Friday, August 10, 2018

White River 50 Miler - It Wasn't About Me

Leaving Sun Top. To quit.
I regard signing up for an ultra race as purchasing a span of time in which to imagine I am on the same life path as others. We all head down the trail together. We spread out and go at our own paces, but our end goals are one and the same. If I could register for an entry into a life race to travel the same path as the majority of the population I might. But I can't, so I run these races instead.

I call the White River 50 miler my favorite race. It has strong competition sure, but there is something special about White River. 2018 was the 26th running of it. Scott McCoubrey and the Seattle Running Club put it on and it is a rarity for streamlined affordability among ultras at only $100 registration that even includes the shirt, pint glass, free camping at the start/finish, and a meal with a beer after. It was the second 50 miler I ever ran: I finished it in 2015, trimmed 42 minutes off my finish in 2016, had to rescind my entry in 2017 due to my tibial stress fracture, and after that two year absence thoroughly surprised myself in 2018 with a voluntary DNF that was in no way about me.

White River 2016. Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama.
I normally regard the ultra as the ultimate "me time." It is a break from life, from responsibility, from obligation, from the indoors, from putting others before oneself. To me the ultra is the best selfish treat. When I have time off from raising my son, by virtue of him having two households, or the ability to leave work early on a Friday I dig into these ultra treats like others dig into ice cream.

I registered many moons ago when it first opened and was looking forward to running White River after missing the 2017 race against my will. There were still spots available in the last weeks before the race this year though which lead to two unexpected twists. B Girl, my best friend, wanted to spend that weekend with me, but upon finding out it was my race weekend asked if there was a shorter distance available so she could run too. It is a purist 50 only so she decided to throw caution (or reason, however you wish to frame it) to the wind and sign up with the thought that if she spurred injury she could quit. I should preface that she's an amazing runner. Much faster and full of far more grit than I, but she just only first tried the 50k distance this spring and put in two strong finishes, but not without IT band pain. Before that she had never raced farther than a half marathon. Admittedly, it was a little soon to try a 50 miler. She was a mid-field collegiate soccer player though and, at least in my limited experience, those are the toughest athletes out there. We also had a crafty plan that if she just went my pace she'd be less likely to hurt herself.

Our friend, Ali, was supposed to be running the SOB (Siskiyou Out and Back) 50 Miler in Oregon the same day and had been experiencing FOMO about us and other Bellinghamsters all being at White River. SOB ended up being canceled due to forest fires and Ali was able to register for White River as an alternative just before registration closed. Now there were four. Marty, Ali's boyfriend and crew person extraordinaire, would travel down with her and we'd all camp together.

Shrimp piccata at the Alpine Inn at Crystal Mtn.
The night before the race we setup a simple camp and headed off for dinner at the Alpine Inn nearby. I broke my heavy dinner before a race rule and had the shrimp piccata over pasta, but it was really tasty. I normally do well to follow the heavy lunch and light dinner approach. The one and only flaw of the free camping at Ranger Creek State Airport aka the start/finish (yes, we sleep next to a rarely used landing strip) is that not all campers there come for the race. As such, we had the bad luck of ending up with a loud large group sitting up past 1:00 am next to us taking shots, playing music, and carrying on about what felt like the most asinine topics with our 4:30 am alarm clock pending. Ali and Marty were cozily sequestered in his SUV setup for car camping and didn't hear them, but B and I were in a tent and spent a few hours that would have been better spent sleeping plotting the demise of our inconsiderate camp neighbors. I always condition myself that night before a race sleep is a bonus and not to be counted on, but 3.5 hours kind of sucks.

Race morning came quickly and so did the starting time. We woke up tired and flew through a breakfast of Spark and granola with bananas and almond milk, picked up our bibs a hop skip and a jump away from the tent, suffered last minute outfit indecision (wait that was just me), and lobbed the loudest of firecrackers into the center of our inconsiderate neighbors' camp just past 5 am for reparations. Just kidding on that last part. I mean I wish I wasn't kidding, but I am. I found Kelly and Nichole at the start, but couldn't find Sabrina or Erin. A lot of awesome runner women started White River this year.

Ali had made a detailed pace chart in Excel for her goals and to facilitate Marty crewing her. She had three pace columns of fast, medium, and slow AF. I debated making it known that her slow AF column was only 8 minutes slower than my fastest WR50 on record. Ali may train my pace, but she also has a much faster race pace, which I encouraged her to keep up. B had debated running her own race, but was afraid of going out too fast on a distance her legs had never before carried her and crashing and burning. As such, I'd promised to stick with B. Ali wanted to stay with us too rather than run the race she was trained to do and capable of. We set off in this way and somewhere between miles 8 and 10 I got pretty grumpy about it.

