in the end I found it quite refreshing. I have continued to do this on my own once a week on a run in the 6 to 8 mile range. I listen to my breath, my footfalls, notice my form, listen to my body; watch thoughts come and go, think about everything and nothing at the same time, and notice my surroundings. I have gone so far as to run my last two 50k races iPod-free and didn’t miss it a bit. Of course, the iPod is stashed in my pack just in case I hit a rough patch and need music to help pull me through. This day I opted to keep the music stashed and listened instead to the sound of creeks and waterfalls, my feet splashing through water, squishing in mud, and rain dripping through trees. It was beautiful and almost surreal.


Upper Wahkeenah Falls near race start
The drive from Bend to Hood River the day before the Gorge Waterfalls 50k was nothing short of glorious. I drove past spectacular canyons, through green fields, rolling hills so golden and velvety-looking that I wished I could reach out and touch them. Large birds of prey plied the blue skies. The moment I hit The Dalles and began driving west through the Columbia River Gorge, I could not wipe the huge smile off my face. I wished I was a passenger instead of driver, so I could just gawk at the awesome beauty. As I drove past Rowena Plateau, then the town of Mosier, I recalled the experience of running the Columbia Gorge Marathon in fall 2009. After arriving at my hotel, the Vagabond Lodge, I got right to my pre-race routine. First I unpacked, setting out all clothing I would need (or could possibly even want) for race day. Next I made sure my drop-bags were stocked with extra supplies I might need during the race. Then it was nap time! I always take a 2 hour nap before dinner the day before a race. I slept really good. Then I drove maybe 500 feet to the restaurant next door for dinner before calling it a night. 

Steep trail along Wahkeena Creek
 Race day (March 12th) dawned gray and rainy. I had hoped to wear shorts, but decided on capris given the cool wet weather. I also chose to wear arm warmers with my short sleeve shirt and a windproof neon-yellow running vest. I brought several different hats, gloves and jackets with me so that I could change my apparel right up until race time depending on weather conditions. Racers met at Wyeth Campground on Gorton Creek about half way between Hood River and Cascade Locks. After check-in, we were bussed to the race start at Wahkeena Falls just west of Multnomah Falls. That seemed like a really long ride! I was glad the bus I was on arrived first, meaning no line for the porta-potties! As I stood around visiting with friends Lori, Esther, Stan, Anna and Bob anticipating the race start, it began to rain, so I quickly added to my running apparel and stashed a windbreaker in my pack should I find myself needing an extra layer later. 

At 8am we were off and running, but not for long. The first two miles feature 1,500 feet of elevation gain and many trail switchbacks. Most runners quickly took to power-hiking. After all, we had many miles left to go and had to pace ourselves! Before long we came across the first of many non-bridge stream crossings. There was a narrow log over the stream. I watched runners ahead of me teetering precariously on this log trying not to get their feet wet. Screw that! I wasn’t about to attempt balancing on this little log and risk slipping off. Instead I just went right through the creek! Only a mile in and my feet were already wet! I was thankful that I don’t have problems running with wet feet like some people do. I stopped at Fairy Falls and had the person behind me (Gary) take a picture of me.
Fairy Falls and me!

The muddy, rocky trail continued up the ridge. I heard my friend Anna behind me. In every race Anna and I have done together, she always passes me by mile 3 and finishes at least an hour before me. Today would be no different. She passed me by at 2.25 miles, just as the trail topped-out and smoothed-out for a bit before intersecting the very rocky, technical trail along Multnomah Creek leading down to the top of Multnomah Falls. 

Me, Gary & Multnomah Creek; photo: Candace Burt 
I’d forgotten how rocky the Gorge trails are. This section above Multnomah Falls was a sobering reminder that I would not be anywhere near a 50k PR (personal record) today. Along this stretch of trail I felt the need to walk a lot. A young pediatrician from Corvallis named Seth pulled up behind me and we chatted for a bit. (An image of Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live immediately popped into my mind). Turns out our race schedules align. He also ran Hagg Lake 50k three weeks earlier and will be running Peterson Ridge Rumble 40-miler in April. I told him that I’d really like to turn around to see what he looked like, but felt I could not do so on this technical, rocky terrain. I saw a flash of light behind me, then he said “I just took a picture of your backside to show my wife.” A bit later he passed me and turned back saying “here’s what I look like.” He was just as cute as the picture of Seth Meyers in my mind. 

