White River 5007/26/2009
I came into the taper with about six weeks of solid training after finally kicking a case of patellar tendonitis in early June. However, the final week before the race I was dealing with a couple potentially troubling issues: a bout of something that seemed to be very much like giardia, and a mildly inflamed/swollen peroneal tendon in my right ankle. Fortunately, both of these issues cleared up mid-week while attending the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City where Hal and I sweated it out in the Uphill Challenge. Nothing like throwing a little tempo run into the taper.
After catching a ride up to Crystal Mountain with Jeff Browning, Hal, and Carly, I had a great night’s sleep at the race cabin. I usually sleep fitfully the night before a race, but this time I conked out and didn’t awake until ~5am when Jeff started rustling around in preparation for the day. I usually just lie there, waiting for the alarm clock to sound, but this time I felt like sleeping in. I was a little worried that this signified a certain lack of nervous energy, not to mention inconsistent sleep all week, but I was mostly just happy to have actually gotten a good night’s rest.
I didn’t warm up very much for the race–no more than a mile of jogging–even though I anticipated a fairly quick start; my legs just didn’t feel like they needed it, probably because of the judicious taper I’d employed most of the week.
After waiting for Scott to finally toe the line, we were off. Greg and Lon shot right to the front while I was content to hang a few dozen yards back chatting amiably with Scott as we strided down the initial gravel road. Kami Semick soon ran up next to us and admitted she felt stupid running in front of us, but I was more than happy with the fairly quick pace we were hitting.
After a mile or so we all filed onto some fairly technical, rooty singletrack that looped us back by the starting area. I followed directly behind Scott as he led the way for me with Greg and Lon maybe fifty yards in front. However, we soon caught them at the first highway crossing. On a short uphill Lon stepped aside to let us past and Scott and I followed directly behind Greg all the way to the first Camp Shepard aid station at mile 3.9, which we reached as a group in 28:20, and where there was also a sizeable crowd of spectators. I had four gels in my shorts pockets, a number of S! Caps, and a bottle full of water, so there was no need to stop, as no one in our group did.
We were definitely running quickly through this section but it felt extremely comfortable and I could tell I was likely going to have one of those days where everything just flows. The tread was technical enough to keep it interesting but the pace was discernibly quicker than typical training pace. It was fun to be racing again.
Greg stopped momentarily at the station, so Scott assumed the lead and I followed closely behind. Soon, the trail started climbing up in impeccably graded switchbacks. This trail was gorgeous, as would become the norm for the trails all day. After a few switchbacks, and a particularly steep section where Scott broke into a quick hike, I stepped past him into the lead and held it for the rest of the day.
I quickly opened a bit of a gap as the trail climbed pretty steeply through here and then hiked quickly up a short, steep flight of stairs. After a few more switchbacks I could see Mike Wardian gaining on me, but I just maintained my comfortable pace and certainly didn’t worry about making any sort of meaningful break less than an hour into the race.
The night before the race Uli had approached me in the race cabin with a sticky note that outlined his splits from his completely unparalleled (except by himself) 6:32:43 course record run in 2004. Previous to that, Nate McDowell had raced a 6:50:39 then-CR and Mike had run a 6:52:50 just last year. These were the closest times to Uli’s–a sobering 20 minutes back. As such–having never run on the course–I was pretty reluctant to even consider approaching Uli’s times. Sub-6:40 had a nice ring to it if for no other reason than that it represented 8 minute miles, but shooting for a sub-6:50 time seemed much more realistic. Nevertheless, I had committed Uli’s splits to memory so as to have an irrefutable definition of “fast” for the various checkpoints.
In addition to the aid station splits, Uli had mentioned to me two other intermediate creek-crossing splits on the initial climb, which I vaguely remembered the sticky note saying he had reached in roughly 49min and 1:14. I hit this first creek crossing in 48:55 after which the grade of the trail mellowed considerably and Mike caught up to me. I let him know that he was more than welcome to go past me if he pleased, and he responded by saying that I was more than welcome to lead, until the end, of course. Something about that comment rankled me mildly, but I just concentrated on running comfortably and evenly up the hill.
The trail briefly broke out of the thick forest to pass above some cliff bands, which offered expansive views of the White River valley below, but we were just as quickly back at it in the forest and Mike and I crossed Uli’s second creek together in 1:12:20 or so. I was a touch apprehensive at going faster than Uli through these early miles, but everything felt easy so I just concentrated on keeping it that way, even with Mike quite literally breathing down my neck.
After a couple more miles of gorgeous, sometimes technical, singletrack Mike and I arrived together at the Ranger Creek aid station (11.7 miles) just under 1:39. At this point we’d already climbed over 2500′. I quickly refilled my water bottle and exited at 1:39. Mike, however, must’ve taken a few moments longer because leaving the station I was running by myself and it was that way all the way to the Corral Pass turnaround at mile 16.9.