Gazing back to the start/finish from the cliffs above.
The pressure of not running my race for me only was bothering me and my selfish set in. I had come into the race with a lot of heaviness on my mind in need of processing. I wanted my 50 miles alone in the woods to work through the weight of a recent breakup with the person I'd called my Alligator for longer than the four years I've been running ultras. I never ran an ultra without him before and I wanted to know that I still could. That his presence didn't define my running. I also felt a compelling need to dissect the ball of joy and fear in my mind around the catalyst that inspired me to finally exit what had long been an unhealthy relationship for me. I probably needed 100 miles alone in the woods, but I wanted my 50 and my selfish set in. I convinced Ali and B to just not wait for me if they got ahead up the trail. I had a lot of guilt about this because I'd promised I'd run it all with B. My promises were what got her registered to begin with. Ali is awesome to run with and would stick with B so I told myself to take B at face value when she said it was ok.
Just before our trio split off around mile 10. You can see back down to the airstrip that is the starting line from here.

I relaxed a bit after we all started running our own races. There was a relief in not worrying about my impact on anyone else's cadence. I also found myself completely over the race. I got lost in this fantasy idea of how ultras don't make any sense anyways and that I was burnt out. I had myself pretty well convinced that I should take a solid year off of ultras and just go on runventures and focus on the rest of my life (which is mostly just work, but it sounded good at the time).

Ali running through the scene of last summer's forest fire.
Coming into the Ranger Creek aid station at mile 11.5 I was surprised to find both Ali and B. B was already hurting and stretching to mitigate it. Ali was in good spirits. I encouraged them to both skedaddle, leave me to the plate of nutella and graham cracker sandwiches with coca cola, and not worry about seeing me again until the finish. Between Ranger Creek aid and Corral Pass aid at mile 16.7 I passed Kelly looking strong on the out and back section. She told me I wasn't far from aid. It was really really hot in full sun there and another round of watermelon and cold coke sounded truly good. A woman I was leap frogging with off and on mentioned experiencing queasiness from the heat on all the uphills. I felt grateful to not be experiencing the same. 

B on Blister Recon.
A few miles out from my return to Ranger Creek aid at mile 22.1 I finally started feeling good again and running. I started passing all the people I saw (not many, 5ish). It seemed everyone near me on the course was feeling wiped out from the nearly 90 degree weather and pulsing sunshine. I was just excited that a good portion of the switchbacks were pointing downward at last. I felt great as I looped down the last bit of trail into aid. Things were finally good. Except not for everyone. I was surprised to find B and Ali at mile 22.1. I hadn't thought I'd see them again until it was over. B has a super talent for getting blisters. She can get one on a 6 mile run. She was doing her best to tape and bandage the ones she'd accumulated and put out the hot spots waiting to add to the trouble. Both her and Ali were starting to chafe. I grabbed water, talked briefly with them, and continued on to the fun downhill switchbacks that drop Ranger Creek aid to Buck Creek aid aka the start/finish line at mile 27.2. After a short bit of solo running I heard Ali and B on the switchbacks above me and they caught up shortly after. We split off and on for a bit, but eventually just a mile or two out from Buck Creek B began to slow from IT band pain and frustration at not wanting to quit. Ali was just a bit ahead at this point, excited to see Marty after missing him at the first aid station at mile 3.7. I tried to talk B into dropping at Buck Creek so near our tent. It was the original 'out' for her when we had planned the race - to drop when the course passed back through the start / finish line. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was really mad about the idea of quitting. Angry tears mad. It was somewhere around there that I decided however this race was going to end for her I'd end it with her. I knew her big uber competitive spirit was really upset right then about the idea that of all her friends there running she was the one whose body wasn't up for that many miles. It didn't matter that there were good reasons for that so I quit trying to reason with her. I just told her I'd made a choice and not to bother arguing. If she quit I'd quit with her, at any mile. If she finished I'd finish with her. I wasn't going to leave her again. It's not really something I can explain, but of all the people in my life B is the one who I find myself inherently incapable of choosing to disappoint. 

Buck Creek Mile 27.2. Photo by Marty.
We arrived at the Buck Creek aid and found Ali and Marty. Ali was trying to fight off thigh chafe with her go to anti-chafe product, but the humidity was wreaking havoc and nothing was working. Marty was happy to see all of us, in good spirits, and B & I thought he had crewing experience based on his pro sunscreen spraying skills. Nope, just a natural. I tried to gently see if B wanted to drop and said I would join her, but she firmly did not. I said well let's try for the White River 50k then because the next aid was mile 31.7 Fawn Ridge. She agreed and was excited to start climbing again because it felt better on her IT bands. Having finished White River twice previously I was quite familiar with the second of "only two hills on the course," as Scott McCoubrey likes to say, and not that excited to climb it in the hot sun. Handily, I was able to stuff my sports bra full of ice cubes at Buck Creek. That helped briefly until they all melted. The race manual is a great one and my favorite line in it is about this section,"After a nice flat 2 mile cruise through the woods, and a lap around the airstrip, you will start climbing up the Sun Top trail. Don't worry, it's the last hill on the course and it will only last 8.5 miles." Yep, that's a good summary of what happens. I don't think B had read that. She was looking forward to it. 