The paved switchbacks coming down from the top of Multnomah Falls were a joy. It was one of the few places on the course I could pick up the pace and stretch out my legs for a while. Half way down from the top of Multnomah Falls we hopped onto the Gorge Trail 400, which essentially parallels the I-84 freeway. After traversing around Oneonta Gorge, then behind Ponytail Falls, we were dumped out onto a paved access road paralleling the freeway for 2 miles until the first aid station at John B. Yeon State Park. 

Ponytail Falls; the trail goes behind the falls
This stretch of road is where I was able to pick it up to a “blistering” 9:30–10:00 pace. I was surprised to see so many people walking along here. I told myself I needed to run it in to the aid station, then I could take a break. I pulled up on a young man who was walking very slowly. He said he had blown out both his knees and was going to drop from the race at the aid station, which he hoped was right around the corner. I said that it was less than a mile away, wished him well, and went on my way. He was not the only person to drop from the race due to knee problems. The rocky trails played havok on weak ankles and knees.
I don’t remember the first water station at mile 5.5. There were three water-only stations on the course and two manned full-service aid stations. Water-only stops were at 5.5, 15.5 and 25.5 miles. The full aid stations were at mile 10.9 and 20.2. Ten miles between aid stations is not such a big deal for a road or easy trail race, but my going was so slow that it was easily 2.5+ hours between aid stations and a little lonely, which I considered good practice for future races! I pulled into the first aid station and immediately recognized facebook friend and ultrarunner Cheri Redwine who was volunteering that day. Though we had never met before, I feel like I already know her and gave her a hug. I had a cup of Coke, some boiled potatoes dipped in salt, restocked my energy gels from my drop bag and waited in the rain for the porta-potty. I was wet literally from head to toe and cold (when not moving). I could have easily gone to a miserable mental place, but didn’t bother. What good would that have done? I thought to myself that stopping here would be a very nice and still challenging 11 mile run. However, I still had over 20 miles to go and was not about to stop. Heck, I was just getting warmed up!

Elowah Falls
Back on to the Gorge Trail, we passed by the base of Elowah Falls. This is a very special place for me, and my husband and I had placed a geocache here (appropriately called Elowah Falls) in 2004. There was so much water coming over the falls that it felt like being in a shower with a powerful fan pointed right at you. I let out a whoop as I ran over the bridge at the base of the falls and was pelleted with water. This experience alone was trail running at its best! I’m still beaming about the experience as I type. Three meandering miles later, we passed by the Wahclella Falls parking and trailhead just after mile 15. I was expecting to see the 15.5 mile water station here. It would have been the perfect spot. But there was no water. 

Wild Bill (photo credit: Candace Burt)
Along the next stretch I met new friends Tracy (from Seattle), Gary, and Bill, who I later found out is referred to as “Wild” Bill. He did look pretty wild in his black outfit with accents of hot pink, neon yellow, and bright orange. The three of us had been near each other the entire course, leapfrogging occasionally on the trail and at aid stations. I enjoy seeing the same familiar, smiling faces on a course. Tracy had long, flowing red hair and beautiful porcelain skin. I’ve always wanted to be a redhead. She was running the race with friends. I didn’t learn much about Gary or Bill, but enjoyed seeing them (and then pulling away from them) and cheering them on.

One of several talus slope crossings
Miles 16, 17, and 18 came and went without sight of the 15.5 mile water stop. I was concerned about the people behind me who carried only one water bottle. I wondered if some person not-in-the-know had taken or moved the water. At mile 18.8, after crossing the suspension bridge at Eagle Creek, there it was— water jugs on a table by the trail! I started to wonder if all the rest of the aid stations would be 3 miles further as well and if this race might turn out to really be 55k. That would be very James Varner-esque. (Race director James Varner is known for challenging race courses that often are longer than advertised.)

The second manned aid station was only about a mile farther than advertised, which is close enough for me. I downed a cup of Coke, a cup of Mt. Dew, and a cup of hot, salty potato soup. The porta-potty was occupied and I didn’t want to wait for it, so got back on the trail. After all, the entire forest is my bathroom! After several minutes, I saw Tracy, who had left the aid station before me, come running back down the trail toward me. She had forgotten her water bottle at the aid station! Luckily she hadn’t gone far. Before long she overtook me again. She had picked up the pace so she could catch back up to her friends. I wouldn’t see Tracy again until the race finish.

