This past Saturday I ran my first 50 mile race, the deceptively pleasant-sounding White River 50 Mile Endurance Run. Fifty miles is far, like two marathons far, but the real challenge was the elevation gain. The White River course climbs and falls over 16,000 feet as you ascent and descend two mountains.
I had never run this far before, I mean, I rarely ever drive fifty miles. I knew this was going to be a long day.
The early starters began the race at the still-dark 5:30am. I choose to camp at the start on Crystal Mountain and lined up with a few hundred other runners for the 6:30am start of the race.
Mentally I was prepared to be on the course for the next twelve hours, meaning I'd (hopefully) cross the finish before the last of the post-race BBQ dinner was served. This was all new territory for me.
Did I have enough food? Did I need another pair of socks? Should I have made drop bags?
It was too late to worry now.
With 15 minutes before go-time, I threw off my sweatshirt, filled my hydration pack and stashed some gels in my pocket. Surprisingly, I wasn't nervous. I guess I accepted my fate and walked over to the start line to wait for instructions.
After confirming a few names on the race roster, Scott McCoubrey, the race organizer, reminded all the runners of the course rules. Then, without much fanfare, the race began. 300 pairs of feet launched down the trail. Runners included men, women, old, young, talkative and quiet.
Despite the craziness of what we were all attempting, people were happy and relaxed. Just another jog in the park... I guess.
Luckily, the weather was ideal. The cool morning hovered in the 60s, making the first few miles enjoyable. Most runners skipped sunglasses and journeyed into the woods with just a handheld water bottle and a race number pinned to their shirt.
I was less bold and took a Nathan Hydration Vest filled with 2 liters of water, a few energy Gu's , S! sodium and potassium capsules, and a few sheets of toilet paper "just in case".
As the miles ticked by, my body felt strong. The narrow single track trail made passing tricky, but most runners didn't seem to worry about jockeying for position. Instead, everyone just talked and joked as they cut up the trail.
At mile four we hit our first aid station. Runners loaded up on gels and water, then set out on a six mile climb up the first mountain.
This is where ultra-marathoning showed itself as an odd cousin of the marathon. Instead of continuing to run the steep switchback trails, many of the fit and competitive runners around me switched from a confident run to a steady hike. The quick walking steps up the switchbacks were often times faster than if someone tried to run the entire course, at least for us mortals (this rule excludes the top 20 finishers who somehow burned up and down the trails without walking).
On a training run two weeks earlier I had gotten great advice from Scott McCoubrey, the White River Race Director and founder of Seattle Running Club.
"Micromanage the course. Run the steps you can run and walk the steps you need to walk, even if just for a few feet at a time" Scott told me.
This proved to be great advice. Many competitors who pushed the pace, paid for their lack of discipline later down the trail. I just tried to stay calm and patient.
At every aid station, suffering runners were welcomed by volunteers with cheerful faces. I alternated between catching my breathe, gobbling watermelon and thanking them as the course team loaded water into my Nathan HPL.
Things were going as well as they could go until I hit mile 26, at about 5 1/2 hours. I, along with a pack of six other runners had just finished descending the first of the two major climbs. We had spend most of the time in the shade of the trees on the way down, and I was happy I didn't twist my ankle like I had on my my first ultra.
I hit up an aid station, gulped a few cups of Mountain Dew and started the long ascent on the second mountain. About a mile into the climb, my head began to feel woozy and I started to lost my strength. The trail broke out of the trees and we now were ascending switchbacks on loose dirt trails, exposed to the sun. I felt terrible and couldn't run, smile or think. Instead I just put one foot in front of the other. I had to make sure I didn't overheat, otherwise I wouldn't be able to make it to the next aid station.
"I have to get to Suntop" I thought. This was the final aid station before the descent to the finish.
My head pounded and walking just a tenth of a mile at a time felt like it took forever. Luckily, a passing runner handed me some Tylenol. I took a pull form my hydration pack, downed the pills and ate my last energy gel. I needed to get off this trail, and the only way was to keep going up.
After another 30 minutes of treking, I made it to Suntop, the last aid station before the major downhill run. Volunteers sprayed me with water and I rolled a few slices of potato in salt for a snack. I took a minute to catch my breathe, then began my run down the dusty fire road--six miles of quad-crushing descent.
As I was leaving the aid station a runner called out:
"Great, we only have a half-marathon left."
I don't think he was being sarcastic, but it wasn't the easiest thing to hear after running 37 miles.
The downhill was tough on the legs, but I made it. Dust from the road now colored my legs a dark orange.
After the last aid station of the race, I began the most technical part of the trail. The namesake of the race, the White River, ran alongside this last six miles. I'd stop to admire the beauty if I weren't so beat up. I finishing the course with a combo hobble/walk/run.
After 10h 24m, I broke out of the woods, dropped my backpack and sprinted the last 40 yards to the finish line. I made it!
It was a tough day, but the post-race BBQ quickly calmed my nerves.
Cheers to the Anton Krupicka, the winner and course record holder who finished in 6:25:29 and Meghan Arbogast, the women's champion who completed the race in 8:10:51. You can view all the results and photos at http://whiteriver50.com/.
Also, check out a video I made from the race at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAYPuGDV9wI