Some races, like certain individuals, are preceded by formidable reputations. I first heard of the White River 50 when I lived in Seattle in the early 90’s. One of my roommate’s co-workers at REI was an early adapter of the endurance junkie lifestyle. He spent every non-working hour climbing glaciated peaks, cycle touring the Pacific coast and running Forrest Gump-like distances. When he told me that he was doing a 50 mile mountain race, I assumed it was one of those multi-day Eco Challenge events. I couldn’t imagine anyone running that far in a single day.
These were the days when the marathon had yet to go mainstream–before Oprah inspired thousands of her followers to take up the challenge. At the time I considered myself to be a serious runner because I used to jog around Green Lake a few times a week. And like many others I thought 26.2 miles to be the ultimate running goal. The thought of going nearly twice that far seemed absurd.
When this guy told me how fun it was to spend the whole day running through the mountains, I can remember thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to do that someday (not a real soon kind of someday, more like an eventually kind of someday).” Well, twenty years later that someday has finally come. A few weeks ago I ran the White River 50 and now it’s my turn to try and convince you how fun can be to run up and over mountains.
My buddy Greg and I drove up there the day before and camped just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park. The campground was beautiful, right on the White River and filled with old growth Douglas fir, including a 700 year old behemoth with a 9.5 foot diameter.
The 6am starting time corresponded perfectly with sunrise, so there was no need for a headlamp. At the pre-race briefing the director described the course as having only two hills and then pointed to the pair of mountains towering over us on either side. Race veterans smiled and chuckled to themselves, while us virgins adopted looks of greater concern.
My goal was to start out slow, get up and down that first hill and save as much energy as possible for the second half of the race. There were more than 300 people who started the race this year, making it one the biggest 50 mile trail races in the country. It was fun having so many people to run with and gave the race a real social feel to it.
Early on I met a guy from Portland who lives just a few minutes away from me. We spent several miles talking about some of our favorite bars and restaurants, which helped to make the elevation gain seem a bit easier. The climb up that first hill was long (about 8 miles) and steep in places. Many times we were reduced to power hiking.
The top had some great views of Mt. Rainier and the White River valley below us. Just before the second aid station we were greeted by Glenn Tachiyama, probably the most famous trail running photographer. I don’t normally buy race photos, but I could resist one of Glenn’s classics.
The long cruise back down into the valley was not as fun as you’d think. The trail was super technical and a momentary lapse of concentration could easily result in some airtime. A group of 5 of us charged down the trail together like a runaway train. We got into a collective zone state, not talking at all and just concentrating on the feet of the runner in front of each of us.
I was happy when the trail eventually leveled out just before the 4th aid station. The first half of the race was now finished and I was feeling a bit more beat up than I should have at that point. Psychologically it was tough to be back where we’d started and for a moment I thought how nice it would be to stop now, go back to camp and take an afternoon nap. But no, there was still one more hill that needed to be climbed before any naps could be embarked upon.
The trail up to Sun Top Mountain was 8.5 miles and had nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain. It was now almost noon and the climb was long, hot and exposed. I started to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself. These are the times when I begin to wonder why I don’t partake in more typical middle aged pursuits like golf or tennis. Or maybe I should grow a goatee and a ponytail and buy a Harley. With every step these ideas sounded better and better.
The volunteers at the aid station on the summit of Sun Top Mountain were having a blast watching our battered bodies roll in. I chowed down on two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before announcing that these were the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. That mix of sweet and salty, carb and protein was just what my body was craving. I grabbed one more for the long descent down into the valley.
The last 13 miles were a bit of a death march. Even though there were no more climbs, the downhills trashed my quads. The goal now was to just hang on and keep it together through the finish. I eventually lost track of the distance and asked a guy hiking the trail how much further till the finish. He said, “half mile, three quarters of a mile at the most.” I don’t normally place too much trust in other people’s estimates, but this guy’s answer was so definite.
I cranked up the pace now knowing that there were only about 5 more minutes of suffering to endure. I passed a runner, then another and then a third and fourth. The last “half mile” was more like two miles and wanted to kill that guy and his seriously flawed estimate. But I also wanted to thank him for inadvertently causing me to push harder and finish strong.
Nine hours and thirty six minutes is a long time to run through the mountains (and unfortunately didn’t leave me with enough afternoon for an afternoon nap). It was, however, a lot of fun and a completely different feel than the rolling hills of many of the ultras I’ve done in the last few years. In two weeks, I’ll get the chance to see how much fun mountain running really can be when I take on twice the distance in the Cascade Crest 100. Wish me luck…I’ll definitely need it.