THE downed tree— it was bigger than it looks here!
Unfortunately, in the excitement of the 21-mile aid station, I had forgotten to restock my pack with supplies from my drop bag. I am fortunate however, that I usually carry enough nutrition supplies (mostly energy gels) on me for the race and just use my drop bags as extra insurance or in case someone else needs something. I was confident I had enough energy gels on me to finish the run, but I might not have any extra if I needed them. Suddenly, there was a HUGE tree across the trail. We had been warned that there were several in the last 10 miles. Now my legs were getting fatigued and I couldn’t even come close to throwing my leg over this tree, which was more than waist high. I decided to use a branch as a step to climb over the tree. As I placed my foot on the branch, I looked down and saw an unopened GU energy gel laying right there! I quickly snatched it up. This could prove to be my manna from heaven!

Suddenly at mile 22, I got very happy. Yes, I actually looked at my watch to see what mile I was at when it hit. Nobody was around, but I smiled and laughed to my heart’s content. It’s not true that only crazy people laugh to themselves. Happy people do too, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I also started talking to myself. Well, actually talking to my glutes. On some of the uphills, they were burning. I actually said out loud to them, “that’s right glutes, you take this. There’s a reason I’ve been working on making you stronger, so you can take the brunt of it. Go ahead, you can take it.”

Dry Creek Falls and me
At mile 23, we were required to do a short out-and-back (about 2/3 mile round trip) up a forest road to Dry Creek Falls. There we crossed the creek on the concrete remnants of an old dam of some sort, and picked up a rubber band to prove that we had been to this spot. Just as I finished the out-and-back, my friend Esther was just starting up. She gave me a big hug and said how proud of me she was. This fired me up a lot. Pick up the pace, I thought to myself, don’t let Esther catch up with you!

The 25.5 mile water stop came at mile 27. It was weird— there was just a bunch of jugs of water sitting in the middle of the trail. I didn’t see any trail access nearby, so they must have been brought in by wheelbarrow? There was one more long uphill (ok, probably not much more than a mile, but at mile 28, when you’re fatigued, hiking at an 18 minute pace, and anticipating the finish, a mile can seem like a long way). Since this was a Varner course, I didn’t know if I truly had only 3 miles remaining, or if it would be longer. I’ve run 50ks that were a little short, and some that were a little long. What would this one turn out to be? 

Herman Creek
The farther I ran, the better I felt. Sure, I was getting fatigued, but I felt great! I wondered if someone not in-the-know saw me, if they could tell I had run 31 miles. I didn’t feel like I had. I truly felt like I could do another 20, though I wouldn’t have wanted it to be on that technical trail. With only a mile or  two remaining I started to get a little light headed. It was past time for another gel! It’s amazing how quickly time passes on the trail. It will seem like I just had a gel, when it’s time for another already. I reached into my pocket for what I thought was my last remaining gel— the one I had found on the trail. It wasn’t one of my favorite flavors, but it would do. I was ecstatic to discover that I still had a cherry-lime Gu Roctane remaining. Jackpot! Within minutes, I was perked-up for the finish.

One of numerous shallow creek crossings
I knew that the finish at Wyeth Campground is right on Gorton Creek near the freeway, so I started listening for creeks. Nope, not that one. Not that one either. Then I started to hear the freeway, so knew I must be getting close. As soon as the next creek came into view, I recognized it right away as Gorton Creek (my husband and I placed a geocache upriver at the base of Gorton Creek Falls: Gorton Creek Scramble in 2004).

 The Gorge is a very special place to me because it is where I did many of my first “big” hikes when I first began getting active and losing weight. Several photos of obese-me in these locations are included in my blog post “You don’t have to be skinny to do really cool things.” My husband and I enjoy the Gorge so much that we placed other geocaches there besides the one at Gorton Creek: one at Elowah Falls, one upriver from Elowah Falls which we called “Overcoming Acrophobia: Upper McCord” and one at Dry Creek Falls mere feet from where we picked up the rubber bands during the race.

This was definitely the most challenging 50k I’ve run yet (I’ve done eight to date). It took me an hour longer than my previous longest 50k time. It was full of narrow trails, steep switchbacks, mud, bridgeless creek crossings, mudslides, trail wash-outs, and rocks, rocks, rocks! I truly felt like a total bad-ass for 32 miles!
Post race (back left to right) Lori, Esther, Anna, unknown, Gary; Tracy and me

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