This section of out and back trail was incredible. The views of Mt. Rainer were impossibly huge. The singletrack was buttery smooth. On this section I just tried to not get too carried away and run too fast; I was barely 1/3 of the way finished afterall. Mike caught me just as we came into the Corral Pass aid station turnaround. I again made quick work of filling my bottle and grabbing a couple gels and left the station at 1:22:50. It was the last I would see of Mike all day. I was also surprised to see that my accumulative split here was only about 30 seconds slower than Uli’s 2004 run.
On the run back to the Ranger Creek station I was able to check out the competition and also derive a lot of energy from all the runners racing towards me. At times the singletrack caused some narrow meetings, but I tried my best to be polite while still efficiently moving forward. There were some steep downhills on this portion of trail that surprised me because I had effortlessly run every step on the way out. I guess that should’ve been some indication of how good I was feeling. However, it was on this rolling portion of trail that I started having the first hints of fatigue and I worried a bit that it was a touch early to be getting tired.
I rolled back down into the Ranger Creek aid (22.1 miles) feeling good, though, mostly because I couldn’t see Mike behind me on any of the many switchbacks. I stopped only long enough to refill my bottle and was out of there at 3:00 flat, less than 1 minute behind the ghost of Uli. It was also a mental boost to see March–a good friend of mine from college cross-country–out on the trail here getting some quality time in the mountains.
My legs relished the steep drop from the Ranger Creek aid station. On this ~5 mile, 2500′ descent back down to the White River I felt great. The trail could not have been more perfect and I felt effortless pouring down the trail. I took this chance to drink a lot of water and try to get ahead a little on calories and salt, too. I’d been dreading hitting the bottom of this descent and having my legs feel dead on the flat terrain, but that wasn’t the case.
I got a high five from Scott McCoubrey, turned back onto singletrack, and started the climb. It went really well. Many people had told me it was pretty steep, but I found the grade quite runnable, and fast. Whenever there was a 20 or 30 yard steeper-than-normal pitch, it seemed it was always immediately followed by a decent flatter pitch that allowed recovery. Additionally, a nice layer of clouds had rolled in to give me a little extra cover in the clear-cut zone, so my one-bottle gamble paid off.
This being the second/last big climb of the race, I opened it up a little and settled into a cadence that was ambitious yet totally doable; seeing as I never had any idea what was lying in wait for me, I didn’t want to get in over my head. However, this was the one section of the course that I figured I might be able to match or even exceed Uli’s course record splits. I turned out to be right as I was soon running into the Fawn Ridge (31.7 miles) aid in 4:15:30ish and leaving right at 4:16. I was now evenly matched with Uli.
It was here that I began to think that I might have a shot at getting the record. I had essentially been hitting his splits the entire way and had somehow managed to even gain back the minute or so that I’d been in the hole. The second half of the climb went equally well. Before I knew it I was descending down to the Sun Top road and then it was just another five or six minutes before I topped out to the crowd at the summit of Sun Top (37 miles).
I hit the aid at 5:05:something and was sprinting down the road at 5:06. Uli was there and informed me that I was about a minute and a half under his record pace.
I flew down the road. Scott had informed me that I’d only had a 3 minute lead on Mike at Buck Creek and the last thing I wanted was a 2:21 marathoner flying down the road after me. With a 2:42 marathon PR, I don’t have the greatest confidence in my legspeed. As a result, I probably over-did it a bit on the downhill. I knew that Uli had covered it in 39:40 or so, and I figured I would have to be all-out to equal that, so I went pretty much all-out.
The final mile or so coming into Skookum Flats the road levels out a bit and I felt really slow through here as my legs readjusted to the flatter terrain. I hit the aid at 5:42:high, filled my bottle as quickly as possible, and got out of there at 5:43 flat with two gels left in my pocket. I knew I was three minutes under Uli’s split, but I also felt it was going to be tough to equal Uli’s 46ish minute split into the finish for the final 6.6 miles.
I was right. The last 45 minutes of running was pretty tough. I’d really cranked the road–averaging 5:45 miles–and now I was paying for it. Gradually the legs came around and I felt like I wasn’t crawling anymore but I was soon out of gels and still hungry. With maybe 15 minutes left to run there were a couple short downhills that got the legs moving again, but it was too little too late and there was no chance for me to break 6:30, like I’d thought I might be able to going into the final leg of the race. It also would’ve helped to have done a short pre-race out and back on the final couple miles of the course so as to know when I could truly start ramping up the final effort into the finish.
Soon enough, though, I was rounding the final corner into the finish and I when I could see the official finish clock turning over to 6:32 with only a few dozen yards remaining I knew I would finish under Uli’s standard.
Mike did a good job of hanging on and actually improved his time from last year by a minute or so to finish just under 6:52. Greg Crowther backed up his fast start by rounding out the top three in 7:02.
Here’s a video of the finish:
Everything I’d heard about the organization and execution of Scott McCoubrey’s race proved to be true. The course was impeccably marked and the finish line food and crowd was excellent. White River is definitely a race I can see myself returning to in the future. It’s obvious why it’s such a classic event on the ultra racing circuit.