My watch was at 22% despite the big promises Suunto makes about a 15 hour battery life in the setting I was using. That's ok though. I'd come prepared with my new Anker charge on the go system. We walked a lot between Buck Creek and Fawn Ridge which made charging easy. If you need to extend your battery life without pausing your watch I strongly recommend the Anker. 

Ali was up ahead at this point while B and I leap frogged with a young guy who was just miserable. It was his first 50 and he'd heard good things about White River, but the heat was french frying him. He was using a big wood walking stick and when we eventually saw him finish later he still had it with him. At one point when I ran B told me I was going too fast and to slow down. That's how I knew she was about done. She's the fast one, never me. Her calling me that is like a hare calling a tortoise that. I slowed, but told her we'd do little run intervals and walk in between. I told her, and our new friend with the stick, to expect tropical fish soon.
 
The fish always signal Fawn Ridge aid just before it appears. It's a fun aid station, luau themed. We found Ali there dealing with really bad thigh chafe. B asked me to check her back to see why it hurt and sure enough she also had two big patches of raw chafed skin there. I personally was just excited to change into my regular socks because I was so over my compression sleeve socks from the heat. I was also pretty excited to stuff more ice in my bra because it was just that hot out. Nichole's husband, Eric, was volunteering at Fawn Ridge and building everyone up. I was glad to hear Nichole's race was going well. We told Ali to not wait for us again. I had accepted at that point that it was unlikely we would finish and I didn't want Ali to lose her finish with us after already throwing away her pace chart. I had a small hope that we could carry on past Sun Top and reach Skookum Flats, but it was quite small. It was the underdog thought though and everyone always roots for the underdog's success.
Bra ice - so refreshing when it hits 90 degrees.







That's her done face. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama Sun Top AS.














We were going very slowly as we left Fawn Ridge. The climb to Sun Top is hard if you feel good and B didn't. I was watching our ability to make the cutoff time slip away, but was semi grateful knowing that if we didn't it would make our decision for us. A few miles before the top the Sun Top trail crosses the road. I had told B about the road. It's hard packed dirt, steep and unforgiving. It's a twin to Cleator Rd. back home and it drops 6.4 miles from Sun Top aid to Skookum  Flats aid at mile 43.4. It's pretty much the worst possible thing you could run on if your IT bands are messed up. We crossed the road. I told her that was what we would run down and she was over it right then in that moment. We would drop at Sun Top aid mile 37. I pointed out that no matter what we would complete all the climbing (about 10k of elevation gain) and we were going to get to the top of the second hill. She mainly just wanted coke. That craving was the main thing driving her to the aid station. I knew we'd see Glenn on the last switchback taking race photos. I told B she should move to the front. I told Glenn it was my first drop photo of his and then called out to the aid station volunteers to confirm we were a few minutes past the 4:53 pm cutoff. Except they said yes, but to hurry and they'd let us through. Shit. There went the easy drop. I told B whichever answer was her right answer I'd stay with her. Then the volunteer said they'd be driving down the road shortly and could always scoop us up if needed. B thought it'd be nice to round up to an even 40 miles for her longest run ever. So we walked away together. Every step was hurting her at that point. My legs felt fine and I love downhill and I crave making up pace on it after slow climbs. I struggled with it on that walk knowing I could get her safely to a volunteer and run to the finish. I am not a person who knows how to quit. The funny thing about that though is she is who I could not quit that day. I could quit on me and I could quit the race, but I was incapable of leaving her. 

After my watch hit 40.1 miles we found a spot to sit on the side of the road and waited on cars. When a maroon Subaru came around the corner I flagged it down and explained us to them. We hit the jackpot on the ride lottery. Jennifer and April are both Search and Rescue volunteers and complete badasses in general. They rearranged the fully loaded car and we sat on the still folded backseat touching the ceiling. They told us so many awesome stories of their adventures and we shared ours and I cannot remember any of the details now, but they perked B's spirits right back up and it was perfect. Partway down the mountain we saw Ali limp walking and pulled up to check on her. She definitely did not want to join us in the car, but we told her we would see her at the finish. As we passed Skookum Flats we pulled up and told Marty where she was and that she had a knee issue. We were worried, but hopeful that she would make the Skookum Flats cutoff at mile 43.4. She did and finished strong. It was good to see her finish and Sabrina and Nichole too. Kelly had finished much earlier and looked great. It was an uncomfortable feeling to not finish the race. It is still bothering me that I quit when I was fine, but if you threw me back there right now I'd quit with her again. Ultras usually surprise me in terms of ability to finish hard things. This year White River surprised me with a new ability - to recognize finishing was not the most valuable thing that day. White River will be there next year and I'll register for the 5th time. It is, after-all, my favorite race. B might run it again too, but her own race. She says she would train next time :) 

40 miles is still 40 miles and a great excuse to eat eggs benny the morning after the run.





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